Saadi Youssef

A citizen of the world but of no one land, Iraqi-born poet Saadi Youssef writes of cultural dislocation and self-imposed exile, individual memory and collective history, in tightly-constructed fragments that speak of his experiences while commemorating larger historical moments.

One of the leading contemporary poets of the Arab world, Youssef draws on traditional verse forms while challenging the strictures of traditional Arabic verse in order to craft poems that speak of and to a time but still resonate across generations and histories. Writes Marilyn Hacker, “Saadi Youssef was born in Iraq, but he has become, through the vicissitudes of history and the cosmopolitan appetites of his mind, a poet, not only of the Arab world, but of the human universe.”

Without an Alphabet, Without a Face, which collects more than four decades of his poetry, is the first significant English translation of Youssef’s work. Publishers Weekly says of the collection, “The poems work brilliantly through their differing times and places, pushing unflinching description through a steady determination to foment a more just world.” Unapologetically political, Youssef’s poems challenge injustice and confront corruption wherever they reside.

The author of more than 30 collections of poetry and 7 books of prose, Youssef has also translated into Arabic major works by such writers as Walt Whitman, Federico García Lorca, and George Orwell. He has also worked as a journalist, activist, and publisher. Youssef left Iraq in 1979 and after many detours, has recently settled in London.

Poetry Center Reading:
Spring 2005
(an evening in his honor, Sinon Antoon reading)

Solos on the Oud

ppp 1.
A clock rang for the tenth time,
it rang ten o’clock,
it rang ten.

Across from the church tower
a star flickered and disappeared
and a nightingale vanished in the pines
fading into a green mirage of night.
Come to my house, girl.
My house is my shrine.
My house is a shrine.
The church shut its doors
and the candles were put out
and the kerchiefs were stained with wine.

ppp 2.
On the dark path
the water was silent, and the dry leaves
and the deep shadows.

On the dark path
the sparrows didn’t sing
and in the garden
the whispering brook didn’t sing.

God of drowned alphabets,
where, where is the shiver of drowsy shadows?
Her hand is in mine
and in my chest a garden.

ppp 3.
Land where I no longer live,
distant land,
where the sky weeps,
where the women weep,
where people only read the newspaper.

Country where I no longer live,
lonely country,
sand, date palms, and brook.
O wound and spike of wheat!
O anguish of long nights!

Country where I no longer live,
my outcast country,
from you I only gained a traveler’s sails,
a banner ripped by daggers
and fugitive stars.

ppppppppppp Algiers, 16/8/1965

from WITHOUT AN ALPHABET, WITHOUT A FACE (Graywolf Press, 2002)
Translated from the Arabic by Khaled Mattawa

The New Baghdad

She comes to me with a bowl of soup
when I am besieged by
ppppppppppp of cheap arak.
She comes to me in dusty noons.
And with each sunset night snatches
she comes to me with
ppppppppppp an evening star.

In the cafes she sits to bitter tea.
In the market she sells cheese
and buffalo livers.
She dusts her used-clothing stores,
searching for bones in a bowl of soup,
for milk to the lips of a child
and a glimmer in a pair of eyes
and something a woman does not yet know
and streets where water never greens.

At night
she roams among houses abandoned by the poor
and churches where a muffled mass fades
and huts where poor girls faint.
At midnight
she returns to her enchanted shelter
behind muddy streets,
carrying the bread of the dead,
myrtle flowers,
slivers of buffalo liver
and two bones for a bowl of soup.

At dawn she stops by all her houses,
waking all her children,
dragging them to the street,
the thousands waiting to march on Baghdad.

ppppppppppp 8/4/1975

from WITHOUT AN ALPHABET, WITHOUT A FACE (Graywolf Press, 2002) Translated from the Arabic by Khaled Mattawa


Who broke these mirrors
and tossed them
by shard
among the branches?
And now…
shall we ask L’Akhdar to come and see?
Colors are all muddled up
and the image is entangled
with the thing
and the eyes burn.
L’Akhdar must gather these mirrors
on his palm
and match the pieces together
any way he like
and preserve
the memory of the branch.

ppppppppppp Banta, 26/3/1980