Grace Cavalieri’s The Poet and the Poem

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It is my great honor to be a guest today on Grace Cavalieri’s “The Poet and the Poem,”  hosted at the Library of Congress in Washington DC. I will be reading some of my poems, discussing poetry as well as reading some Arabic poetry (and my translations) by the Iraqi poet  Lamia Abbas Amara. Amara is one of the leading modern day Iraqi poets who has lived here in the United States since the 1980’s.

Here is one of my translations:, originally published in 1982 in Pig Iron.

Lamia Abbas Amara

I was sitting in the lobby
of the Shaateh Hotel
in Tripoli, Libya
when she passed by
in a long dress
hair bound in a kerchief
carrying two bundles in her hands
as if she had just arrived from a journey.

At her side
two young men
–two moons or two angels.
I guessed they were her sons.

I knew this woman
I knew the luster in those eyes.

I started to call her-
I forgot her name.
My face smiled at her.
She noticed me
her gaze penetrated mine-
she also was trying to remember.

She did not stop
did not let on to her sons
but kept walking across the lobby
as I continued struggling with my memory.

She disappeared
but everything about her came back-
except her name.
My college classmate in Baghdad.
Daughter of a diplomatic official
in the Iranian Embassy.

I remembered her witty comments
and her strange behavior.
the English teacher entered
while some students were drawing
ugly figures on the blackboard.
He shouted angrily
what are you doing?
Quietly she answered
they are drawing themselves.

she had a fit of epilepsy in the class
and started writhing on the floor.
I held her and smoothed her clothes.
She rested against my breast
between my arms.
And the first thing she said was
how kind you are!

Everything about her was strange
even her name which I had forgotten.
I remembered everything about her-
except her name.
How difficult it was to recall
after more than thirty years.
it came to me:
Frouzanda Mahrad.
I even remembered her sister’s name:
Drakshanda Mahrad.
I repeated this impossible name
so I would not lose it again:
Frouzanda, Frouzanda, Frouzanda
but she had already disappeared
down the long corridors of the hotel.

I considered asking reception
for her room number.
Then I backed down
and I asked myself:
after greeting her
what would we talk about after thirty years?
About work?
When both of us were retired?
About our marriages?
When we were at that age
where we were either widowed or divorced?
There remained one other question:
our sons.
What would she say to me?
Or I to her?
Would she say she had come to Libya
so her sons could train for combat? 1
Would I say that my son
is a soldier in the Iraqi army?
Then we would be quiet.
Silence and glances would be our talk.
Who would kill first?
Would my son kill hers
or hers mine?

Two mothers prepared for bereavement
meeting on the razor’s edge.

Frouzanda would remember me
no doubt
after a while
as I had remembered her.
Her companion, the beautiful poet.
The kind person who had embraced her daily.
Perhaps she would even see my face
soiled with battledust.
And on the loving breast
piercing claws
clinging war medals.

The same loving breast
that had nursed the soldier
alert on the battlefield
threatening the life of her sons
defending himself and his land
exactly as her sons were doing.

I hoped she had not recognized me.
Perhaps she had not remembered.

I did not encounter her again.
What a blessing forgetfulness is!

Why should we hate the people we once loved
because of a war which mars even our memories?

Translated by Mike Maggio

1 Libya, although an Arab country, supported Iran in its war against Iraq.


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