Exile is my Trade: A Habib Tengour Reader

Habib Tengour

Shales of Tahmad 2

I think of... whoever has lost what can never be found again.

                                                    Charles Baudelaire

window       feast
inclines the gaze

she says: tear me away

liberates a night
goes out


Porte d'Aix
family smell
the bus passes
love stuck to the window

season of exile

regulated entry
austere sense
a craziness

state police troopers...

there are dark passions
a chant that transpires
the people come and go

as the storm nears
are we

of an arrogance
to walk a scarlet semblance
with sequences of sands

to support a capital punishment
in the profusion
day goes astray

an Arab veiled in locusts
urges on his mare struts
about and hums
begs for applause

he his kin know the toll
two dinars a head the Occident

I recognize him
she says strip him

of all his goods keep only a ram
offer it to the one who no longer waits

Djaziya commanded the men
knew how to handle the epigram
she from a high linage and expert
was going to submit

and Dhiyâb the hilalian marries Djaziya

It is only a story
to lull a fever
words like a vault
consigned with sadness
to nothing our traces
the salt in the cinders
in ecstasy

Place, a blade's indecision
against the grain awakening

our giddiness a screen
was it a need to parade

iridescent, with abrasive points
gashes sulfur the trace

in its crack blue from freezing
at the hour when winter cards the park

the bird asks to drink at night
your blood cracks like bark

Lotus as tattoo
opulence of haymaking times
there crushed by insolence

this memory shakes you up
you say inadvertently
let them guess

invariably you slide into invective
friable shell — rendez-vous of insects
you heart goes away

late lightnesses

murderous clay
night kneads then rejects
contour in suspension

the dream pulls back
the charms no longer work metal
knacker's work... CENSORSHIP

night takes a hold of the course
a hand forgets the loved one's dictation

dawn mechanically scalds the gaze
opens the scared crystal
heady facets

shines a solid pain
so much

at the point of dawn
the promises went by

passion interior of a wall
consumed in the instant

dare break
throw yourself at my sweat
let your fears regale themselves on my flesh
I reserve you an exile in my equipage

to wish to die


a bracelet gone astray
                   enthralls you

in the hip swaying day

with surprise worn off
                  the obol dazzles the corpse

cheap junk aggresses the sidewalks
                   fired clay shatters

laud this ordeal
                   far from the sunset's wrinkles

the coffee smoking              gold
zinc                                    mornings

train of saucers

red than ochre than smokey
in the silence of a set up
the town is drying up

summer encloses
lesion here
fusion of alum  — sortilege

to see again the refused threshold
to understand

in the turmoil
one despairs
the bodies sway
a memory still

the heatwave's rust overwhelms
this celebrated speech
performer of cements      dead

(a dog licked the moon
in the middle of mute ruins)

where are you night revelers
you dive into
a rupture to be transmitted

Thatch, Water-Meadow and Sheet Metal


I'll go over there where the tree and man...
                                 Ch. Baudelaire

Grooves calcinated remains
Dwelling emptied of dreams
You exhausted the gaze of all the designated spaces
To die the path

Like the rope gone to earth
Like the gallop that has lost its cadence
Like the boldness of dawn

Where the feared halt — oblivion of first steps

How many lulls in our lives
Over there a vine dries in the white sun
Over there my body had shattered on the ground
So much desire in the well-loved lull

The days imagine the sand deserted

Love me, oh...
Pain, bodies toiling at the incidence of remorse
(How not to die for having bathed my heart in
your body)
Dream torn from the well-established fear

Oh love me
The signs fade away one after the other and lose themselves in silence

And you, unsettled, what do you expect from silence...

Offered myrrh
Scepter laid down to the day that rises naked
Trembling encounter

Our lives crossed to lose themselves forever
To weep over the place today, mutilated memory
The pain masters the words

You present yourself with a patched up story
A soul yellowed by time
What hope do you hold in the words gone awry

As evening closed in I heard the tears
And our lives looked at each other

For a long time the wound suspended like a reprimand

Building site
Long ago a man lost his hands
Freed from the embrace's whiteness

From early morning on the noise confounds all the signs
Wake-up is tough

An image persists that wants to dominate your life
Subdue the shadow of the song

You turn moved because the sun is already high

Marbled heights
You contemplate sunset at the close of a crisis
Mirror with no resonance
Destitution of effects
Your life collides with the other shore — your mortgaged soul

You say I didn't want that/my face
And you say Fate under the mask
A snatched promise

Looks at you and looks and looks

(Look at yourself!)


at the close of a crisis mirror with no resonance


                                                 to Kh.

Somber signs knotted into the deep solid ochre
Pain, light              quartered  — rejection of brightness
Headway in the insomnia shell
The azure/marine dream drowns the expected color

That's my way of traveling he said

translated from the French by Pierre Joris

Read translator’s note

Habib Tengour is a writer and an ethnologist. Born in Mostaganem (Algeria) in 1947, he lives and works between Constantine and Paris (where he teaches sociology and ethnology at the Université d'Evry val d'Essonne). Considered as one of the Maghreb's most forceful and visionary poetic voices of the post-colonial era, Tengour, who authored a "Manifesto of Maghrebian Surrealism" in 1981, explores the Algerian cultural space in all its ramifications : the oral and hagiographic traditions, the popular imagination and the founding myths, collective memory, raï music and the lived experiences of exile – all this in writing formally so profoundly hybridized that the critics have forged a term to define this phenomenon, namely "soufialism" (Hédi Abdel-Jaouad). The subjects that are closest to his heart are the Algerian cultural identity and memory as they are being mestizoed and woven between Orient and Occident, especially under the impact of the experiences of exile and migration. See for example L'Epreuve de l'Arc (1990), his "maqamât-novel," Gens de Mosta (1997), his novel composed of short stories, Ce Tatar-là (1999), his poem set in the working class suburbs, or Retraite (2004), a collection inspired by the rundown hotels of Belsunce quarter in Marseille, where the photographic image (Olivier de Sépibus) and the poetic word converge to say the difficulty of aging in exile. Here, as elsewhere, the double vision of poet and ethnologist achieves surprising symbioses, for Tengour, the cynical observer of his society, proposes through his narratives a fragmented chronical of post-colonial Algeria under the dismal light of History or of myth: emigration in Tapapakitaques (1976), the decline of socialism in Sultan Galièv ou La rupture des stocks (1981/85), the rise of fundamentalism in Le Vieux de la Montagne (1983). Le Poisson de Moïse (2001), his latest novel, tries to understand what makes young Algerians eager to join the Taliban.

Pierre Joris has moved between the US, Great Britain, North Africa, France & Luxembourg for close to half a century. He has published over 40 books of poetry, essays and translations, most recently Canto Diurno #4: The Tang Extending from the Blade, an Ahadada ebook. 2010. In 2007 & 2008 he published Aljibar and  Aljibar II (poems, a bilingual edition with French translation by Eric Sarner, Editions PHI, Luxembourg). Justifying the Margins: Essays 1990-2006 came out in 2009 from SALT in the UK. His 2007 publications are the CD Routes, not Roots (with Munir Beken, oud; Mike Bisio, bass; Ben Chadabe, percussion; & Mitch Elrod, guitar) issued by Ta'wil Productions  and Meditations on the Stations of Mansour Al-Hallaj 1-21(Anchorite Press, Albany). Other translations include Paul Celan: Selections (University of California Press) and 4x1: Work by Tristan Tzara, Rainer Maria Rilke, Jean-Pierre Duprey & Habib Tengour translated by Pierre Joris from Inconundrum Press. With Jerome Rothenberg he edited Poems for the Millennium, vol. 1 & 2: The University of California Book of Modern & Postmodern Poetry. Green Integer published 3 volumes of his Paul Celan translations: Breathturn, Threadsuns and Light-duress (which received the 2005 PEN Poetry Translation Award). He lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn with his wife, the performance artist Nicole Peyrafitte & teaches poetry & poetics at the State University of New York, Albany.

These poems are extracted from 'Exile is  my Trade: A Habib Tengour Reader,' edited and translated by Pierre Joris, forthcoming from Black Widow Press, Boston."