Aditi Machado reviews Amina Saïd's The Present Tense of the World: Poems 2000-2009
translated from the French by Marilyn Hacker (Black Widow Press, 2011)
at eleven I already spoke to no one/ and yet a language was being born in my mouth
à onze ans je ne parlais déjà à personne/ pourtant une langue naissait dans ma bouche
The poetry of Amina Saïd is a poetry of silence. Here silence is not merely the absence of sound or the absence of speech. It is a language in itself, "born in [the poet's] mouth" and bound inextricably with the life of the poet who "was born on the shore/ of the sea of the setting sun" and "swam in black waters/ on the light-path traced by the moon" ('Births'). It is here that she learns to inscribe "centuries in calligraphy/ with the sea's blue ink." Later in this poem the poet-persona praises "the free syllable of sun/ the archipelago of silence where [she finds] words." In another poem she claims "to read the very stuff of silence/ like a mother tongue" ('I was ten years old head full of sky').
Often, silence gets associated with the sky — "I have always traveled with the sky/and the silence" ('Freedom's Faces') — or with large, open spaces, the kind in which echoes form:
and spreading the echoon silence, I getmy revenge
[et moi colportant l'échosur le silence je prendsma revanche]
So, at times silence is physical absence, openness — a context that yields poems; other times silence is an absence, a kind of fertile pre-consciousness that drives towards language, towards the birth of a voice. But as translator Marilyn Hacker writes in her introduction, "it is misleading to unfailingly associate [the] 'I' with the poet"; sometimes the 'I' is a persona, or a "double consciousness" composed of an imagined or real other — as in the poem 'I was that other,' which recalls Rimbaud's famous "I is another" ("Je est un autre") — and of the poet herself.
Amina Saïd is a poet of the Maghreb. She was born in Tunis in 1953. Her father was Tunisian and her mother French. She grew up learning both Arabic and French. Later, having moved to Paris with her family at the age of sixteen, she read English at university. Of these three languages, French is her chosen tongue for poetry. Her first collection of poems appeared in 1980, followed by thirteen more along with two volumes of reinvented Tunisian folktales. She also translates the Filipino writer Francisco Sionil José from English into French.
It is important that Saïd's chosen language is French. In her introduction, Hacker asks:
What does it mean for a writer whose culture and upbringing are those of a formerly colonized people still suffering from or coping with the aftereffects of colonization to write in the (former) "master's language." And what are the complications added when the "master's language" is at the same time the literal mother tongue?
Part of the answer lies, Hacker offers, in that urge to say what Algerian writer Kateb Yacine already articulated in the 1960s: "I write in French to tell the French that I am not French." And much of it is unanswerable and still to be negotiated in the act of poetry. Perhaps the silence so often mentioned in her poems is an acknowledgement of the silences between and within the many languages of Saïd's particular heritage. She writes:
I was born of a silence between the sea and the olive-tree
[je suis née d'un silenceentre la mer at l'olivier]
In these lines, two other important themes of Saïd's œuvre emerge: the act of being born into the world and the significance of place. This collection, which consists of excerpts from four of Saïd's books (De décembre à la mer, 2001; La Douleur des seuils, 2002; Au présent du monde, 2006; and L'Absence l'inachevé, 2009), curated and translated by Marilyn Hacker, reveals the thread of these concerns through nearly a decade of the poet's work. The selection from La Douleur des seuils begins with the poem 'Births.' The plural in this title is noteworthy: each stage in the life of the poet is a new life. In 'as in my other language,' the poet declares: "I begin and I begin myself again/an infinity of metamorphoses." One is born over and over again, creating multiple selves. Or, one birth occurs in many stages, as in the poem 'on the seventh day of my birth.'
It is perhaps true that each place brings out a new 'I': place is fertile in this way; it makes us sing ourselves, each time differently. Are we born in a place? Do we die there? Are we there only for a moment? And what does this mean for our voice?
Saïd's voice is most certainly rooted in place. Sometimes it is the place of her birth (Tunisia); sometimes it is place as pure element (the sky, the earth, the sea); and often it is the place of travel, its inbetweenness and impermanence, as well as the inescapable imprint of home on the new or travelled-to land. The epigraph by René Char to the first poem ('I introduce myself to the world') — "In poetry, you only live in the place you're leaving" — carries through the book and into the last section (from L'Absence l'inachevé), whose poems depict Saïd's many travels around world, including South Africa, Djibouti, the Philippines, parts of Europe and South America. At every port it is clear that this is a poet sensitive to political landscapes: in 'flames of sunset on Manila Bay,' Saïd writes:
in the citadel I place my soles in José Rizal's footsteps from the chapel to the place where he was shot
[dans la citadelle je mets mes pas dans ceuxde José Rizal de la chapelle au lieu de son execution]
José Rizal is a national hero of the Philippines. He was executed by the Spanish in 1896, which instigated the Philippine Revolution, resulting in the secession of the Philippine Islands from the Spanish Empire in 1898. Often, as in this poem, Saïd's own national and linguistic history interacts with the history of colonisation of a particular port of travel. Even Paris, where she lives now, yields such moments of reflection. Some of my favourite lines in this book come from the poem 'I live here in the basement of the Gare de Lyon,' in which the homeless speaker, also a displaced Maghrebin like Saïd, lives in a railway station. The poem ends with these lines:
there are seven doors left to pass through
the seven doors passed through and the thousand and one trialperhaps we will be delivered(if that makes any sense)from the south of madness the madness of the south
[il reste sept portes à franchir
passé les sept portes et les mille et une épreuvespeut-être serons-nous délivrés(si cela peut avoir un sens)du sud de la folie de la folie du sud]
The search for place is a powerful force in Saïd's poetry. In fact, it seems to be the driver of this consciousness. Hacker's introduction does important work in situating Saïd's poetry not only within the context of Maghrebin literature, but also within the framework of Saïd's own concerns about the homeland and the places to which she travels. Hacker speaks of "the idea of "errance" in Saïd's poems, a word difficult to render in English, as it is not strictly a journey, still less "wandering", which seems to have no aim, and not a pilgrimage either." Indeed, this word "errance," which Hacker sometimes translates as "wandering," sometimes as "errancy," appears many times in Saïd's poetry:
(in 'Freedom's Faces')
my endless wandering becomes my language
[mon éternelle errance me sert de langage]
(in 'Blood of the Sea')
we are the pilgrims of errancysays the poet
[nous sommes les pèlerins de l'errance dit le poète]
It is rewarding to consider Hacker's choices in translation here. The French verb errer means both "to wander" and "to err." By translating "errance" differently in different contexts, we get both meanings. There is in this aimlessness a kind of transgression. Wandering, transgression and pilgrimage — these meanings begin to bleed into one another and more richly convey the kind of journey Saïd, poet and poet-persona, is undertaking. As always, it is invaluable to have a book of translation appear as a bilingual edition: not only the bilingual reader, but also the monolingual, interested reader can look at the original poem en face and trace deviations, small or otherwise, and from the two texts gain a more profound meaning.
Place and language seem to be the principal concerns of this poet; but which leads to which? Sometimes it is place that urges the soul to speak, to describe and remember, to praise and eulogise; sometimes it is language itself that creates place. The complexities of these interactions have yielded a voice filled with terror and grief at the world, but also wonder and pleasure, a search for answers.
In a poem about her ailing father in the final section of the book, Saïd asks:
you dream and hallucinatein your language—it creates the placebut which place?
[tu rêves et délires dans ta langue — elle suscite le lieumais quel est le lieu]
It is a question that Saïd seems to address here, in prose: "An imaginary place, utopian place, unlikely and ideal, that poetry can, for an instant's duration, let us glimpse. A symbolic place, never defined, where one would find oneself at last and attain unity."