Published in 2002 in Without an Alphabet, Without a Face, Saadi Youssef's poem "America, America" is a complex work driven by imagery and emotion. It was originally written in 1995 to describe the life of the Iraqi people as their country endured United Nations-led sanctions. The poem describes war and politics, but at a human level. Youssef's voice in the work is that of the common Iraqi man or woman rendered powerless to change the nation's current regime or the world's reaction to it.
The dominant themes of "America, America" are war, struggle, cultural identity, and the individual's experience in history. The style is free verse featuring a steady flow of images. Like most of Youssef's poetry, it is personal and based on experience. As of the poem's writing, Youssef had been creating verse for four decades. This work reflects his maturity as a poet and his broad experience in the world.
Saadi Youssef was born in 1934 in Abulkhasib, near Basra, Iraq. He began writing poetry at the age of seventeen. By then, young writers had begun to write free verse in Arabic, breaking with tradition and bringing modernity to Arabic poetry. After Youssef joined this movement, he became one of the most celebrated and prolific
Arabic poets of the modern age. He attended school in Basra and Baghdad, earning a degree in Arabic from Baghdad University, before beginning his career as an educator and journalist. Meanwhile, he continued to write poetry and to develop his style and voice. In the 1950s and 1960s, he primarily wrote political poetry, striving to be a voice of his people. In the 1970s, his poetry began to shift to include subjects from everyday life. Youssef's first major volume of poetry translated into English was Without an Alphabet, Without a Face (2002), in which "America, America" appears. The volume won the 2003 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation.
It was in 1957 that Youssef experienced his first exile: After taking an unauthorized trip to Moscow, he was forced to stay in Kuwait until a revolution occurred in Iraq a year later. In the 1960s, Youssef had a brief stay in jail, followed by a job teaching and writing (journalism) in Algeria. In 1971 he returned to Iraq to take a job with the Ministry of Culture, but when Saddam Hussein ascended to power in 1979, Youssef left his native Iraq permanently. Under Hussein's increasingly dominant regime, Youssef was under intense pressure to join the leader's Baath Party, even to the point of threats. His exile took him to various parts of the world, including Syria, Lebanon, Yugoslavia, Yemen, Jordan, Algeria, France, and finally London, where he made a permanent home.
In the literary world, Youssef has made a name for himself with more than thirty volumes of poetry, in addition to fiction, essays, and translations. In fact, he has translated into Arabic the works of such luminaries as Walt Whitman (who is mentioned in "America, America"), George Orwell, Federico García Lorca, Wole Soyinka, and V. S. Naipaul. As of 2008, Youssef was living in London.
God save America,
My home, sweet home!
The French general who raised his tricolor
over Nuqrat al-Salman where I was a prisoner
thirty years ago … 5
in the middle of that U-turn
that split the back of the Iraqi army,
the general who loved Saint Emilion wines
called Nuqrat al-Salman a fort …
Of the surface of the earth, generals know only
two dimensions: 10
whatever rises is a fort,
whatever spreads is a battlefield.
How ignorant the general was!
But Liberation was better versed in topography.
The Iraqi boy who conquered her front page 15
sat carbonized behind a steering wheel
on the Kuwait-Safwan highway
while television cameras
(the booty of the defeated and their identity)
were safe in a truck like a storefront 20
on Rivoli Street.
The neutron bomb is highly intelligent.
It distinguishes between
an "I" and an "Identity."
God save America, 25
My home, sweet home!
How long must I walk to Sacramento?
How long must I walk to Sacramento?
How long will I walk to reach my home? 30
How long will I walk to reach my girl?
How long must I walk to Sacramento?
For two days, no boat has sailed this stream,
Two days, two days, two days.
Honey, how can I ride? 35
I know this stream,
But, O but, O but,
For two days, no boat has sailed this stream.
La Li La La Li La
La Li La La Li La 40
A stranger becomes afraid.
Have no fear, dear horse.
No fear of the wolves of the wild,
No fear, for the land is my land.
La Li La La Li La 45
La Li La La Li La
A stranger becomes afraid.
God save America,
My home, sweet home!
I too love jeans and jazz and Treasure Island 50
and John Silver's parrot and the balconies of
I love Mark Twain and the Mississippi steam-
boats and Abraham Lincoln's dogs.
I love the fields of wheat and corn and the smell
of Virginia tobacco.
But I am not American.
Is that enough for the Phantom pilot to turn me
back to the Stone Age? 55
I need neither oil nor America herself, neither
the elephant nor the donkey.
Leave me, pilot, leave my house roofed with
palm fronds and this wooden bridge.
I need neither your Golden Gate nor your
I need the village, not New York.
Why did you come to me from your Nevada
desert, soldier armed to the teeth? 60
Why did you come all the way to distant Basra,
where fish used to swim by our doorsteps?
Pigs do not forage here.
I only have these water buffaloes lazily chewing
on water lilies.
Leave me alone, soldier.
Leave me my floating cane hut and my fishing
Leave me my migrating birds and the green
Take your roaring iron birds and your Toma-
hawk missiles. I am not your foe.
I am the one who wades up to the knees in rice
Leave me to my curse.
I do not need your day of doom. 70
God save America,
My home, sweet home!
let's exchange gifts.
Take your smuggled cigarettes 75
and give us potatoes.
Take James Bond's golden pistol
and give us Marilyn Monroe's giggle.
Take the heroin syringe under the tree
and give us vaccines. 80
Take your blueprints for model penitentiaries
and give us village homes.
Take the books of your missionaries
and give us paper for poems to defame you.
Take what you do not have 85
and give us what we have.
Take the stripes of your flag
and give us the stars.
Take the Afghani mujahideen beard
and give us Walt Whitman's beard filled with
Take Saddam Hussein
and give us Abraham Lincoln
or give us no one.
Now as I look across the balcony,
across the summer sky, the summery summer, 95
Damascus spins, dizzied among television
then it sinks, deeply, in the stones of the forts,
in the arabesques of ivory,
and sinks, deeply, far from Rukn el-Din 100
and disappears far from the balcony.
I remember trees:
the date palm of our mosque in Basra, at the
end of Basra
a bird's beak, 105
a child's secret,
a summer feast.
I remember the date palm.
I touch it. I become it, when it falls black
without fronds, 110
when a dam fell, hewn by lightning.
And I remember the mighty mulberry
when it rumbled, butchered with an axe …
to fill the stream with leaves
and birds 115
and green blood.
I remember when pomegranate blossoms cov-
ered the sidewalks.
The students were leading the workers
The trees die 120
not standing, the trees die.
God save America,
My home, sweet home! 125
We are not hostages, America,
and your soldiers are not God's soldiers …
We are the poor ones, ours is the earth of the
the gods of bulls,
the gods of fires, 130
the gods of sorrows that intertwine clay and
blood in a song ‥
We are the poor, ours is the god of the
who emerges out of farmers' ribs,
and bright, 135
and raises heads up high …
America, we are the dead.
Let your soldiers come.
Whoever kills a man, let him resurrect him.
We are the drowned ones, dear lady. 140
We are the drowned.
Let the water come.
Each section of "America, America" is set off by the poem's refrain, a slight variation on the last lines of the song "God Bless America."
The first section begins with the poem's refrain and then describes the leadership of a general in command of Nuqrat al-Salman, a notorious prison in the Iraqi desert. The speaker claims that military generals interpret the landscape as either forts (if they rise) or battlefields (if they are flat). The speaker then boldly declares the ignorance of such a general.
The speaker's attention then shifts to Liberation, a French newspaper. He describes the front page as displaying an Iraqi bomb victim, while the media trucks are at a safe distance. The speaker declares that the neutron bomb is intelligent enough to distinguish between forms of ego.
The second section begins with the refrain and then offers the words to a blues song. Based on the reference to the Californian city of Sacramento, the singer is understood to be American. His worries relate to walking to Sacramento to see his girl. The singer seems to reassure a stranger that there is nothing to fear in this land, but he then reiterates the stranger's fear at the end of the stanza.
The speaker now tells the reader all of the American things that he loves, just as his readers (or other Americans) love. He mentions jeans, American music, New Orleans, Mark Twain, and Abraham Lincoln. He refers to Treasure Island, a renowned adventure novel by Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson was Scottish, and the novel is in the canon of English literature.
After listing the things that he loves, the speaker lets the reader know that he is not an American. He then asks if the fact that he is not American is reason enough to send a bomber to destroy him. His point may be that he and Americans are not so different at a human, or individual, level, but their differences in nationality seem to be all that is required to bring on military hostility. He adds that he does not need oil, America, or American political parties, asking that the bomber leave his humble home alone. The speaker says that he does not need the Golden Gate Bridge or city skyscrapers or New York City, all symbols of the bustling accomplishment of urban America. He asks why the American soldiers came heavily armed to otherwise peaceful villages and hopes to be left alone. He tells the soldier to take back his missiles and aircraft because he (the speaker) is not an enemy.
After the refrain, the speaker again begins a dialogue of sorts with America. This time, he proposes a series of trades. In each case, the speaker tells America to take away something destructive that has been imported into Iraqi culture (like cigarettes and Bibles). In return, the Americans are to give things that help nourish Iraqi society (like potatoes, vaccines, and paper for poetry to insult Americans). He instructs America to take what it does not already have and to let the speaker's people take what is already theirs. In one line, the speaker asks for Abraham Lincoln or nobody at all. In the context of the poem, the speaker is asking for a leader seeking to provide unity and freedom rather than a dictator like Hussein—or, perhaps, rather than the soldiers described in the previous section.
The speaker's attention then turns to the landscape and cityscape. He sees Damascus spinning and then sinking into oblivion. The speaker then turns to his own memories of Basra and the mosque there. He describes a series of sense memories, including things he saw, touched, and heard. After describing natural elements, he recalls a memory of political activism. The section concludes with simple statements about trees dying after being beaten and dizzied, imagery that recalls the description of Damascus spinning away to nothing.
In the last section, the speaker boldly addresses America. He says that he and his people are not hostages and that the American military is not God's army. He then iterates that he and his people are poor, indicating that even their gods are poor. He goes on to declare that his people are dead and drowned.
Throughout "America, America," the speaker addresses war both in general terms and in terms of what is happening to his people and his country. The speaker does not think highly of war as a solution to the problems faced by his country.
The poem opens with images of a military leader who oversaw a prison in the desert, with the speaker viewing the general as a simpleton who is unable to see the cruelty and reality of the prison because he is only capable of seeing forts and battlefields in the world. Since the camp is a building, or something that rises up from the ground, he sees it only as a fort. In the same section, the speaker blasts the foreign press for exploiting the tragedy brought on by the military. A French newspaper features prominently on its front page a photograph of a bomb victim. The media's awareness of the war prompts them to find a safe place to park their trucks (say, away from the threat of neutron bombs), such that the media does not connect with the real tragedy suffered by the Iraqi people.
In section three, the speaker bemoans the presence of bomber planes and heavily equipped soldiers. To him, these things represent not hope and peacemaking but destruction and fear. He tries to impress upon the Americans that he and his people are the ones who suffer, even though they are not the enemy, as their villages are compromised and their way of life is disrupted by the presence of the military. In the last section, the speaker again implores the Americans to understand that the Iraqi people should not be treated as hostages; their lives have been destroyed, and their situation seems utterly hopeless.
"America, America" is an expression of the voice of Youssef's people. Peoplehood refers to the collective identity and experience of a community of people, often as bound together by ethnicity. This concept is a strong element in "America, America." The voice of the poem reads like the voice of a common Iraqi man or woman. It is not a voice specific to Youssef but one that expresses the frustrations, fears, and hostility of the average Iraqi. The speaker is not a soldier, a politician, or a government leader. He is merely a man crying out in the midst of the destruction and chaos brought on by the Americans.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Choose two other poems from the Damascus/Amman section of Without an Alphabet, Without a Face to compare and contrast with "America, America." Create a chart that reflects your findings.
- Research the sanctions imposed against Iraq in the 1990s. What events led to the decision to establish these sanctions? What was the outcome supposed to be? What was the eventual outcome? What were the major arguments for and against the sanctions? Write a report discussing your findings.
- Read about the work and character of the Iraqi poets Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and Nazik al-Malaika, who were influences on Youssef and other modern poets. What were the traditional forms of Arabic poetry prior to their careers? What changes did they spearhead? Write a poem in the traditional Arabic form, then write about the same topic in the style of Youssef and his predecessors.
- Find at least five examples of traditional Arabic art and at least five examples of modern Arabic art. Architecture may be used for one or two examples. Then find at least three examples of traditional Arabic poetry. What shifts do you notice in the evolution of art in Arabic culture? Give a class presentation in which you draw parallels (or contrasts) between art and literature. Lead a discussion on what may account for these changes.
When the speaker talks, he often frames his ideas in terms of the Iraqi culture and way of life. He is moved to speak on behalf of Iraqis
collectively. In section three, the speaker lists many of the things he loves that Americans also love, punctuating his list with a reminder that he is not American. His identity as an Iraqi is important, especially in the context of what he and Americans have in common, as he refuses to compromise his identity as a member of the Iraqi community. Although there are many things about America that he loves, he has no need for many elements of its culture, such as its impressive city skylines and its political parties. During Saddam Hussein's reign, of course, there was really only one political party operating in Iraq; still, the speaker does not have any use for the two American parties. In a communal voice, the speaker declares that what he does need is his village, a place to fish nearby, native flora and fauna, and peace. The memories that bring him contentment are those that are uniquely Iraqi, including those of the date palms and the mosque in Basra. Such memories are probably shared among the Iraqi people. In the last section, when the speaker refers to the gods of his people, it is with notes of loyalty if not of victory.
"America, America" is written in free verse, a form that inspired Youssef as a young poet, and one that he has refined and claimed as a legitimate form of Arabic poetry. Traditional Arabic poetry is not written in free verse, but Youssef and others have shown that modern readers of Arabic can relate to free verse in a meaningful way. It should be mentioned that Youssef is known for his rhyming abilities, a poetic trait that is lost in translation. In "America, America," Youssef uses the form to present the past and present Iraq in a series of images and declarations that lend insight into the everyday Iraqi's feelings toward the Americans. Free verse reads as more conversational and spontaneous than highly structured poetry, and it gives the poet the freedom to present descriptions, thoughts, memories, and emotions without the confines of rhyme, foot, or meter. This form is well suited to "America, America," in which emotions ranging from passion to surrender are central to the speaker's expression. Youssef's use of free verse allows him to distinctly focus on memories, the blues, lists, and trades, endowing each section with its own unique character.
"America, America" is rich with figurative language, making it accessible to readers who have no experiential way to relate to the material. In the first and last sections, the speaker utilizes flashback to relate his memories to the reader. In the first section, the memory is of his time three decades ago in a prison called Nuqrat al-Salman, a harsh prison in the Iraqi desert. Along with the memories of the prison, the speaker recalls a specific newspaper cover page that reminds him of the separation between the media and the horrors of war. In the last section, the speaker's flashback is of his childhood, and the tone and descriptions indicate a peaceful, pleasant upbringing. The second flashback is a counterpoint to the first and a clever way of telling the reader how his country has experienced both contentment and upheaval.
The predominant figurative device in "America, America" is imagery. From start to finish, the speaker relates rich images that evoke a wide range of emotion in the reader. There is sorrow and horror in the image of the bomb victim, and there is nostalgia in the images of Mark Twain and Marilyn Monroe. In fact, the third section is almost like a series of snapshots reflecting American culture and history, as followed by a series of images reflecting how everyday, humble life once was in Iraq. In the fourth section, the speaker again goes through a series of images, but here, the imagery is intimately tied to symbolism. The image of the heroin syringe, for example, may symbolize self-destruction and indulgence, whereas the vaccines represent the opposite use of syringes—for health and progress. Similarly, the speaker juxtaposes an image of an Afghani beard with one of Walt Whitman's, as followed by the image of Saddam Hussein against the image of Abraham Lincoln. The symbolism is rich and clear, and Youssef manages it without much detail or explanation.
Other figurative language in the poem includes metaphor, such as with the Iraqi army's back and the bombers described as birds; simile, as with the media truck; irony, as with the bomb victim depicted as conquering the front page; repetition and anaphora, as in the blues section; synecdoche and metonymy, as in the naming of elements of American and Iraqi life in section three; and oxymoron, as when the speaker asks the soldiers who kill to also resurrect. Readers should remember that wherever alliteration appears, it occurs only in translation.
Youssef devotes an entire section of his poem to blues lyrics. This section adds to the overall collage effect, as the poem contains memories, arguments, snapshot imagery, and song lyrics. Blues is a distinctly American style of music, so it is fitting that Youssef included this style in his poem about America. Blues songs came out of the African American folk song tradition in the South, which included work songs and spirituals. Such songs are characteristically repetitious, sorrowful or longing, personal, and structured in short stanzas. In Youssef's blues song, these characteristics are evident. He uses partial and whole repetition within and between lines, and the song is about the speaker's desire to see his girl. Youssef takes the blues lyrics out of their tradition when he introduces the segment about the stranger being afraid. This section is vaguer and more symbolic—and thus less purely the blues.
United Nations Sanctions against Iraq
After Saddam Hussein sent his Iraqi military to invade the small, oil-rich nation of Kuwait, the United Nations demanded Iraq's disarmament. Any facilities involved in producing weapons of mass destruction were to be destroyed; the sanctions were also originally intended to force Iraq to help rebuild Kuwait. Iraq had proven itself to be aggressive, and there were suspicions that the nation's government was already using weapons of mass destruction against some of its own people (the Kurds). When Iraq insisted that it would rule itself without supervision from the rest of the world, the United Nations implemented economic sanctions against the country in hopes that the ensuing hardship would force it to comply with inspections and disarmament. Without cash from international trade, Iraq would be rendered unable to wage war. The United Nations specified that Iraq could sell only enough oil to cover food and medicine for its people (part of the "oil for food" program). Violation of the rules would lead to the total disallowance of international trade.
In reality, the sanctions hurt only the Iraqi people, not Hussein or his regime. Hussein firmly prioritized his military, such that the people suffered for lack of provisions. For various reasons, including Hussein's control of the media, the Iraqi people grew angry at the United Nations, especially at member countries from the West (and especially at the United States), instead of being angry at Hussein's regime for not taking care of the people first and itself second.
Even with limited reliable information about Iraq at the time, vocal critics of the sanctions believed that they were only hurting the Iraqi public. The critics further argued that the sanctions did not seem to be having an effect on Hussein's regime, its military strength, or its willingness to comply with inspections. Despite the fact that the United Nations handled Iraq's money and purchased supplies to be delivered to its borders, the regime was left in charge of distribution. Estimates in 2001 placed the number of people dead because of the sanctions at between 500,000 and 1 million. David Cortright, writing in the Nation, called the sanctions a "humanitarian disaster." The health care system suffered tremendously, spiking the mortality rates of infants and children. Basic supplies like clean syringes and water filtration systems were scant.
In 1968, the powerful Baath Party ascended to power in Iraq, destroying government officials who disagreed with its politics. In 1979, Saddam Hussein took control of the party. Harsher and more dictatorial than his predecessor (who was sent into exile), Hussein quickly established his iron-fisted regime. He understood that anything less than absolute power would render him vulnerable to the kind of overthrow that had typified politics in the Middle East. He himself had been ruthless in his rise to the top, so he knew how dangerous it was to be there. He had a hunger for power, and he had a vision of Iraq as a present-day Babylon. He wanted to make Iraq a military stronghold as well as a modernized, culturally energized nation.
In addition to having no tolerance for disloyalty among those close to him in leadership, Hussein put the People's Army in place. The People's Army was a paramilitary group known for brutality that included torture and execution. Many who believed that they and their families were or would soon be in serious danger fled Iraq early in Hussein's regime, while they could still get out of the country.
Free Verse Movement in Arabic Poetry
Traditionally, Arabic poetry was extremely disciplined and structured. Not only were the lines, meter, and rhyme strictly governed by convention, but even the way the poems were collected and grouped followed a system. In the mid-twentieth century, a few new poets began trying their hands at writing Arabic poetry in free verse and in prose poems. A woman named Nazik al-Malaika graduated from the College of Arts in Baghdad in 1944 and then earned a master's degree from the University of Wisconsin. Her first book of poetry was published in 1947. She taught Arabic and literature in Iraq until fleeing in 1970 under the oppressive Baath regime. Badr Shakir al-Sayyab wrote free verse, too, but he set out to write poetry that challenged traditional verse in terms of both structure and content. He wrote about humanity as a whole, social issues, and personal feelings and experiences. At the same time, he drew on classic myths and symbols unique to his cultural background. These two poets were on the cutting edge of the movement to bring free verse to Arabic poetry, and they were great influences on Youssef.
Critical reception of Youssef's Without an Alphabet, Without a Face has been overwhelmingly positive. Critics and readers alike are drawn to the poet's unique perspective; after residing in Iraq and enduring hardship because of his beliefs, he then lived in exile all over the world before settling in the West. In this collection, the poems are organized by location to assist the reader in understanding the poet's changing perspective and subjects. In Publishers Weekly, a reviewer of the collection remarks on Youssef's use of the many places he has lived in his writing: "The poems work brilliantly through their differing times and places, pushing unflinching description through a steady determination to foment a more just world." Khaled Mattawa (the translator of Without an Alphabet, Without a Face) notes in his introduction to the collection that "as the poet continued to travel
from one country to another, a pattern emerged: a series of short, imagistic poems where the poet assumes a neutral voice are then followed by a longer, much more complicated poem."
Having been a poet for four decades, Youssef is a writer who knows his voice and knows how to express his experience, feelings, insights, desires, memories, and hopes. He is also intriguing because he writes in free verse, a form that is familiar to Western readers. However, Youssef is not out to win over a Western readership; in fact, he writes in Arabic and pulls no punches with his words. Commenting on a French-language edition of Without an Alphabet, Without a Face, Marilyn Booth, in World Literature Today, notes that Youssef's "new collection … puts more focus on the longer poetic reflections that trace journeys across space and time." She adds that the poet "has been fearless in privileging the language and the cultural forms of everyday life, as well as mundane images, in complexly structured polyphonic poems. He anchors his poetic journey in geographies of exile, memory, and history." Mattawa writes, "Youssef's greatest contribution to contemporary Arabic poetry lies in his consistent effort to preserve the dignity of personal experience, despite and within a context of difficult socio-political realities in his native Iraq and in the Arab world at large."
In Books & Culture, Laurance Wieder encourages the reader to enjoy Youssef's writing, noting, "Even in translation, an honest intelligence shines through." Wieder later adds, "One poetry that travels well is the voice of an honest man, talking perhaps to himself." Perhaps that is why Mattawa finds that in "America, America" in particular, "we experience the culmination of Youssef's experimentation with surprise and discovery." Wieder furthermore sees parallels with Western free verse poets, specifically in reference to "America, America." Wieder comments, "Saadi Youssef's 1995 Damascus poem, ‘America, America,’ has a kinship with Whitman and Allen Ginsberg, and a sharp eye for the balance of trade."
Bussey is an independent writer specializing in literature. In the following essay, she compares Saadi Youssef's depiction of the United States in "America, America" to the ways American poets, such as Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, Carl Sandburg, and Marilyn Chin, have depicted America in their works.
Saadi Youssef is a renowned expatriate Iraqi poet who is recognized as one of the preeminent modern poets writing in Arabic. His verse draws deeply from his many varied experiences in Iraq and all over the world. While his experiences give him vast material for his poetry, his skills with imagery and expression invite the reader into his past and present. The context of "America, America" is the period in the 1990s when sanctions were imposed against Iraq by the United Nations. The Iraqi people knew that these sanctions were spearheaded by the West, and they particularly blamed the United States. In Youssef's poem, the speaker rails against America for its violence and destruction against Iraq. Although the speaker loves some things about American culture, he wants the United States to leave his country alone. Youssef is not vague or subtle in his expressions of frustration and anger toward America.
Given Youssef's depiction of America, what do other poets say about it? Youssef's work has been compared to that of Walt Whitman (whom Youssef names as an influence and who is referenced in "America, America") and Allen Ginsberg, both of whom have offered unique depictions of their native country. Other interesting perspectives on America can be found in the work of Carl Sandburg, considered by many to be the quintessential American poet, and the Chinese-American poet Marilyn Chin. Some poets embrace America and romanticize it, others criticize it, and still others express more ambiguous sentiments stemming from divided cultural identities. Such perspectives viewed in comparison to Youssef's render an interesting view of America.
Youssef, as well as other free verse Arabic poets, consider Walt Whitman an influence on their work, and he and his famous beard are mentioned in Youssef's poem. Although Youssef and Whitman have much in common in terms of their craft, their views of America are very different. In "I Hear America Singing," Whitman describes a variety of Americans going about their daily business. He hears their singing and regards them as strong melodies that inspire him to write the poem. The songs are metaphorical, representing the business of daily life. The poem describes each song as suitable for each person; among the people are a mechanic, a carpenter, a mason, a boatman with his deckhand, a shoe-maker, a hatter, a wood-cutter, a farmer, a mother and wife, a girl doing chores, and a party of young men. All of these are everyday people embracing their roles and their tasks. Whitman's depiction of America is of an energetic country full of all kinds of people, all happily going about their lives. The tone of the poem is carefree and uplifting. This overall depiction is in marked contrast to Youssef's, in which America is hostile and uncaring. Youssef sees America as represented by its military, not as a nation of the same kind of everyday people who move him to compassion in Iraq. Both poets use imagery to the hilt, and both make the most of the free verse form, but beyond that, they have little in common besides love of home country.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Edited and compiled by Mounah Abdallah Khouri, An Anthology of Modern Arabic Poetry (1974) allows English-speaking readers a glimpse into the writing of Arabic poets in the late twentieth century.
- Post-Gibran Anthology of New Arab American Writing (1999), edited by Munir Akash and Khaled Mattawa, contains the work of more than forty Arab American writers. The anthology features previously unpublished works in all genres, including fiction, nonfiction, essays, drama, and poetry.
- Nuha al-Radi is an Iraqi woman who lived in Iraq during the Persian Gulf War and was directly affected by the United Nations' sanctions. She relates her experiences and her opinions in Baghdad Diaries: A Woman's Chronicle of War and Exile (2003). American readers are often unnerved by her anti-American feelings, but her story brings history to life.
- Phebe Marr's The Modern History of Iraq (2004) sets out to explain the nation's complicated and dramatic history, beginning with the British mandate in 1921 and bringing the reader to the twenty-first century. Politics, culture, war, economics, tribes, nationalization, and other topics are covered.
Youssef has also been compared to the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, whose sharp and often controversial poetry exemplifies to many the American spirit of free expression and individualism. Ginsberg also wrote in free verse, with dependence on imagery and direct language—and in fact, Ginsberg shared Youssef's admiration for Whitman. In "A Supermarket in California," Ginsberg introduces Whitman as a character with whom he interacts. The speaker of the poem begins by addressing Whitman and telling him that he was thinking of him. The speaker also self-referentially says that he was walking down the street in search of images. The speaker is in an urban setting at night, and the images are of shopping, neon, streets, cars, and a grocery store. Toward the end of the poem, the speaker asks Whitman if they will dream of America, describing it as lost. He even asks Whitman (with a nickname that refers to his beard, just as Youssef referred to Whitman's beard in "America, America") about the America he once knew. In this poem, Ginsberg describes America as filled with superficial things, such as the items in a grocery store and neon signs. He seems to be searching and even longing for a stronger sense of America. He feels that America is lost and reaches out to someone he admires to ask about America in the past.
Ginsberg's most famous—and most controversial—poem is probably "Howl," in which he lashes out against the craziness that he claims has destroyed the great minds of his generation. The poem is chaotic and filled with images, many disturbing. The America described in this poem is one that is not at all peaceful, being filled with drugs, alcohol, censorship, and violence. The landscape of the poem is urban, but not the peaceful setting of "A Supermarket in California." Here, it is harsh, imposing, and overwhelming. Ginsberg describes tenement roofs, subways, hotels, cemeteries, bridges, meat trucks, and skyscrapers. In the second part of the poem, there is one question mark after the first statement, and exclamation points follow for the rest of the poem. The effect is unnerving and frantic. Although this poem is not specifically about America, there are numerous references to the New York City setting (the Brooklyn Bridge, the Empire State Building, Chinatown) throughout the poem. Because the speaker refers so often to the external world, and because specific references are made to an American city, the reader cannot help but conclude that a lot of the madness is American-made. The speaker sees America as claustrophobic, chaotic, permissive, and stifling. Although Ginsberg's speaker is not criticizing the military or politics of America, he is very critical of the culture and people of America.
Carl Sandburg is regarded as a uniquely American poet who wrote from an American perspective as an observer of his land. Unlike Ginsberg or Youssef, Sandburg is not a critical voice against America but a respectful observer of it. In "Hope Is a Tattered Flag," Sandburg writes a series of metaphors to describe hope. Like Youssef, Whitman, and Ginsberg, he is writing in free verse, but the structure is held together by each line's being a new metaphor. While Ginsberg depicted in "Howl" a landscape that was very urban and stressful, Sandburg creates one that is more sweeping and comforting. He describes a rainbow, the evening star, the coal mines and steelworks, blue hills, a car salesroom, a radio bringing music from all over the world, the Salvation Army, spring, and a skyscraper that is empty and therefore peaceful. Sandburg's America is first and foremost hopeful; irrespective of the geography, he sees hope everywhere. His depiction is of a nation where people are content in their daily lives, similar to Whitman's depiction. However, Sandburg focuses on the landscape and the external world, whereas Whitman focuses on the people who populate and bring life to that world. All of this stands in contrast to Youssef's depiction of America; on the other hand, parallels can definitely be found between the way Sandburg perceives America and the way Youssef perceives pre-sanctions Iraq. Particularly in Youssef's last section, the tone echoes that of Sandburg.
Aside from a foreigner's view of America and several native views, what might an immigrant's view of America be? Marilyn Chin's family came to America from Hong Kong, led a humble existence, and tried to make the opportunities of America available for their younger generation. Chin became a poet who grapples with issues of dual identity and self-exploration. In "How I Got That Name," she writes openly about her identity as an American and as a Chinese. She tells the reader outright that the poem is about assimilation. Her birth name was Mei Ling Chin, but her father's obsession with Marilyn Monroe led him to rename his daughter on the way to America. He not only bought into American popular culture but even wanted his daughter to begin assimilating right away. While this assimilation is to a degree necessary and makes life easier, it also complicates identity issues. In her poem, Chin strikes back at stereotypes and imagines a deity seeing her as in-between. In the end, the speaker decides to move forward and live life even though it is often complicated and difficult. Chin sees America as a place where she has the freedom to write poetry and choose which culture she will embrace in different parts of her life, but it is also the place where she is stereotyped and where her father degenerated to gambling and thuggery. In the end, the opportunity of living in America is not so simple a blessing, creating its own complexities. Still, Chin has the freedom in adulthood to stay in America, go to China, or go somewhere else entirely, and she chooses to stay in America.
Youssef's portrayal of the United States in "America, America" is critical and harsh. Yet that is the reflection of his personal experience and the history of his people, just as Whitman, Ginsberg, Sandburg, and Chin depict America according to their own personal experiences. Comparing and contrasting these poems, then, is an exercise in context. When reading a poem it is important to keep in mind that each poem has its own context, and that the poem itself also exists in a larger context of poetry as a whole. Some poems praise the wonders of love, for example, while others reject it and want no part of it. Similarly, Youssef and Ginsberg write about America in derogatory terms, while Whitman and Sandburg write about it in positive terms and Chin seems to write about it in neutral tones. Thus, the truth of human experience is that everyone experiences and perceives things differently, based on history, location, upbringing, culture, and personality. Just as it is enlightening to see the differences among poems, it is equally enlightening to see the similarities. There are stylistic and structural similarities that transcend time and location, as exemplified in the use of free verse and imagery in the poems discussed here. There are also similarities in how the poets grapple with identity (Youssef and Chin) and how they love their cultures (Youssef, Whitman, Sandburg, and Chin). It is also intriguing to realize that poets are often influenced by poets with whom they have little in common. Youssef claims Whitman as an influence in terms of style and form, which means that he is able to set aside his philosophical differences with Whitman about America. All of these factors are important both in writing poetry and in studying and learning from it.
Source: Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on "America, America," in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
Ferial J. Ghazoul
In the following excerpt from a review of Without an Alphabet, Without a Face: Selected Poems, Ghazoul writes that the book is "a work for all seasons and for all readers."
For a poetic chronicle of modern Iraqi life, one could not find better than the works of renowned Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef. Not only does he capture the tragedies within tragedies in the unfolding of contemporary Iraqi history, but also the hope against hope in Iraqi experience. Born in 1934 near Basra, and reared in rural Abul-Khasib by his grandfather, he continues to retain a fascination with the rustic nature of southern Iraq—its palm trees and sunsets, its marshes and migratory birds. His poetry, written regularly since his teenage years, is a record of a collective experience, albeit one expressed in highly personal lyrics. Educated in Basra and Baghdad, and a long-time resident of several Arab and European capitals, the voracious reader Saadi Youssef has assimilated world literature as well as lived the struggles and plights of cities like Aden and Beirut. He has translated major Western poets—Walt Whitman, Constantine Cavafy, Yannis Ritsos, Giuseppe Ungaretti, and Frederico Garcia Lorca—and several African novelists. He is thoroughly acquainted with the great historians, Thucydides and Ibn Khaldun, as well as radical thinkers from Marx to Angela Davies [sic]. His encyclopaedic knowledge does not appear on the surface of his poetry, but functions as a solid foundation for his deceptively simple lyrics.
Though Saadi Youssef has been translated into English before and published in anthologies, journals, and literary supplements, Without an Alphabet, Without a Face, is the first book-length collection of his poetry. The translator, Khaled Mattawa, has selected poems from the various collections of Saadi Youssef and arranged them in chronological order, covering more than four decades, from 1955 to 1997. As an experimental poet, Saadi Youssef covers several themes and partakes in varied styles: shorter imagist poems and longer epic poems, political poems and nature poems. Regretfully, the translator did not include samples of Saadi Youssef's erotic poetry, published in a collection illustrated by an Iraqi artist Jabr 'Alwan, entitled, Erotica. Not only is this collection significant because it shows another aspect of Saadi's poetry and poetics, but it also contains powerful and universally accessible poems.
The Libyan translator, Khaled Mattawa, is himself an Anglophone poet who has authored a fascinating collection, Ismailia Eclipse. He has also translated other Iraqi poetry, including Hatif Janabi's Questions and Their Retinue and Fadhil Al-Azzawi's In Every Well a Joseph Is Weeping. Khaled Mattawa was educated in Libya, Egypt, and the United States. He teaches creative writing in the Department of English at the University of Texas at Austin. This collection is published in the prestigious Lannan Translation Series by an independent, non-profit, publisher. The translator's 14-page introduction is a brilliant critical essay that introduces the poet and his poetics while avoiding the pitfalls of academic jargon. The notes at the end of the book are short and to the point; they help explain the allusions in the poems as well as the places and proper names, thus contextualising the poems. Poetic traces of past moments reel and converge to sketch the quest of an Iraqi poet for that elusive dream of happiness for his people and freedom for his homeland.
The most successful poems in the collection are the shorter ones. The longer ones use a variety of strategies to extend the lyric outpouring: narrative strategy or cyclical structure. Saadi Youssef's poetry is written in the taf'ila mode, akin to vers libre, which has dominated new poetry since the metrical revolution that was initiated in Iraq in the late 1940s. What constitutes the distinctive feature of Saadi's poetics is his avoidance of rhetorical flares and ornate diction, so typical of Arabic poetry. His poetics is based on figures of thought rather than figures of speech, on surprising while understating, rather than moving his readers by resorting to hyperbole. His voice is fresh and strives after the right word and the precise image. His thorough grounding in classical poetry allows him to be in touch with the works of the past while able to branch out into new venues. In an interview with critic Majid Al-Samirra'i, the poet expressed his attitude towards innovation and tradition: "I consider the poetic tradition to be a root that should not be cut. The Arabic word is not abstract, though it has a potential for abstraction. I use traditional artistic values in a new way, a way that is related to this age. Formal opposition, which is revealed in antithesis (tibaq), may be developed into dialectical opposition, just as comparison by simile may be transformed into expression by images." Saadi's attitude to tradition is critical but not hostile; his poetics is that of transformation, not rupture.
Many of his poems are autobiographical fragments presented in lyrical flashes. Having been detained, he presents the experience of captivity in his short poem "In Their Hands" (1956) …
This short poem condenses the political philosophy of the poet, which can be paraphrased as when you are repressed (thrown and roughly handled) think of the noble cause (Basra). The poet's city is a synecdoche for the homeland, and the homeland is associated with "sun, bread, and love". The diction is made up of everyday vocabulary and familiar words (rib, blue, night, sing, etc.). The poetic effect comes from the syntactical play in the poem: the move from "think of Basra" to "think with Basra." Basra changes from being an object to becoming a subject, and thus it is implicitly personified. By resorting to the concrete, the poet points to the abstract. Another short poem that represents the poet's social philosophy, is condensed in "Attention" (1993), where he distinguishes between two types of people—those to recall and those to dismiss from memory. The perfect balance between the first stanza and the second, between the statement and the imagery, captures the symbolic economy in Saadi's poetics …
The subtle music and internal rhythms of Saadi's poetry are delicately rendered by the translator as in the finale of a poem entitled "Spanish Plaza" (1965) …
Saadi's poetry avoids declamation and resounding statements. It is as if the poet is engaged in an intimate conversation and we—as readers—overhear him. Even his political poems have a subdued tone. They do not lend themselves to recital on a platform, nor can his verse be borrowed for a slogan. In a sequence of poems written in besieged Beirut in 1982, Saadi describes life at the edge in haiku-like minimalism. In "A Raid," the most dramatic of sounds—an explosion—is described in a gentle manner, as if whispering:
The room shivers
from distant explosions.
The curtains shiver.
Then the heart shivers.
Why are you in the midst of this shivering?
This sequence of miniature poems constitutes the diaries of the poet in West Beirut when he was living under the bombardment of Israeli war planes, with water and electricity cut off by the invading army. The telegraphic style seems appropriate for this precarious existence. The short, abrupt sentences and the rationed diction reproduce aesthetically the ascetic conditions of life in a war zone. The repetition of "shiver" in the poem recreates the convulsive motion of shuddering.
Many of the poems of Saadi are shots of a scene or even shots of a detail in a scene. Such scenes, which Saadi encapsulates in his poems, are perfectly ordinary, if not down right familiar and mundane. The poet makes us see beauty in small things and sense the poetry of everyday scenes. The poetic is not sought in the distant and elevated, in the transcendent or fantastic, but in the here and now. Thus Saadi teaches us his aesthetic philosophy: beauty is lying there in front of us in the street, in the market place, in our sitting rooms and bedrooms. All we have to do is see it.
The Iraqi critic, Tarrad Al-Kubaisy, has called Saadi: "He who saw"—a locution often reserved for Gilgamesh, the hero of the ancient Mesopotamian epic. Seeing is then not simply observing but also penetrating what is beneath the surface. Saadi is the lucid one who sees the inner core of things and who makes his readers see the invisible beneath—not beyond—the visible. He makes us see the harmony, the beauty, and the poetry of the quotidian, of the passing moment. His aim is not to immortalise but to retrieve and preserve. In this sense he is, like Cavafy, fully aware of the passage of time and the urgency to record special moments. Because Saadi has been a wandering poet, a modern-day troubadour constantly on the move, his fugitive existence makes him more prepared to snatch the moment from our disjointed times. The tavern, the bar, the café, and the hotel recur as settings in his poems. They point to transitory existence, a life on the go, in which companionship is based on free spirit and individual choice rather than on settled and conventional considerations. "The Chalets Bar" (1984) is a poem that points to the thriving fellowship of people from different races and nationalities, drinking together in a Yemeni bar. Memory also plays an important role in Saadi's poetry. Having been imprisoned, he recalls in his cell what he could not see and partake in. Living away from his homeland, he remembers the sites of his country. As he grows older, reminiscences of childhood unfold in his poetry, as in this extract:
I remember trees:
the date palm of our mosque in Basra, at the
end of Basra
a bird's beak,
a child's secret,
a summer feast.
I remember the date palm.
I touch it. I become it, when it falls black
when a dam fell, hewn by lightning.
And I remember the mighty mulberry
when it rumbled, butchered with an axe.
In his poem "A Woman" (1984), the title suggests a woman, but she turns out to be the woman. It is one of several poems by Saadi where the closure explains the rest of the text and pushes the reader to read the poem retrospectively …
Having lived in more than [a] dozen cities in the Arab world and Europe without settling anywhere permanently, Saadi exemplifies the exilic condition. This dispersion, translated poetically into fragmentation, leaves for the poet the task of reconstructing the self, of making the shards into a whole. Poetry becomes the medium by which a face is given to this defaced existence. In his poem entitled "Poetry" (1985), Saadi refers to the task of the poet by referring to himself through the persona of L'Akhdar, a poetic double who figures in more than one poem …
In the longer poems, such as "The Trees of Ithaca" (1989), Saadi narrates the exodus of the Palestinians from Beirut. The classical journey of Odysseus, and its re-interpretation by the poet Cavafy, is a subtext in this poem. One displacement recalls another and is linked to it, "We turn in the earth the way a shepherd wraps his cloak around him." In another long poem, written in 1995 and addressing the US which led the war against Iraq in 1991, entitled "America, America", Saadi uses different voices in his polyphonic poem. The words of an Iraqi poetic persona is juxtaposed to the song by an American soldier, probably an African-American as his lyric is entitled "Blues". The soldier longs to go back to his home town, Sacramento, and suggests his unhappiness with the war and his anxiety as a stranger in a country that is not his.
The Iraqi voice wonders whether it is his identity that has made him a target: "But I am not American./ Is that enough for the Phantom pilot to turn me back to the Stone Age?" The poem sarcastically uses the refrain, "God save America,/My home, sweet home!"
… The title of this rich collection, Without an Alphabet, Without a Face, is taken from a verse line in a poem entitled "The Ends of the African North" (1971). It focuses on the image of a child weeping, the violation of innocence that has become a recurring motif in the age of global imperialism:
In the neighbourhoods of Tunis and their win-
at the gates of Africa's spread thighs
I saw a girl weep
without an alphabet, without a face.
Snow was falling and a girl wept under it.
The richness and accessibility, as well as the breadth and depth, of this collection turn this book into a work for all seasons and for all readers.
Source: Ferial J. Ghazoul, "Spiral of Iraqi Memory," in Al-Ahram Weekly On-line, No. 634, April 17-23, 2003, 7 pp.
Saadi A. Simawe
In the following excerpt, Simawe demonstrates the way that Youssef uses southern Iraqi vernacular within traditional Arabic poetic forms.
When Irish poet seamus Justin Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, the Academy praised him for "works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday life and the living past" (Schlessinger 93). Though having no power to grant a Nobel Prize, many critics, students of literature, and general readers have noted with fascination the magical power of Sa'di Yusuf's unassuming, short, and subtle poems that exalt the heroism and the epical perseverance of everyday life in the Arab World, particularly in Iraq where the very act of surviving with some form of dignity becomes in itself heroic. Yusuf's poetry since the early 1950s has become an epic song of survival in the face of both fascism and Western intervention.
A major aspect of Yusuf's poetry that has been touched upon, but not sufficiently explored, by critics is his remarkable blend of standard Arabic (al-Lugha al-Fusha) with the Iraqi vernacular (al-Lahja al-'Ammiyya). In this essay I will argue that Yusuf's talent for "poetization of the familiar and the quotidian," as Ghazoul aptly put it ("The Poetics of the Political Poem," 117), lies largely in his capability of creating a poetic diction of his own—a linguistic synthesis that blends al-Fusha and al-'Ammiyya. Yusuf's new poetic diction reflects on the one hand his Marxist politics and on the other his poetics. Though most of the time a fellow traveler, his esthetics asserts itself with occasional rebellion against the ideological dictates of the Iraqi Communist Party. Yet his loyalty to his esthetics and to the ordinary, vulnerable individual never wavered throughout his long journey.
Born in 1934 (the year the Iraqi Communist Party was founded) in a village near Basra, Iraq, Sa'di Yusuf began writing poetry when he was about fifteen years old. Upon graduating from high school, he went to Dar al-Mu'allimeen al-'Allia in Baghdad (Higher Teachers' Training Institute), where he earned a B.A. in Arabic with a teaching certificate. His life in Iraq, from the early 1950s to 1964 and then from 1973 to 1978, was spent between teaching at various high schools, working with progressive or Communist journalism, and serving political prison terms. Like the majority of Iraqi writers, educators, and intellectuals, Yusuf was forced to leave Iraq in 1978, when Saddam Hussein assumed absolute power. After several years in Algeria, Lebanon, and Yemen, Yusuf settled in Damascus, Syria, where now he works as journalist with the Palestinians and with the Iraqi opposition groups.
Since 1952, Yusuf has published more than twenty volumes of poetry. He has also published fiction, essays, and translated the Nineteenth Century American poet Walt Whitman and contemporary Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa'Thionga, as well as works by European authors. Yusuf learned English and French on his own, taking advantage of the periods of exile he was forced into due to his involvement, like most Iraqi writers, with the Iraqi Communist Party since his college years in Baghdad (probably even before that when he was in Basra). Although he demonstrated remarkable versatility in most literary genres, Yusuf is primarily considered a towering figure in Iraqi modernist poetry, Jama'at al-Ruwwad (The Group of Pioneers) established in the early 1950s.
From the beginning of his career Yusuf was interested not only in registering the poetic glow in the ordinary and the common, but also in portraying the seemingly insignificant. The majority of his characters are below even ordinary people; they are the marginalized and on the fringes of the society: children attempting to survive their vulnerability, women caught in the double plight of sexism and classism, the poorest farmers and menial laborers. Scenes and moments that inspire his best poetry are frequently the invisible and the unnoticed. This vision of the ordinary seems to account for Yusuf's language a language that suggests rather than oppresses or stifles the poetry of the ordinary. As many critics have observed, when we read Yusuf's poetry, we cannot help but notice the closeness of his standard Arabic to the vernacular.
In her Modern Arabic Poetry (1987) poet and critic Salma Khadia Jayyusi characterizes Yusuf's greatness as "his capacity to speak in direct and simple yet highly poetic terms about life's constant routine and day-to-day experiences, subjects which so many Arab poets shun" (480). Other critics point more specifically to Yusuf's talent for capturing the ordinary and the obvious in a kaleidoscopic poetic medium. "It seems to me," al-Saggar states, "that Sa'di is keenly aware of his environment, and he deals with it on the basis that it is a reality that demands his recognition without imposing on it any kind of logic that does not sound at any rate apropos. He is a hunter of the first moment—which is no doubt the essential stuff of poetry. Once it is in his hand, he does not allow it to escape by reflection and much analysis" (143). More specifically, Ghazoul in her essay titled "Saadi Yusuf: Qasa'id Aqalu Samtan" focuses on what she terms Yusuf's "poetization of the familiar and the quotidian" (23).
Textual evidence from Yusuf's poetic work supports the critics' understanding of the crux of his poetic vision and the source of his inspiration. In one of his poems of 1976 titled "How Did al-Akhdhar bin Yusuf Write His New Poem," Yusuf, who had already made al-Akhdhar bin Yusuf his poetic persona or double (Ghazoul, "The Poetics of the Political Poem," 117) or a mask (Abbas, 73-74) reflects on his own process of writing:
Well, here is al-Akhdhar bin Yusuf facing a problem more complicated than he initially thought.
It's true that when he writes the poem he rarely thinks of its destiny. But usually writing becomes easier when he can focus on a thing, a moment, a vibration, a leaf of grass.
Whereas now he is in front of Ten Commandments, he does not know which one he should choose. More importantly: How to begin?
Endings are always open. And beginnings are closed (Yusuf, al-'Amal al-Kamila, 62).
The Ten Commandments, arguably a metaphor for ideology, seem to block the poet's vision from focusing on one thing, whether human or natural. Poetry flows naturally, Yusuf seems to suggest, when it is free from rigid thought, when it captures the rhythm within a scene or a moment.
Before the July Revolution of 1958, Yusuf's experiments with the vernacular by incorporating slang words and phrases and even sentences in the standard Arabic were considered audacious, even blasphemous by the mainstream critics. What made Yusuf's experiments possible, it seems to me, is the fact that he was one of a group of young poets working independently to break the traditional poetic styles, what is usually called 'Amud al-Sh'ir (the pillar of poetry). Like Yusuf, Badr Shakir al-Sayyab (1926-1964), Nazik al-Mala'ika (1923-), Buland al-Haydari (1926-1996), and Abdul Wahab al-Bayaati (1926-), among others, were experimenting with new techniques in search of a language that expressed their new vision of reality. Significantly, all of these young poets were more or less progressive in their political views. Despite their nationalism, Marxism, or Communism, they were united in their opposition to the status quo in literature and life.
More than any of them, Yusuf has been interested in quietness in poetry as well as in politics. It seems that he believes that whispering is more effective than declaiming, suggesting is more convincing than stating, and portraying the ordinary is more enduring than portraying the extreme. Significantly, all three qualities are essential parts of folklore and vernacular literature. In a poem published in 1971, appropriately titled "Tanwima" (Nursery Song), Yusuf demonstrates his mature experimentation with the poetics of the ordinary …
The poetic diction is so simple that it is almost colloquial in its idiom and the choice of words. Any reader can relate to the poem; even the illiterate listener would not find it difficult to understand the general theme and the narrative line. In order to capture the situation suggested by the title, the speaker, a tired and sleepy young mother, wearily sings to put her baby to sleep. Similar to folkloric songs, the poem relies on the magic created by repetition of words and phrases. The repetition actuates the hypnotizing rhythm, which is the most effective aspect of the poem. The meaning of specific lines is vague and elusive, even as obscure and unlimited as the setting of the poem, the wilderness. The young mother, weary and sleepy, glows in the middle of the wilderness with yellow light intensified by the yellow light coming from her restless baby, whose face and hair are also yellow. The two faces, the mother's and the baby's, circled with yellow halos definitely evoke the Madonna, thus elevating the ordinary scene to a mythical level. No change happens in the situation until one star falls, indicating the coming of the dawn: the baby's face changes from yellow to red. At this point another speaker, apparently the poet, intrudes to urge the young mother to sleep.
Actually, in this poem there are two nursery songs being sung simultaneously: one by the young mother to her baby and another by the poet to the beautiful young mother in the wilderness. The poem tries to capture the anxiety of the anonymous young mother, lonely in the middle of the dark universe. The experience is not really unique; it is an ordinary every-night experience. The poetry in it arises from the poet's ability to make the agony of the young mother unique through imagery and rhythm. By both repetition and austere minimalism, Yusuf creates what he later calls al-qasida al-mutaqashifa, that is, the ascetic poem (Yusuf, "Letter," 1994). Because of the intensity of his language, its self-consciousness, its playfulness, and its ultimate defamiliarizing of the familiar, Yusuf's poetry would be the delight of the New Critic and the Russian Formalist. In a crucial passage from his Russian Formalism: History, Doctrine (1955), Victor Erlich identifies the technique by which the poet is able to transform ordinary language into poetry:
If in informative ‘prose,’ a metaphor aims to bring the subject closer to the audience or drive a point home, in ‘poetry’ it serves as a means of intensifying the intended aesthetic effect. Rather than translating the unfamiliar into the terms of the familiar, the poetic image ‘makes strange’ the habitual by presenting it in a novel light, by placing it in unexpected context. (150)
But like any good poetry, Yusuf's poetry both satisfies and disturbs poetic theory. As the Russian Formalist would like to see, language in Yusuf's poetry becomes, like a child, happily aware of itself. But when Yusuf liberates the language and makes it self-conscious, he inadvertently gives voice to new, even revolutionary, realities—realities that are relegated to the margins or made insignificant. As Derrida's deconstructionism has demonstrated—though poets and writers are always ahead of philosophers—to highlight the insignificant or the fringe or the margin naturally threatens the center, which is by definition a political act (Culler, 193-4).
Another poem titled "Ilhah" (Insistence) written in 1956 utilizes techniques from folklore and diction from the vernacular. These include magical repetition of words and phrases, entrapment of the vulnerable speaker/protagonist that immediately appeals to the reader and entices his or her identification, and the exposition of the elemental level of the desire. An ordinary individual, who seems to be a farmer or a shepherd, desperately tries to cross the river to meet his young wife, who is taking care of her sick father on the other side of the river. The speaker, who is the farmer, tries to beg a ride from a boat owner, Salim al-Murzuq …
For the traditional school of poetry the theme of this poem is unthinkable because of its apparent vulgarity. But what is the source of poetry in this experience? The conflict between the speaker's desperate desire to meet his wife and Salim al-Murzuq's desire to have sex with him as the only acceptable price for taking him on the boat seems both comic and sad. Again this unfortunate moment is elevated to a memorable folkloric level primarily by rhythm, repetition, and what might be called the vernacularization of the standard Arabic. Phrases such as "take my eye as a price," "and you are a man of courage," and "she is pretty" are as close as the standard Arabic can be brought to the southern Iraqi dialect. In the twenty lean lines of the poems, the name Salim al-Murzuq is repeated six times. Repetition of words and phrases, which can be seen as symptoms of entrapment, is the only way to express an elemental desperate desire, as is evident in the repetitive lyrical intensity of African American blues and spirituals. Also repetition gives the poem a child-like quality. By making the speaker repeat phrases and words, the poet captures his child-like character and his vulnerability. Specifically, the intensity of the desire expressed through repetition lends the entire moment an intimate lyricism—a prominent feature in most of Yusuf's poetry.
In both poems discussed above, "Tanwima" and "Ilhah," the poet does not seem interested in a closure: he captures the individual's vulnerability in a highly lyrical simple language, only to leave it jarring in our imagination. It is in this ability to depict the persistence and perseverance of the vulnerable that Yusuf seems to whisper and quietly celebrate the ordinary individual's heroism.
Further, by using vernacular or near-vernacular yfulness of the popular rhythms and the innocence of language (i.e. not traditional standard Arabic, the official literary language), Yusuf is able to construct near-folkloric song poems.
In Yusuf's near-vernacular poetic diction, the narrator frequently indulges in intimate play with words, like a child fascinated with colorful balls. In this immersion in language, meaning or theme becomes secondary, conceding the foreground to the innocence of the language that is just liberated from the tyranny of rational thinking and suffocation of ideologies. Let us look at the function of language in the following examples:
Do you remember? (When the action becomes a memory, the question is immediately lost) O sir, what a flavor does this evening have? In a cabaret in Rabbat we saw the bottles empty and the bottles were twenty, and empty in the evening and empty are the women eyes and empty are all those bottles ("Hiwar ma'a al-Akhdhar bin Yusuf"), (A Dialogue with al-Akhdar Bin Yusuf), (Al-'Amal al-Kamila, 101)
"Empty" is repeated four times, and "bottles," three times. There is no logic or rhetorical rationale to the repetition, but merely association. On the sensory level the reader enjoys the repetition of the words without having time to think about their meaning. What the lines seem to convey is a kind of verbal music that seduces the emotions and suspends the reasoning. The language's capability to suspend reason and stir emotion is usually best achieved in religious sermons and in folklore, and in both traditions meaning is subdued by rhythm and the magical impact of language on the unconscious, as Lacan has demonstrated in his analysis of the unconscious as inseparable from language (Lacan, 147). More specifically, Robert Hass in "Listening and Making" has identified the naturally subversive politics of rhythm:
Because rhythm has direct access to the unconscious because it can hypnotize us, enter our bodies and make us move, it is power. And power is political. That is why rhythm is always revolutionary ground. It is always the place where the organic rises to abolish the mechanical and where energy announces the abolition of tradition. New rhythms are new perceptions. (Hass, 147)
Another example of the poet's gratuitous play with words can be seen in a poem titled "Khatawat," (Steps):
Of the mirrors of the gardens I can be satisfied with the slim woman and the burning thirst that I had and the meagerness that became mine and the dialogue that naturally harmonizes in a slender woman (Al-'Amal al-Kamila, 91)
In the first line the word "mirrors" conjures up "woman" primarily because of the sound affinity between the two words: in Arabic "mirrors" is marayah and "woman" is mar'ah. Logically there is no connection between the two words, but linguistically linkage makes solid sense in terms of the verbal pleasure it provides to the reader. The play with words becomes more intense in the next line, further subordinating the meaning of the lines to the linguistic quality. "Burning thirst" and "meagerness" are in Arabic ghalil and qalil. They not only make a perfect rhyme, but through consonance and assonance, they resonate in our imagination. The last line is heavily charged with emotion, announcing the climax through lyrical intensity:
and the dialogue that naturally harmonizes in a
The word "dialogue," which is hiwar in Arabic, seems to exude an erotic glow before it collapses in the harmony with the slender woman. Actually, the Arabic verb yatajanas, which means "harmonize," has a definite sexual pun that transforms the word dialogue from its literal level to a symbolic level of sexual intercourse. Yet, one cannot resist feeling that the speaker's sensual, even erotic, pleasure shines not only through his harmony with the slender woman, but also through his child-like excitement at seeing his words linguistically harmonize in a slender poem. The poem gains its integrity not from its reasoning or its intellectual content. Rather it gathers force and focus from its emotional unity, which is expressed in a linguistic harmony that seems to liberate the language from reason, logic, and other symptoms of ideology. A reader familiar with Iraqi vernacular poetry, especially the folkloric part of it, can easily appreciate Yusuf's experimentation with the vernacularization of standard Arabic.
In 1973, upon his return to Baghdad from a seven-year exile in Algeria, Sa'di Yusuf published "Fi Tilka Al-Ayyam" (In Those Days), his most impressive poetic collage of the vernacular and standard Arabic. The poem is a celebration of survival and safe homecoming, but it is also a glorification of the poet's involvement with the Iraqi Communist Party. On one level the poem is a tribute to the Iraqi people and their struggle against colonialism and fascism; on the other, it is the poet's tribute to himself and the pride he derives from the sacrifices he made in belonging to the Party and to the people. Significantly, the poem is dated 31 March, the birthdate of the Iraqi Communist Party in 1934. To express these layers of emotions, Yusuf chose the most popular and most folkloric of Iraqi vernacular poetry, the abudhiyia. It is a quatrain in which the first three lines rhyme; the fourth line usually has a different rhyme, typically presenting a resolution to the problem stated in the first three lines. Because the poem epitomizes Yusuf's main poetic characteristics, it is worth translating in its entirety:
On May 1, I was officially imprisoned And the royal officers registered me as a Communist I was charged—as usual in those days—and My shirt was black, my tie was yellow. I left the court, with the guards' beatings And the judge's ridicule. I have a wife Whom I love, and a book made of date-palms in which I learned the first names. I have been to some jails full of lice, and others full of sands, and others vacant, except for my face.
That day when we ended up in the prison that never ends I assured myself that the ultimate end is not ended O you who get to my people, tell them I am not ended Tonight we stayed here, the morning we will be in Baghdad.
Tonight I celebrate the moon that visits me through the bars, the Guard has slept, and the breaths of Siba are heavy with the humidity of Shat al-Arab, The visiting moon turned toward me, I was humming in the corner of my cell: What are you carrying for me in your eyes? Air I can touch? Greetings from her? The visiting moon used to enter my cell through the bars and sit with me, sharing the black blanket. When he left me I found a silver key in my hand.
All the songs have vanished but the people's songs. And when the voice is salable, the people will never buy. Deliberately I forgot what [went wrong] between me and the people For I belong to them, I am like them, and the voice comes from them.
On the third of May, I saw the six walls cracked up. And from them a man I know comes out, wearing a proletariat fatigue, and a hat of black leather. I asked him, I thought you left … wasn't your name among the first names? Haven't you volunteered to fight in Madrid? Haven't you fought behind the revolutionary bunkers in Petrograd? Haven't you been killed in the oil strike? Haven't I seen you in the marshes [among the reeds] with your machine gun? Haven't you hoisted your red flag for [Paris] Commune? Weren't you organized in the people's army in Sumatra? Take my hand. For the six walls could close up any moment … take my hand.
O Neighbor, I have believed in the homeless star. O Neighbor, the nights of my age announced: you are the home. We have traveled all ways, but the heart stays at home. O Neighbor, do not go farther, my destination is Baghdad. (al-'Amal al-Kamila, 132-134)
The underlined quatrains are written in the traditional abudhiyya of the vernacular poetry of southern Iraq. Their poetic intensity, coming from their high pitch, enhances the dramatic sense in the poem by counterpointing the standard Arabic, which sounds more meditative and therefore prosaic. What gives the entire poem its distinct poetic quality is its surprising hybrid quality and the folkloric depiction of the popular Communist hero, who is given an archetypal dimension; that is, he is capable of transcending places and times in order to inspire the international revolution. While the peaks of emotion are expressed with highly lyrical intensity in the vernacular quatrains, the standard Arabic, al-fusha, is employed to capture historical moments of epic heroism. The folkloric element is deftly used to enhance that epic or mythical quality of the Communist hero. In lines 15-20, the moon collaborates with the hero in prison, bringing him good news from his faraway beloved and giving him a silver key. In southern Iraqi folklore, a silver key is supposed to have magical qualities that help one to open all kinds of doors, including prison doors.
Significantly, the three quatrains are devoted to celebrating the people, and the speaker in them becomes a collective voice of the popular masses, punctuating the three movements of the poem. The element of repetition, which is part of the structure of al-abudhiyya, is effectively utilized. As a quatrain, al-abudhiyya requires that the first three lines end in exact (or perfect) rhymes, that is, the same word with the condition that each time it suggest a different meaning. In the first quatrain, lines 11-14, the word intaha ("ended" or "vanished") has three different meanings. In the first line it means the prison "has not ended yet," in the second, our aspiration "has not vanished," and in the third, the speaker/hero has not, despite prison and torture, been defeated.
Repetition is one of Yusuf's favorite and most effective poetic techniques. It links his poetic discourse with the traditional poetic forms of the southern Iraqi vernacular. Furthermore, as Ferial J. Ghazoul has insightfully noticed, repetition in Yusuf's poetry becomes a means of resistance and defiance ("Qasa'id Aqalu Samtan," p. 247). In other words, Yusuf employs repetition as a means of political resistance. A good example of the defiant repetition is found in a poem titled "The Night of Hamra," written, as Ghazoul, who translated the poem into English ("The Poetics of The Political Poem," 113-114), notes, "in the summer of 1982 in West Beirut under siege by Israeli forces" (113-114) …
In addition to the incantatory force the repetition of the word "candle" establishes, as Ghazoul notes, the ascetic slimness of the poem renders the poem itself into a candle that the entire Israeli blackout could not extinguish. Actually the last line, "A candle in my hand," transforms the poet, amidst the ruins of civilization in Beirut, into a Diogenes still for centuries carrying his lamp in the middle of the day, searching for meaning and truth in the absurdity of the human condition.
Sa'di Yusuf's fascination with and aspiration to the condition of vernacular and folkloric poetry are evident in the majority of his poetry. In fact one is tempted to say that Yusuf achieves his best poetry when he is closest to the vernacular and the folkloric. Significantly, in 1956, very early in his career, Yusuf declared his fascination with the vernacular when he discovered and introduced Muzaffer al-Nawwab, the most prominent Iraqi vernacular poet. In his article on al-Nawwab's first published poem, "Li al-rail wa Hammad," (For the Train and Hamad), Yusuf is reported to have said he would put all his poetry at the feet of that beautiful poem. This love for the ordinary and the simple and the sonic as the natural attributes of the vernacular inspired Yusuf to creatively appropriate for his own poetic purposes both the vernacular and the classical Arabic forms. Whereas the other pioneers and practitioners in the free verse, such as al-Sayyab and al-Mala'ika, were liberating the Arabic poem from the traditional unity of the line and the mandatory use of the two-hemistich form, Yusuf's achievement primarily lies in creating what might be called a hybrid poetic form that collapses the traditional Arabic poetic forms into a synthesis of the Iraqi southern vernacular, folklore, and popular songs. Evidently, Yusuf's politics and his poetics, which inform each other, coincide and blend into a highly distinctive poetic style that influenced and has been influencing younger poets since the 1956s.
Source: Saadi A. Simawe, "The Politics and Poetics of Sa'di Yusef: The Use of the Vernacular," in Arab Studies Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 4, Fall 1997, 10 pp.
Booth, Marilyn, Review of Loin du premier ciel, in World Literature Today, Vol. 74, No. 4, Autumn 2000, p. 904.
Chin, Marilyn, "How I Got That Name," in The Phoenix Gone, the Terrace Empty, Milkweed, 1994, pp. 16-18.
Cortright, David, "A Hard Look at Iraq Sanctions," in Nation, December 3, 2001, pp. 20-24.
Ginsberg, Allen, "Howl," in Howl, and Other Poems, City Lights Books, 1996, pp. 9-27.
———, "A Supermarket in California," in Howl, and Other Poems, City Lights Books, 1996, p. 29.
Mattawa, Khaled, Introduction, in Without an Alphabet, Without a Face: Selected Poems, translated by Khaled Mattawa, Graywolf Press, 2002, pp. xi, xviii-xix.
Review of Without an Alphabet, Without a Face: Selected Poems, by Saadi Youssef, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 249, No. 47, November 25, 2002, p. 59.
Sandburg, Carl, "Hope Is a Tattered Flag," in The Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg, Harcourt, 2003, p. 455.
Whitman, Walt, "I Hear America Singing," in The Portable Walt Whitman, edited by Michael Warner, Penguin Books, 2004, p. 182.
Wieder, Laurance, "After Babel: Two Arab Poets—One Palestinian, the Other Iraqi—and the Vicissitudes of Exile and Translation," in Books & Culture, Vol. 9, No. 5, September-October 2003, pp. 8-9.
Youssef, Saadi, "America, America," in Without an Alphabet, Without a Face: Selected Poems, translated by Khaled Mattawa, Graywolf Press, 2002, pp. 172-76.
Darwish, Mahmoud, Unfortunately, It Was Paradise: Selected Poems, translated and edited by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché, University of California Press, 2003.
Darwish is a Palestinian writer whose poetry reflects his sense of loss at being exiled from his country for more than two decades. Like Youssef, he writes in Arabic and is one of the dominant poetic voices of the Middle East in translation today.
Handal, Nathalie, ed., The Poetry of Arab Women: A Contemporary Anthology, Interlink Books, 2001.
A woman was one of the first free-verse Arabic writers to blaze the trail for writers like Youssef, yet women's voices in Arabic poetry have remained largely obscured. Here, Handal offers a wide range of women's voices that reflect the unique experiences and emotions of Arab women.
Lewis, Adrian R., The American Culture of War: The History of U.S. Military Force from World War II to Operation Iraqi Freedom, Routledge, 2007.
Lewis provides an in-depth look into the United States military culture as it relates to politics, technology, media, economics, and values. By covering events from the 1940s to the present, Lewis portrays consistent themes and strategies present in the American military.
Simawe, Saadi, and Daniel Weissbort, eds., Iraqi Poetry Today, Modern Poetry in Translation, 2003.
The years of war in Iraq in the 1980s and 1990s produced Iraqi literary voices describing cultural changes, survival experiences, and quests for national identity. These voices are collected in this anthology, allowing readers from other parts of the world insight into the uniquely Iraqi experience.
Whitman, Walt, Leaves of Grass and Other Writings: Authoritative Texts, Other Poetry and Prose, Criticism, edited by Michael Moon, Norton, 2002.
Whitman has influenced writers of free verse all over the world. This edition presents his most famous and beloved poetic work, complete with articles and notes for deeper study.