Two poems by Abdulkarim Kasid

translated by the poet and Sara Halub, with David Kuhrt and John Welch

for Rimbaud who lived in Aden

Turning turning in a circle – was it sea, was it us
departing from Aden
thrown up by the waves, like seaweed?
From vacant rooms we set out,
detained by the blue in the windows
by crows that promenade in a square,
smells in ancient alleys, shops dripping with oil,
the red sun, bleeding, rolling its stones,
a shimmering robe,
glow of a night window, beyond
a hill of dark terraces.

Inside his Aden volcano Rimbaud wanders
or sits crouched maybe among his belongings,
going round in circles, not seeing the evening sea
like a mast leaning as it sets sail.
Rimbaud: a midday fading to darkness
blood luke-warm, a fine rain falling
black on ships’ decks,
Rimbaud, a solitary going, by camel,
effulgent rose,
a palpitation of sails –
sees eternity in water
or was it a grain of sand?
Rimbaud: a full stop perhaps,
the season’s lightning whipping up dreams
like devils to Aden, only to stop
at the first slope, its grasses
that no wind ever stirs.

And the never-relenting sun, your black sun,
is a hell, a night leaching down from the heights
onto houses – descend, descend!
And so on down into
the abyss, making landfall.

You were the beautiful sky, stretched above
the abyss, star overlooking the rock
tormented through the night.
Your ‘burning patience’ extinguished now
you sneak back like daylight, slipping through alleyways
through front doors of houses, left ajar
closed at night, a dwelling goes down, like a rock.
swallowed up by the mountain.
At night, you see nothing but that.
Cisterns loom, ladders
are lowered into a pit.
the women of Aden descend,
the women of Aden spread clothes on the sand
their voices raised. The sea casts up its shells.
Who will hold back the sea?
Your view of the village fades.
Demons load distant ships
What hell was this you saw? Ships sink.
You open Aden’s volcano
and rise, burning, to sing.

Your volcano, Rimbaud, is a wedding for sand
a sun for the sand,
a shadow for sea, a nest of fire.
Your volcano, Rimbaud, is a wind caught in the rocks,
an abyss for killing.

Rimbaud, awakening dreams,
his refuge a shadowless rose,
a shack where he pleads with demons,
a grave to rest his head.
Here he is, Rimbaud, raising the host.
He breaks the steps of stone.
He leaves without trace
surrounded by weapons and wars –
wars loaded by mules.

Your war, Rimbaud, echo
in an echoless horizon.

The city of Aden is built in the crater of an extinct volcano. Abdulkarim Kasid lived in Aden for a year after leaving Iraq thirty years ago. He lived a short distance from Rimbaud’s house – the building was restored in 1993.


Sarabad, the remote,
isn’t far.
We stop to confer:
a night in this desert
of lengthening shadow,
the sky closing in.
One or two stars
almost touching the plain
trees seem to advance,
camels rest,
a bird crying on a gilded spire
above your paradise.
Dawn cleaves your breast –
refresh yourself
from dawn’s pitcher.

With my companions
and camels, I am moving
towards you
as if suspended in air.
Your domes shine.
Soldiers in marble and copper
face the horizon.
And the bells,
the arches, seen
from cobalt balconies
even before we found the gate
(is it desert in there?)
Are there no walls?
(once touched they recede)
Where is the tower?
(blanched in the shining.)
And where,
where are your people -
are you that desert?
Did you hear the caravan’s song,
our moaning in the night,
the women saying: We shall die,
the dead, awakened, saying:
How did time pass us by?
Some are crying: Have the merchants
returned, preparing new camels
for our journey? Sarabad,
the inaccessible –
you passed it years ago. It is always
the next place we come to.
A mountain maybe,
a lake of bewitched fish.
Perhaps a petrified tree,
a fort in mute stone,
strange statues, a whole population
still somewhere in the distance.
We understood: Sarabad is remote,
Shall we go back
cross untrodden paths,
be satisfied,
groom horses,
prepare saddles for departure.
what is the use of names?
Do we travel to build,
to say we’ve arrived?
We haven’t come back to throw bones to dogs –
but who will show us the town?
Shall we knock at a deserted gate
and enter, if nothing remains?
As for the graves, will the names
all be obliterated?
We can go back
but where to?
Do we carry on as invaders?
hauling caravans behind us?
Going down into valleys saying:
Here is our home; let’s climb –
Let’s climb a hill,
or two hills
celebrate nights that are black.
Star, be close to us;
we’ll dance in our chains,
chanting: Heaven is a bow,
a radiant arc. Our arrows
are shooting stars, the earth
our target. Who is
Wind from the far side blows,
destroying all that we built
our dwellings, our tombs. The living
and the dead, become one,
take us behind our horizon.
In a torrent,
a circle,
grasping at straws. Say
we have not drowned.
In this mirage
a house-boat is timber;
we shall build towns and destroy them
laughing like children
we’ll come to our tower
at the desert’s end
calling our brothers
the ones who abandoned the caravan
and spit out the words:
Would to God we had not departed
From Sarabad the close at hand.
If only we’d not drawn closer
to Sarabad the far.

Well-known in the Arab world as a poet, essayist and translator Abdulkarim Kasid was born in Basra in 1946. He left Iraq in 1978 and since then has lived and worked in Aden, in Syria and in Algeria before settling in London with his family. He has translated Saint-Jean Perse and Prevert into Arabic. His work appeared in Anthology of Translated Arabic Poetry (Columbia University Press 1987) and Iraqi Poetry Today (King’s College, London 2003).

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