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Adonis: The Avatar of Avant-Garde Arabic Poetry
by P. G. R. Nair Bookmark and Share

“Tailor, my love is torn-can you sew it for me?”
“Only if you have threads of wind.”

Adonis (Ali Ahmad-Said) is the TS Eliot of Arab literature. He is considered as the greatest Syrian poet living today and has been a strong contender for the Nobel Prize for literature since 2003. Adonis is a vibrant modern poet and I can vouch for it from my reading of his collection of love poems titled “If only the Sea could Sleep” and some selections from his famous book “Songs of Mihyar of Damascus”, considered to be his masterpiece. He can be hailed as the dividing line between Old and modern Arabic poetry. We notice in Adonis a powerful harmonization of modern themes such as existential quest, erotic fantasy, radical humanism, linguistic exploration and spiritual redemption which is seldom seen in Arab Poetry. His arresting style is both avant-garde and lyrical.

Adonis like the great Mexican poet Octavio Paz is intelligent in fathoming and distilling the essence of one’s poetic heritage and polymerizing it with modern techniques to create a brave new poetry. In his case, it is the ancient Arabic poetry including mystic verses that he had read and listened to during his childhood that has acted as the womb for shaping his imagination. The Arabic poetry of 13th century Iraqi mystic poet Abn al-Jabber al-Niffari has been influential in imbuing his poetry with an inner cadence particularly in his long narrative poems which are full of fierce energy, paradoxes and strange metaphors. The dazzling poem “Unintended Worship” is a classic case to cite his influence. In this poem the body of the lover becomes “a cup of intoxication”, the way God fills a mystic. He believes that our body is a source of knowledge. Adonis seeks convergence of bodies to break the barrier between body and spirit. He echoes this philosophy in many passages such as

"You were the desert and I jailed snow in You,
I insert myself in you and say to my body,
You are ploughed with his body
we are a single field now ,
My face a meteor and you the space? and
I am life/perish in me”.

Again there are abundant imageries in the poem such as ‘Push, ‘grow’, ‘reap’, ‘ripen’, ‘adorn’, ‘fill’ which illustrate that the body can be a liberating container and an end in itself for our growth and deliverance

Another poet he identifies as his doppelganger in shaping his poetry is the greatest poet of pre-Islamic Arabia, Imru'l-Qays, the sixth-century prince who roamed in exile until, it is said, he was murdered with a poisoned shirt that he was given. Abu Nuwas, the ninth-century court poet of the Abbasid caliphs, a bisexual, a hard drinker and a poetical innovator, is another pantheon of Adonis. So is al-Ma'arri, the eleventh-century misanthropic skeptic and satirist. Despite his Arab tradition, one cannot resist the feeling that Adonis has the tutelage of European masters in shaping his poetic intelligence to impart the ephemeral tone and rebellious energy seen in his poems.

In his poem titled “Beginnings” the poet mourns the anguish in the voyages of love:

“Encounters come, the sun dips in them
 Encounters go, the wound opens in them”.

The image of the body of a lover treated as space for the partner to explore and get extinguished recurs here as well.

“Between you and me
words gather/and blaze.

And the body is my baptism", screams the lover in another poem.

His poems are full of dizzy intoxication of love, madness and erotic bliss. Many passages have the quality of words falling into a vortex to annihilate everything. His lyricism is enthralling even in difficult passages

"My face was evening,
Your eyelashes morning,"

"Your head is a pillow,
mine an erupting volcano "

A startling quality evident in his poetry is his urge for creative destruction. In his poem titled “Death”, he says

“We will die if we do not create Gods
We will die if we do not kill them”.

His poetry also reveals interesting contradictions. In the poem “Love”, he says

I have been here as long as the God of love
what would love do if I died”.

We do not judge literature by its powers of premonition, but there are occasions when a writer articulates events long before they take place. His prophetic poem, "A Tomb for New York," written in 1970 could be said to have imaginatively anticipated the events and aftermath of Sept. 11.

New York is a woman
holding, according to history,
a rag called liberty with one hand
and strangling the earth with the other

One could go on to quote dozens of lines that seem like a pre-emptive imaginative response to the attack on Manhattan. Here are a few such examples:

Let statues of liberty crumble . . .
An eastern wind uproots tents and
skyscrapers with its wings
In Pittsburgh….Manhattan
I saw the Arab Map
Even while I say this
I see a cloud necklaced with fire
I see people melting like tears.”

Adonis shows in such poems a visionary zeal to turn all order into topsy-turvy to create a new world order based on his own canons.

In the poem “Dialogue”, he writes

I choose neither God nor Satan
Each is a wall
Each closes my eyes”

One can understand his radical, mutinous and an iconoclastic spirit echoing in them. He is the omnipotent when he hollers

I transcend both God and Satan
After me there's no Paradise, no Fall"

Adonis uses a technique of mouthing his ideas and philosophy employing human characters (Eg: A woman and a Man; Transformation of Lover). The conversational mode creates a spoken aloud impression. We both read and listen at the same time. This poetic tactic accentuates his writing. The voices add depth to the written word, providing us with something that is almost tangible. The spoken words seem more believable, more human.

Despite its magnetic appeal, many of his poems have their own ambiguities and call for a sophisticated poetic sensibility on the part of reader to fully savor it. There are many passages in his great poem “Transformation of a Lover” that require re-reading and delving deeper to decipher the meaning. Many literary pyrotechnics such as chaotic rhythm, subversion of order of words, surrealistic illustrations, fantastic imageries, Oxymorons – Example:

a breast dressed in buttocks
I saw an elephant emerging from the horn of a nail
The night was a radiance which led me to You

used in this poem make each stanza a dynamite in poetic design. This reminds me of a statement of Adonis “I come from a land where poetry is like a tree which watches over man and where a poet is a guard who understands the rhythm of this world”.

A dissident himself, there is touching sadness and pain for mother country in some of his poems. In the poem tilted “A Homeland”, he makes this elegiac toast:

To faces which wither under the mask of melancholy,
I bow
To roads on which I forgot my tears,
to a father who died as green as a cloud
with a sail upon his face,
I bow

We sense his pain when he says,

I remember my mother
and I weave in my memories for her
a mat of straw
where she can sit
and weep”
(Elegy for the time at Hand).

Again in another poem titled ‘Tree of Fire ‘, he cries

My people
have died as fires
died without a trace’

Adonis is a cultured and fiercely independent poet who is vocal in maintaining his cultural identity. In a speech delivered at Dartmouth College in 2001, he remarks:“The truth is that identity is not in itself a barrier to openness and connectedness; to the contrary, it is a prerequisite for them. The more we maintain identity the larger the scope for openness and connectedness becomes and the more consolidated diversity becomes. In the absence of that, openness becomes capitulation, exchange becomes tutelage, and interaction becomes defeat.” He thus reiterates here that exposure to different cultures does not mean annihilation of any (a fear prevalent in Islamic World) but on the contrary it can be immensely productive and rewarding. This is very true in his case as his identity as an Arabic poet made a new discovery in the poetic splendor of European poets such as Baudelaire, Rilke, Rimbaud, Nerval and Stephen Mallarme after his migration to Lebanon and then to Paris where he lives now. He strongly believes that Cultural creativity has no borders. “Creativity liberates not just the ‘soul’ but also the body”, he asserts.

A universal poet, he embraces many elements of nature to adorn his poems. Some of the recurring imageries in his poems are related to Space, water, fire, earth, star, stone, sea and wind. He has embarked to transform Arabic language beyond the borders of imagination with innovative uses of rhythm, experiments with syntax, use of jolting metaphors and juxtapositions. This Avant-garde poet of Arabic language has a tinge of sadness when he confesses that “I write in a language that exiles me.” He pronounces it in his poems as well

I live between the plague and the fire
with my language,
with these speechless worlds

He believes that his language does not reflect his past or his future nor is it a mirror capable of returning to childhood. For the poet, language just helps to put him in motion towards the unknown and towards everything strange

Meanwhile, Adonis continues to build his scaffolding of inventive literary forms around which a new Arab poetics could be built.

Ref: " If Only the sea could Sleep" by Adonis: Publisher -Green Integer

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February 05,2007
More by : P. G. R. Nair
Views: 4811      Comments: 3

Comments on this Poem Article

Comment Dear Sir,
It heartening to Know the poetic genius of Adonis- masterly verses with rarest of poetic instincts .Thank you sir for opening up the works of such wonderful Arabic poets to the uninitiated like us.

thnk you once again sir.

12/24/2016 00:00 AM

Comment A very enlightening piece. The exhilarating quotes sreveals the poet's genius and I can't agree less when you say Adonis is avant garde Eliot-like. Thanks.

BTW, do you kinow Arabic, Sir? Am asking because I was in the Middle-East for a long while and have had some interaction with the language - extremely limited though.

Madathil Rajendran Nair
10/01/2012 00:00 AM

Comment Dear Rajendran

Thanks. My expectation is that this year Adonis may win Nobel Prize. He was runner-up last year. I have working knowledge of Arabic as I ahve been here for the last 15 years. These poems are from his translations published in the book "If Only the Sea Could Sleep"

10/01/2012 00:00 AM

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