Laâbi, Poetry & Torture

This past week the mailman brought the first volume of the Oeuvre Poétique, the Collected Poems of the francophone Moroccon poet Abdellatif Laâbi.

I posted a poem by Laâbi some months ago, a poem that spoke to the kidnapping of a French journalist in Iraq, and spoke with the moral authority of a revolutionary who himself spent years in prison. A few years ago I brought Laâbi to the University at Albany and in my introduction to the reading tried to bring out the importance of the work. Rather than try to recast it all now, let me quote that introduction:

In 1966 the great German-language poet Paul Celan called a volume of his poems, which were to come out the following year, ATEMWENDE – which I translated as BREATHTURN, i.e. a turning of the breath. A poem, and beyond that, an event that brings real change, takes the breath away to change it, gives new directions to one’s breath – one’s pneuma, that systole/diastole that is the one certain way we know that we are alive. In that same year a young Moroccan poet called his magazine SOUFFLES, meaning Breaths – in the plural [all issues now online here]. Souffles was immediately & remained the great North African avant-garde poetry magazine of the period. It took one’s breath away, and indicated changes that were being made in Maghrebian poetry and changes that needed to be made in the life of the people – that is it could not but be a politically revolutionary magazine too. The absolute seriousness of Laâbi & his friends concerning this need for change, for an Breathturn did not escape the notice of the powers that be, & the magazine was eventually censored & Laâbi finally, in 1972, thrown into jail, tortured & submitted to all the humiliations a dictatorship will submit its opponents to. Laâbi survived, kept writing, poems, letters, a continuous & courageous witnessing to his & this society’s fate. In 1980 he was released & in 1985 he moved to Paris, France where he still lives, in that permanent exile that seems to be the lot of so many of the century’s best poets & doers – a poet, from Greek “poesis” to make, to do, is or should be, and in Laâbi’s case is, indeed, a doer, an activist.

The new volume opens as it should with his first collection, The Reign of Barbarism. (None of this early work enters the one English language volume of Selected Poems we have, The World’s Embrace, which draws on work from the nineties, but is certainly a very worthwhile place to start reading him, en attendant…) Here are two sections from a longer poem from that first book, written between 65 and 67, before his own prison and torture experience, but prescient, knowing what was going down in the royal jails, as it still goes down in the “democratic” jails set up by this country. My translation, my mistakes — & given html limitations, the spacing is somewhat off, though idnentations are indicated, just imaging them bigger, wider, wilder.

from: “Glory to Those Who Torture Us”

from you to me
the truth
swear to em that you won’t believe me
we are waiting
for a wheel to break open inedible flesh
or for an eye to go out for having witnessed
no meat eater will come sew up the cesarean cuts
there’s torture
apotheosis
artifice of pogroms
fire of skeletons

glory glory
the peaceful face of the executioner
the soft hand that hacks to pieces
and the universe flows
chugging its slow train of moralities
again and again
the sweet nectar of evil
vivifying pain
skimmer of diaphragms
marble of bulbs
glory
oh the noble gaze of the decapitators
the musical background of cyanide tablets
oh effluvia of this vitriol
we are waiting
corpses or fossils
and the macabre party mounts
an ordeal without warning
they torture
and they rack what beats
and they beat what pulses
and they section what binds
crimes on the table

glory glory
we are the chosen people
erected
on the tiptoes of fatality
for us the sunny tomorrows
the rivers of honey
and milk
the sacrifice brothers
the sacrifice
exile in sacrifice
oh apotheosis of throats ready
for the sacrifice
the inheritance
the sadism of Abraham
the inheritance
the faith brought low by miracles
the spontaneous abundance of the desert
m i r a c l e
we are not suffering
oh the pure brow of the hired killer
the tickling of the electrodes
and the scalpel cleaning the vertebrae
again
& again
breathe in all the gazes
with gluttony
swallow grenades

glory
to the execution squad
embrace the front
and the back
of the mature finger
that caresses
the trigger
that kills us

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4 opinions on “Laâbi, Poetry & Torture”

  1. I found your blog through two links leading from Michelle Buchanan’s blog. What a marvelous poem. Your whole blog is excellent.

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