Poetry at Sangam



DAYPLACES by Naseer Hassan, translated by Naseer Hassan & Jon Davis

“Under the Water of Wars”: A Note on Structure and Translation

In my mind, Dayplaces is both a single book-length poem and a sequence of individual poems. With the right amount of what John Keats’ called “negative capability … when a [person] is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” the reader, I think, can enter the book anywhere.

Dayplaces: Time and space. The book promises both, or a melding of time and space, yet the poem is consistently forthcoming about space (place) and guarded about time (event). We know the where, but often the who and what are disguised, hinted at, hidden. It’s true that poetry often becomes hermetic in conditions of political extremity, and I sensed that quality in Naseer’s work. And yet, for me, that enforced secrecy becomes a metaphor, finally, for a greater mystery: the mystery of existence itself. In general, the poems in Dayplaces deliver intense, shimmering clarity in each successive moment, but the arc of the narrative is less evident. For me, this procedure mirrors memory itself, since memories often arrive rife with feeling, emblematic, but not always causally linked or even linkable—though they carry their pasts the way a person’s face carries her life.

Given the complex layerings and repetitions of place names, images, ideas, characters, disguises or versions of the self, my part in the translation process often involved asking Naseer about words that repeated in his English language versions of the poems: Is this the same word that we translated as “jars” in an earlier poem? Is the word altered by its context here? Is this “I” also the “you”? Or is the “you” a separate character here? Often the answers to my questions did not manifest in changes to the English versions, but they helped me inhabit the book. Luckily for the poem, I have a high sensitivity to repetition. I’ve been known to boil books down to their essential obsessions in a single reading—often to my fellow poets’ dismay! But in the case of Dayplaces, my sensitivity to repetition served, I hope, to hear and help highlight the obsessions with transformation and metamorphosis and with the lively, enspirited world that Naseer inhabits and creates on the page. The lines between animate and inanimate, between stasis and change, between past, present, and future are all challenged in this poem.

When I remember or reread our translation of Dayplaces, I’m aware of entering another world, a world of significance and richness, of despair and beauty and mystery, a world where, in the words of the American poet Chuck Calabreze, “poetry doesn’t explain the world; it rescues the world from explanation.”

– Jon Davis, co-translator with Naseer Hassan of Dayplaces

From Dayplaces: Showdowns on the Beauty of the World and its Depression, by Naseer Hassan

Section V: The Absolute, Too


The Absolute (1)

Nothing resembles this road; nothing enters this jam: Vacant airy masses circle over a stagnant yard\ where the road throws suggestions, like a person casting seeds.
A colored city in the heights stares at the sky:
In spite of the stars’ glow on our foreheads, in spite of our last night’s sky\ we behold a city in the sky.


The Absolute (2)

Eyes that see each other, and look heavenward … as if mirrors can be shrines of time;
however, what oozes from bodies enters the remains, and the fire of distances is trapped in palaces of astonishment …
Few men, who traversed frightful distances in the folds of centuries, pass near the day – like a cloud – that was never related to the body.


Whirlwind, Coincidence, Eternity

Within colored dust, the whirlwind slept; a cup ascends and awakens\ empty signs\ remnants of clothing and times …
And the shocking moment like Love — when it is distant and permanent\ close and intermittent … Other people were here, on this whirling moment’s seat … inside stillness.



The horn of noon chooses its hearers\ the street’s dove stops to grow on the curtain …
How old was he: “Wanderer of the World”
The decayed corpse of the dog on the corner, and the man who picks at his teeth\ … while a photo of a woman, from a different age, clings to the shop window.



“ — We live here to understand the beauty of Existence or its decay.”
He said this, and hastened into the tiny corner that separates the shadow’s seat and the (museum). The cars were passing, like the sun – indifferently – , while we kept recycling a sky, of a decayed existence — the drops which resemble the place are suspended, and the distant drops are the secret … *

* A poem:
    Do you remember that khan
    Which was inside a raindrop
    One day when you carried camels and sky
    And met the lonely eyes
    In shops covered by dust
    In an impossibility covered by dust

(“Shops” in Arabic is “mahaal” and “impossibility” is “muhaal.” “Khan” is a resting place for travelers — an inn or, in the Middle Ages, a castle.)



The scent of this day: Alluvium carries the navel of genesis to the river, and the river flows over the bridges, as if it were a lost wanderer of the clouds.
How stuck was it, the rough world’s street, upon his face… in spite of all the whirling dust, in a hut of time.


Just …

Between the emptiness of the moment\ and those strange distances under the sun; a silent darkness … is it the foolishness of the river? … is it the raid of summer? … the smells come from the “forest yard” — the riverbank is distracted, and the last neon on the body of the garden.
The smell of alluvium resembles the smell of a still clock …


Advertisement / Death / Noon

The advertisement for Coke\ …
Soon, the door will be knocked upon — you will put on your clothes and set out: summer is rapacious, and the coolness is crouched inside a drop that slips down along the glass\ a smiling woman\ … fragmented colors.
They are waiting for you now, they have already prepared the “sanctuary,” and have lain the dead body in the yard\ (…) the TV switched off, and the coolness remained stuck in the silent screen.


Rain, … Judgment Day …

From Al Thawara “city,” to the ultimate shout of tinplates, the Evening emerged — houses went servile past it; the motes of truth, and the hour of the earth.
A giant horn trumpets the sun … and between the horn’s shout and the sun, a single drop.


Incarnation (1)

Through the “smell of wool,” history renews …
You draw a circle, and enter it; … it might be a city, a war scene, a moment of isolation, or a drop of being occupied.
What is important:
The still air of long years, leaks from the gap in the porthole, and draws something resembling history, where there is nothing but air.


Incarnation (2)

Despite the air’s wound furnished by the sun, despite that strange belonging to unknown or “always- moving” areas, you look into the mirror’s clock … renewing in darkness the silence of the place: A remote and curious street, leading to a city that you know …
The light moves, and a glow quivers: Maybe the wall was infiltrating into light the history of what floated in an ancient evening.


Legends *

They said: “This is the direction,” and made sure of everything … They raised the air toward the beginning, and the rain stood straight.
The blade was coming from the frontiers of history to its beginning, and the faces of the seekers were detaching, to emerge again, from behind the dust.
There was nothing but dust … , but the mirrors – in the “purity” of life – never ceased glimmering …

* doctrines …?



The evening was strange, when you glimpsed an idea — that passed fifty years ago:
The beginning: A street resembling the body:
An “overwhelming” man stopped to ask a strange question to another overwhelming man whom he did not see.


Transmigration *

You expect Her to come finally; whenever the place becomes new inside you, fears renew, the wind of last gaps, and this wall that is scrabbled by clay …
Behind the city lies the river, and behind the river nothing: A road caves in the distance, on its carts accumulated the same dust that has accumulated on the table — a table with a leg broken a year ago. How many times were you born here? How many times were you born there? Do you remember, many years ago, when you were a seller of charms, or a passerby of houses in another life.
In spite of all the yearning, your life moves like a vein across the windows\ on a wall of clay that eyes drew; Death comes finally, and you said something ambiguous — maybe a word of farewell: Your people who amass now like dust, and the world that rounded itself … one more time.

* a new death, its princess …


Transmigration *

I become drunk with light, with the final trifles of the body’s wisdom;
Those days I was young, and the wall which was dedicated to clay was protecting the morning light from the noon’s glare. Asleep, I was, like a mole, and the seasons were passing …
In “another life,” I knew a square named Al Midan, and a street with successive columns\ the memory of houses tinged in the distance. But now, in my cellar, I watch seasons pass across the porthole, and know, by signs, that one more death is coming.

* regularity..?


People are Asleep, Once They Die …

Spots of light mediate the place\ … you try to “touch” the idea:
Is the spring bitter? when you were entering the darkness? … Did you live the city? was it something like a horn, blown like the judgment day horn in the crowd? … was it a dove … a weary merchant coming from the East … or was it a face that scattered when you touched it —
Your eyes are in the forest, and the city is leaving:
The outskirts, the houses, are crouching like Baghdad; or the breeding, that multiplied in rooms that kept looking over each other, as long as the day was alive, and as long as you were mediating the core of the place — looking into all directions, and forgetting that you were alive, and that the city is leaving.



You pretend not to notice the sky of dust, not to notice the core, the point …
Your ship is in the enlightened winds; maybe you were unfit for the “secret”: The bottles, crescents, cities … \ maybe it was the sea, too, (but your own sea)\ when you turn into some lane, or merge with your summery shadow.
Some signs are marked on the road: You\ the city\ people walking … , but the city is residing in the sea, and you are residing in the bottle, and the bottle is cast into a sky — that reflects the sea.


Writing, Maybe …

What does it mean when things become deaf to madness\ when words become their equals …
The elevations were no less strict\ and the land was nothing – after pouring out its wild half – but an allusion to a country that is remote from the air of nation
I wish you would remember now\ when you were dead … \ … “Al Tahrir” square is something like the ruins of truth, and the city which you know, was unknown — but to its equals …


An Invitation *

We were guests in the summer’s house; the portico was leading to the courtyard, and the darkness was leading to its river … the strange paint in the sitting hall still moves the body, and behind the houses, distances extend …
the waiting cart that remained in the road, kept lighting its breathless lamps.

* incomplete, always …


Osmose *

… my love … when the grave was small, and the ancient air was amassed on your forehead…\ when the land was scorching wind\ and the memory of a life – which didn’t continue – , bedewing the trees of the distance … when you were like a skull, and I was “laughing” above the shadow of the wall …
The dissolved blue of the sea, the final air, and the memory of a life which didn’t continue, so we could lighten the beginning, and claim – like the evening –
Life … **

* or: shared memories …
** An aphorism: The coffin … is a hut without windows.”



Really less than the river, … than the pallor of waters on the water and the corpse … inside the lances’ house on a balcony\ that forgot to be wide enough to contain the folding darkness;
They are many: Some were once here … some kept wearing a mantle of wool’s rose, some were vanishing, because the city was being extinguished …
We can dream that carts which didn’t enter the river, didn’t wait long enough; we can think that the horizon, in the river’s intoxication, was a house for humans



On the strange dust, theatres accumulated … halls accumulated … and the distances that the passerby thought he had already passed. To the river came the shouts of its own silence …
… is it time, what minutes amass? … is it the carts — (empty), that we frequent … or are they the years, unweaving from the garment’s threads into a rose, where life glitters, like a slumber, glittering in the shrines …



Tobacco is the color of gold, duskiness is the water of darkness; two surfaces move parallel, and meet in a point — then the city dissolves, and words settle on the thrones.
We stare at the sun\ we stare at our summer\ we become enlightened behind the deep-set gardens\ and we enter the horn of the day through a porthole, in the evening of gloom …
We are our ancestors, we are our opposites, we dream of returning – as we were – overwhelming



The total blindness, … when concerns are closed to the sun, and when you know that you exist … When the room gets wider, becoming a cavern, and you enter a white drop that leads to the color: A destroyed street which leads to the city, or a destroyed street that returns to itself, bodiless — everything is possible: The city is perfect, and the eye closes.


Penetration (1)

Beautiful is Death … to blindfold your eyes, like this\ … and to put chains on everything.
The way you were thinking, is not invalid anymore: The truth the wall drew, didn’t wait, and didn’t ask for the wind of the air chained in your hands.


Penetration (2)

Those winds are so cheerful that we forgot some of the moist evening in the boughs’ folds.
There are moments, when happiness seems so close, that you might even “knock on the door,” or gather in your hands, the keys



— … you?
The (monk) entered in human guise; the porthole is dark like the grave, and the wind is moonlit by intimate shadows …
He opened his eyes: The gospel is lucid\ a dark sky floated in the city; some men are holding myrtle, and a handful of baskets … the shadow of the fence is saturated in the light of eternity.
— come, come … I am the lord calling you.



Circling, the wheel blunts, illuminating expanses of evening’s jars …
That the drops merge – hopelessly – on water’s surface, that the days multiply till words become mere echoes;
on a panel of glass, two drops slip down: Adam and Eve: The reflected green from the sun is the meadows, and the minute that escapes from the encounter is the sin.


Absolute / Joseph / Writing

As the passerby ladles water from his cistern; so the poet ladles the tiny foils, from the depths of the cistern.
There may not be passersby, to find the clouds in the sky of the poem, but the sun of ancient nights leaves some of the days, in the gap of time.