I can't understand you, curious self,
nor grasp how you're both life and death,
grabbed land and peaceful settlement,
grudging milker that makes me full,
sun set at evening whilst casting
noon's shortest shadow: how can you be
two who can't marry
yet share the same house?
How can I set this riddle and
give away its answer if
I fail to understand your secret
or even what you mean by it?
Are you something separate,
a stand-alone that leans
upon no man’s shoulder,
or such a part of the people
that you can't be parted from them?
And are you that which is Gaarriye
or two opposing halves
he cannot fit together?
I call you, crooked creation:
bear witness to your character.
I can't get to grips with you, gregarious self
are you the same age as Gurey
and his fellow constellations?
Are you all kin?
And what about the history of the Greeks,
the Pharaoh's army and
the goring of kings,
what about the groans of war,
the dynasties you saw destroyed?
Bear witness to it all.
My limbs and all their molecules,
call them to the stand:
line them up in ranks,
collect their statements;
those million monsoons that marched past,
tell them to complete
the tale of that trek
which each one took, the night-walking
and the assignations,
where they were each afternoon
when they made Gaariye:
make their stories flow like milk.
I can't seem to fix you, quarrelsome self,
you're like that riverbed, Waaheen,
shifting between long drought, brief spate –
that business you concluded yesterday,
signed, sealed and celebrated,
today you snatch it back
and poke it full of holes.
Did you tear up all natal traits,
redraft infancy and all its rites?
Or did truth grow old, and find
its essence not eternal after all?
Where does the failure lie?
Your usual impact is to put
the people in two minds,
to keep them from deciding:
one casts you as the hero
they could never see back down;
while another thinks you short of wits –
your way lost, your well dry –
a barren camel; another one
misses you as he'd miss his own son –
if a speck of grit scratched you
he could not be consoled;
one casts you as cobra,
trustless as a looter; while another
has you as the strong shoulder,
a sure repayer of kindness,
deserving of good deeds,
a shelter and a shield.
Unquantified soul, secret from yourself,
ungraspable for others –
they all fall short in the fathoming.
Did anyone ever track you down
and shake you by the hand
or did they all end up lost?
Or could it be you who fails them?
Hiding within your shapeshifting,
a different colour for each place,
each night a new beast, a different face?
I can't get to grips with this garrulous self
even if my lope outstrips
the galloping of ostriches or horses,
even if I vanish from their horizons,
enter and depart from orbit
in the same instant you are with me,
you never fall short of my side.
Wherever I stand, whenever I stop,
you stand and stop with me
as though I carried round a debt
and someone said, 'Collect it!'
as though you were a good catch,
a woman looking for a husband.
Why is it you never sleep,
following me everywhere?
Whatever crime I commit,
whatever ugliness I enter into;
each shameful deed
that is my very own –
even though I gird myself to lie,
pull on another mask
to leave people at a loss –
you record each defect
as though set down on tape,
insidiously fill me with guilt,
you see through me as a wife does –
but why understand me by my flaws?
Curious, gregarious, garrulous self,
did you fail to grasp the stifling norms?
To quarrel with those who rap our knuckles
for whom only their diktats
need be acknowledged,
and not what you conclude:
You don't deserve the problems
that barrack and assail you.
Remember the marriage ceremony
of your father and weep;
bewail your mother because of
the afternoon you entered her womb
and the world, blame her.
The literal translation of this poem was made by Martin Orwin
The final translated version of the poem is by W N Herbert
© Poetry Translation Centre 2004-2015