In my cradle I heard the women sing
‘In the name of God, “Yaasin”’:
this is how we begin,
with the dance step and the dance.
I was playing ‘biito biiti’,
this is how Gaarriye grew.
I suckled on hearsay, drank in lore:
‘A cloud in the east means rest your feet,
the rain will trek to us.’
Dear friend, dear Burhaan, I was taught
there are two types of poem:
that which tells you how things are
and that with another agenda –
the people know which is which.
When she brought me up, Biliso said,
‘If a poem is a farm
then how things truly are, that’s water;
the best words for the best thoughts,
that’s how it begins.
Justice is your only compost,
life itself is what you hoe:
just squeeze truth from what happens
and in its own time it will sprout.
‘Whether a poem brings forth seeds
depends on how it’s tended and by whom –
the spot in which it’s planted;
depending on who needs it and for what
its husk is hulled or boiled.
'A poem is the measure for
that trek beneath the draining sun
each generation adds to;
when you have to stand and fight
it shows you where to point the gun.
‘It guides you like a conch shell horn,
the call of the large camel bell;
it is the words’ own bugle.
It is the finest matting, woven for a bride,
the one the song calls ‘Refuser of poor suitors’.
It’s not sold for coppers,
it’s not for praising the powerful;
to put a price on it, any price,
cheapens it and is forbidden.
‘It’s riding bareback on an unbroken horse –
you don’t hobble its heels.
Those who fear for their hides
and won’t ride without a saddle,
those lacking in the craft, can’t get near this:
lies have nothing to do with it.
Poetry is a woman you do not betray,
to abuse her beauty is a sin.'
* * *
‘It’s most lovely when most perfectly timed,
as though, met at morning,
you exchanged greetings
at just the right moment.
When your own wings feel so bedraggled
that you need another’s touch,
then the full beauty of a poem
is like a butterfly meeting
a just-wakened flower
at the exact moment of dawn.
‘When it seems to caress your flank,
to massage a salve into you;
when the pupil of its arrow pierces you
striking the mark exactly,
splitting your anguished cries in two.
Like a seer who peers inside you,
it homes in on your over-sensitivities,
your innermost wounds.
‘When you suddenly hear of your betrothal
it sends the message deeper
into your most vulnerable point.
Poetry is the mine-seeker
opening your old, scarred-over hurt,
discovering your untouched earth,
that place closed off
from those closest to you.
‘When Baahi-laawe, that dancing verse,
brushes the melancholy from you
as though it were a dust
that settled on your lust for life,
choked the desire in your chest;
it’s like a grenade, a bomb,
its blast-range perfectly judged
so each stanza touches you
from problematic top to troubled toe,
exploding from your core.
‘When it permeates you
each time a line is recited
as though from a secret page
on which your own secrets are exposed
so that each time you scan it
you jolt with anxiety.’
This poem alliterates in ‘b’
but all the best poems are branded
so that each page which is turned
makes you believe you’ve confessed
and each time your soul
involuntarily cries out, ‘Bravo!
Dear God, don’t seal this man’s lips –
may the truth he speaks continue
as though it burst from my own mouth.’
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