A to Z
Caalin, listen, I'm going to travel
From A to Z carried by language -
The alphabet, alive on the page.
I write the words and send them to you;
You sing to the wind and the crows as they fly
Carry my lines through the noonday sky
Chanting each to each. The ants
Become orators. The gossiping camels
Crowd the waterhole, eager for rumours.
Even the trees, as they rustle their leaves,
Are sharing a joke; the sheep and goats
Talk tough as they sniff out the latest news.
The hum of the breeze in the river-bed
Is the language of pride; the termites talk
With a tap and a touch; the clouds compose
Poems as only they can; the land
Speaks in prose of growth and gain
And the sound of rain in the season of rain
Rumbles like thunder and why this should be
Is something only the rain can explain.
I write these words and send them to you
To let you know that we live through language.
Without it - deformity, ugliness, illness;
Without it - no anchor for culture; without it
No making of maps, no naming of nations.
A man might boast of property, money,
Position, but if he's unable to write
He's a pauper. Caalin, listen, your pen
Is your wealth, you're less than nothing without it.
Ask the old Gods how our culture has grown.
Think back to the time when our language suffered
One onslaught after the other: invasions,
Armies crossing our borders, the songs
Our fathers once sang destroyed or derided,
Our epics fading in memory, even
Our idioms gradually losing their meanings.
Every lost syllable tells in my heartbeat,
Every lost line is a scar on my heart.
Poems go hand-over-hand to create
A chain of wisdom, a chain that goes
From strength to strength; when this was shattered,
When our chain of poems was broken and scattered,
We were left with nothing but fragments, nothing
But scraps of wisdom - our inheritance
Nothing more than a handful of images.
Our story - a story so ancient that only
The Old Gods recall it - was gone forever.
Our children will never recover that wisdom:
Our legends and myths and the words of the prophets...
Remember the time when a man from the north
Wrote a letter received by a man from the south
And the second man threw the letter away,
Since the first man's language was foreign to him?
Remember the time when a camel was owned
By two men who needed to talk things through,
So a third man came in as interpreter?
Remember how politicians decided
To give us a written language? Remember
The fighting and feuding, the shouting and swearing?
Ten years went by with nothing decided
Until someone in power said, ‘Latin!' and then
Somalia sat down and uncapped its pen.
I dreamed of that day! The pen and the page -
A poet's stock-in-trade. The choice
Finally made. The alphabet
Taking the first few steps of a journey
And never looking back. A new age
Of wisdom in poetry, yes, a new
Tradition! Go, now, and wake Sayid -
Give him the news, tell all the great
Poets our language lives again,
And this time written to last in lines
That can't be lost or thrown away.
Caalin, write lyrics, write epics, write verse
That beats in the brain and tells on the pulse;
Write poems of love, write poems that show
How myths can revive and language grow.
Enough! I've written all that I need
To write, except to praise the men
Who talked the language into being -
Statesmen, thinkers, poets, who gave
Somali poets a new way with words.
We could raise a statue to them and set it
Above the image of Jupiter...
Or perhaps we should honour them in poems
That use all the letters from A to Z.
The final translated version of the poem is by David Harsent
© Poetry Translation Centre 2004-2013