For Mark Strand
He used to say: this ashen face, the strong skin over fragile bones, the hand trembling alone with no outward cause, the nose that drips what meagre elixir is left inside the skull, each gaze that returns shaken images to the sunken sockets, the belly that gurgles without food or water, the futility whose profound darkness makes equal rose and bullet, all of this means nothing. Nothing. The days and the nights and the heat and the cold could not dry the drops of my mother’s milk which lingered on my lips. I am still her favourite bird, who returns in spring with a straw in his mouth and rebuilds his abandoned nest.
Amjad Nasser, born in Jordan and currently living in London, is an important voice in Arab literature known for his work for the newpaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi, a daily newspaper, and his novel Land of No Rain (2013), as well as his poetry. He has been one of the pioneers of the prose poem in Arabic. This poem is dedicated to Mark Strand, the American poet who died in 2014 at the age of 80.
It is a beautiful piece that begins with a kind of blazon, as the poet describes his own body in less than flattering terms. We had an interesting discussion as to whether the man was meant to be very old or simply harrowed by existential despair. Each gaze at first returned images to ‘quarry workers’, until we realized the quarries were an image for sunken eye-pits. We also spent a lot of time on the image of the rose and the bullet – some of us imagined a flower stuffed into a gun, like the old hippy image, but we also heard of the Bedouin and revolutionary associations of the symbols.
We were interested to note the frequency with which mothers appear in Arabic poetry, with their associations of home and loyalty, and it was agreed that male English poets would be unlikely to write about their mother’s milk in this way!
Clare Pollard, Workshop Facilitator