My Own Shadows
by Zack Rogow
The Present Tense of the World: Poems 2000-2009, poems by Amina Saïd, translated from the French by Marilyn Hacker, Black Widow Press, Boston, 2011, 180 pages, bilingual edition, $19.95 paperback, www.blackwidowpress.com.
Amina Saïd's The Present Tense of the World is the first full collection of her poetry to appear in English, artfully translated from the French by Marilyn Hacker. Born in Tunis in 1953, Saïd grew up speaking both Arabic and French. Her family relocated from North Africa to France when the poet was sixteen. Many of the poems in The Present Tense of the World explore the pull of the land of her youth, and the dynamics of having a home in two different cultures.
It is surprising that it has taken this long for a full-length book of her poetry to find its way into English. Saïd's poetry has already appeared in several English-language anthologies. Her work has been widely published in France, with fourteen collections to her name.
Credit poet Marilyn Hacker, who has done a terrific job translating Saïd's work. Hacker has preserved not only the sense, but many of the gestures of the originals, as evident in this bilingual edition. When Saïd writes:
je me présente au monde
à mes ombres mêlée
un cri suffit pour saluer la terre
le ciel et mon visage à venir
Hacker preserves the alliteration in the last line, and carefully notes that the singular, feminine adjective "mêlée" applies not to the shadows or the cry but to the speaker of the poem:
I introduce myself to the world
mixed with my own shadows
a cry is enough to greet the earth
the sky and my forthcoming face
When Saïd uses the first person, she often does so in a way that is characteristic of the more universal voice of French poets, and often unlike the confessional or personal-as-political poetry that shapes much narrative verse in North America. The I or the We of Saïd's poetry is frequently more like the speaker of Paul Eluard's famous ode to freedom, "Liberty," where the speaker is an inclusive "I" who recites a dreamlike litany that ultimately reflects back on the world from a political standpoint. Saïd's poem "from the memory of the sea" from her 2000 collection De décembre à la mer [From December to the sea] is her own original take on this tradition:
from the memory of the sea
to the bliss of the earth
from February to May
from the shores of bare night
to the dark rocks of day
The from/to litany continues for the entire poem, linking intriguing pairs, building suspense, till the poem finally crescendos with
from the eye to the shore
from words to fate
we roam unceasingly
in search of a place
for which there is no place
The "we" in this poem is partly the immigrant who finds herself neither completely at home in the land she came from nor in the chosen land where she remains. But it is also a more universal "we" that describes the lack of an anchor in human experience in general. Saïd's work has both these dimensions. Her path to the universal is often quite different from, and more abstract than, the autobiographical work of most North American narrative poets. When she uses the abstract "I," it allows her to reach into the subconscious for her imagery and to make general statements such as the concluding lines of this poem. But this abstraction in her work also has its dangers: distance, and, well, abstraction.
The poem "from the memory to the sea" points up an interesting technique that I think is original with Saïd. Instead of titling many of her poems, she starts the poem with a first line that is lowercase but bold face. She doesn't add an extra space between this bold line and the rest of the poem. The result is to announce the beginning of the poem in the way that a title does, but also to bring the reader directly into the flow of the language without the pause or formal entryway that a title entails. This headlong beginning creates a momentum for the voice of the poet that serves her well in calling up memories or stream of consciousness associations.
Some of the strongest poetry in this collection is work that seems to treat the author's life in more vividly personal terms than the more abstract poems. In her long poem "Births" from the collection La Douleur des seuils [The Pain of Thresholds], Saïd devotes one stanza to each of the most memorable years of her childhood. Here the imagery of her early days in Tunisia provides concrete and flavorful language:
like seaweed I grew a wave a fish
a many-branched star
the first letter of the alphabet
inlaid on my forehead
The last line may refer to her first name, Amina. This poem is full of wonderful memories morphed into poetry through the lens of a child's eye. It ends with a powerful statement where the poet claims her childhood in all its loneliness, longing, and complexity:
always between past and future
I wanted to find the woman who should be
from now on I will look for the one who was
I come from my own childhood and not elsewhere
This is Saïd at her very best. She makes no bones about the complexities of her life, and stands tall in owning them.
Zack Rogow is the author, editor, or translator of numerous books and plays. The Number Before Infinity, his most recent poetry book, is from Scarlet Tanager Books. His work has appeared in a variety of magazines, from American Poetry Review to ZYZZYVA. He is the editor of an anthology of U.S. poetry, The Face of Poetry, University of California Press. He teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at the California College of the Arts and in the low-residency MFA at the University of Alaska, Anchorage.