Marilyn Hacker & Venus Khoury-Ghata
Introducing Venus Khoury-Ghata
If Arabic is her mother tongue, French is more a fraternal language than that of the real or the Lacanian Father. It was the poet's one brother, Victor, who first harbored the desire to become a writer. Her novel Une maison au bord des larmes (Editions Balland, 1998), the only one that could be characterised as "autobiographical," recounts the tragic story of this apprentice poet, torn between genius and madness, haunted at once by Victor Hugo and Rimbaud, the alexandrine and the Illuminations, lost first to drug addiction and then to the electroshock treatments in a mental hospital to which he was committed by a vengeful, uncomprehending father: shock treatments which effaced his knowl-edge of the French language along with his aspirations.
It was the brother's tragedy which awoke the desire to write in his young sister. (Another sister, the journalist May Mï¿½nassa, who remained in Lebanon, also wrote a novel, in Arabic, about her brother's tragedy-but the two sister-writers were unaware of each other's projects until they were published, in the same month and year.) Now, the poet herself has said that, while she is and always will be "inhabited" by Arabic, the French language itself has become her homeland, more than any terrestrial location.
As the passage between countries and languages has characterized her life, passage of one sort or another is an underlying theme of her work. Her novels range from the picaresque (five Frenchwomen shipwrecked on the Algerian coast in 1802; a Trinitarian monk sent to bring back a dignitary's wife eloped with a Turkish merchant in 1789) to the familial (her brother's descent to electroshocked silence in war-torn Beirut) to the fantastic (a widow's return to a Mediterranean island where the dead cohabit with the living). They almost always deal with a movement between Europe and the Middle East, with the ensuing misunderstandings and enlightenments, and with the passage, equally two-way, between life and death. Her poems, composed for the most part in sequences, often have the quality of exploded narratives, re-assembled in a mosaic in which the reader has at least the illusion of being able to find a more linear connecting thread. But in the end, it is the design of the mosaic itself which is most memorable. The same themes which animate her fiction are predominant in the poems: the tension between movement/change and tradition/sources, with all that is positive and negative in both; the unceasing commerce between human beings and the rest of the natural world, and between the dead and the living; the independent, puissant and trans-cultural life of words.
"The Sailors Without a Ship" is from a new collection, Les Ortises (The Nettles) to be published by Mercure de France this year. It includes the long title poem, interrogating the Muse-like figure of her mother, humble but tireless even after death, and touches on the impact of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon; but it also introduces a playful sequence of poems built on "faux" Arabic proverbs-invented by the poet. "The Sailors. . ." continues the primary interrogations of Khoury-Ghata's work: there is the idea of exile, and of the permeability of death; there is that which is far-ranging and that which is homely. Yet the "sailors," quintessential expatriates, create their own peculiar domesticity, not bereft of tenderness and vulnerability, while the singular "she" in her house interrogates death with the courage of a great traveler, a mental traveler perhaps, one of Khoury-Ghata's female figures with something of Antigone and something of the exiled Zainab about her.
Venus Khoury-Ghata's work has been translated into many languages-Arabic, Russian, Italian, and Polish among them-but she has been particularly pleased by the warm and intelligent reception of her poetry by Anglophone audiences.--Paris, France, December 2003
Here There Was Once a Country, translations by Marilyn Hacker, Oberlin
The Sailors Without A Ship
The cabin boys' distress is infinite when they think of the little girls'
The sailors without a ship link the fixed to the mobile
She doesn't sweep in front of her door any more
her lamp won't let itself sleep in winter when the books think that
The road which leads from the Compass to the Great Bear passed
It was a time of honeysuckle and laziness
Surrounded by mountains
A long time ago
Her clothesline had no reason to envy the horizon
She assumed the intrusion of waves in her bedroom was an optical
She realized that the house was dead when the walls grazed on the
the cemetery was not a cemetery either
Mourning made those who crossed it seem taller
The graves were laid out like dollhouses
the woman who followed the tree had green armpits
When everything was extinguished
the little girl who bores a hole in the night with her translucent finger
The fatherless children sweep the streets with their rage
Her belief that death will emerge from her mirror
(Translated from the French by Marilyn Hacker)
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