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Nasim Luczaj

Agitated Air: Poems After Ibn Arabi by Yasmine Seale and Robin Moger. Tenement Press, 2022. 149 pages.

Agitated Air: Poems After Ibn Arabi is the fruit of a back and forth exchange between two Arabic-English translators, Yasmine Seale and Robin Moger, who are distinguished by their initials, YS and RM, both in the text and this review. The project grew organically: the authors sent each other a few of their own translations from Tarjuman al-Ashwaq (The Interpreter of Desires or The Translator of Desires), a 13th century 61-poem cycle by the Sufi philosopher Ibn Arabi, and then replied to each poem with a new ‘response’ translation. This process was repeated a few times for each piece, pushing the translators to convey the poems in new ways not only in relation to one another, but to their own previous attempts. Agitated Air is a compilation of fifteen exchanges, providing the reader with the original text and up to seven translations with alternating authors. The book, then, is not a translation of the text per se. In a frolic of splinters, the poems reincarnate from email to email, refracting as they hit another shore. We, readers, float with. Like a sea, the opportunity to reiterate allows us to let go. 

None of the poems have titles. Each sequence is introduced and tracked with a glyph, often eyelike, seeming to look up, down, or sideways off the page, perhaps flirtatiously. For these poems are, each in their way, love poems – poems of longing, addressal, traipsing on, singing out. Arabi wrote in the form of the nasīb, traditionally the opening section of a pre-Islamic Arabian ode that recalled past moments in life, especially those related to a long lost love. Allegedly inspired by his encounter with a young woman named Nizam, his contemporaries criticised him for writing such a sensuous sequence, claiming this did not behove a scholar. In response, Arabi republished the sequence with a commentary that would tie the sensual aspects of the work to his philosophical thought and to mystical concepts.

The text that gave rise to Agitated Air seems to have always been a site of renegotiation, a text fit for recapturing and reinvention. The speaker’s wails are all the more vibrant, all the more pleading, for their many iterations – as if reading were squeezing into the cave of a mind, where emotions reverberate and their release is rehearsed. Will it be ‘All / My heart a stall set out for nothing but her’ (RM), ‘nothing to my craft but edging close to her’ (YS), or ‘My eyes wide struck in the dark breathing / Her, in & out’ (RM)? The bouncing off between versions reads intimately. I mean the intimacy you get when very close up, lying so near that your beloved might melt into abstraction. Every fraction you shift changes the landscape completely, to patches of wildly different colour. Arabi zooms out and in, for example here, in a passage that captures the attitudes and ideas displayed throughout the text:

Her pastureland the zone from collarbone to gut.
Thrill of a garden ringed with flames.
My heart has learned to take
on every shape. To be grass for gazelles and shelter
for prayer. Home for those who worship
many gods and one. In this book or that. No faith
have I but love. Wherever it turns its feet is my
code and horizon. (YS)

The one, the many, the two. ‘The eye holds us as one: / this is my slightness and your light’ (RM). The speaker – a mystic, metaphysician, a lover, a human – watches and is watched, moves between all, nothing, a reflection of another. When a woman remarks on noticing a man among roses, the speaker urges her to ‘see the display for what / it is /a mirror casting back you’ (YS). How apt for the poet to be cast by a multitude of two. And what a luxury to keep watching your beloved turn, or for a poem to be reiterated – to ‘bend the old words / to her shape’ (YS), morphing to strike you from a different angle. Succumbing to this luxury, even as a reader, makes you wonder why we don’t indulge more often. Perhaps we are accustomed to too rigid a notion of faithfulness.

Sometimes, as translations are exchanged, they begin to ‘loosen’ and, if there is an ‘original meaning’, the stone you might throw in water, then each next translation is a wider circle drawn around it. As readers, we can imagine the skimmed stone by the rings its translators leave. Since what comes to stand for each poem is a sequence as a whole, the translators need not tense too much into trying to convey everything in one go. The act of retranslation lets them go back again and again, changing the lens for each attempt. On page 118, YS uses this as an opportunity to pour her all into a particular aspect of the poem and emphasise it freely. In this 23-line poem, every line ends on an adverb – arguably the most shunned class of word, its use discouraged in writing workshops. Not only does every word end in ‘-ly’, producing a sly rhyme scheme and unique tilt in tone, but it does so ‘superdeliciously’ (YS) – in profoundly moving and non-arbitrary ways, at first lulling, then racing to convey the lostness of a speaker giddily led by the moon:

Her eyes hold knives & smiling gouge out yours remotely.
Friends, let us stop here. The shelter in Hajir. (Pleadingly)
Stop. Let me ask where they turned, for I went maplessly
Through wastes, my camel chafing at roads unrelentingly
Bare, her frame concave, hump gone, my haste hungrily
Sapping her speed all the way to Hajir. There, malelessly,
Camels shadowed a dire moon. I folded my ribs uneasily
About it even as, all bared, it circled me, & I specularly
It. I looked for the traces it wiped as it went, fruitlessly.

The translators themselves seem committed to walking the text on loose eyes, tracing each other’s footsteps in a moonlit sand. Such an open approach enables the text not only to be built up again, but to be found and moulded within what’s already out there. One of YS’ translations lies within a poem by John Donne, Arabi’s yearnings backlit by The Flea. Agitated Air is rich in experiments with shape and register, and the mutual influence plays out intricately on the page. Most importantly, the book succeeds both as a text to dissect and to skim. You can watch each poem play out like a badminton game. You will hear the shuttlecock pass through the air; you won’t have to stare into the sun to enjoy its movements.

Absorbing each take, phrases consolidate and bend into some vague stem – a reader’s felt sense of what could, but has no pressure to be, the original yearning or connection. I like to imagine the poet prodded and tickled with this flower, rolling in his grave like a tongue. Each gust of an iteration might be the one to break with what was there before, and this very possibility is what makes it such a thrill. Just smell the pollen, a ‘sweetness in agitated air’ (YS).

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