without my sadness the songbirds are only a forest of beaks

Poem by Taha Muhammad Ali (29.IV.1984) in So What: New and Selected Poems, 1971-2005.

The Falcon

 

1

If ever,

sadness, it might

be in my power

to free myself

from you one day,

then I would feel,

decidedly,

the suicide’s delight as he’s freed

from all responsibility!

And imagine that I

were suddenly

released from you,

like flocks of the Sada’ –

the death-owl –

being released

from our fields and skulls. . .

What would happen then?

What would happen

were I to abandon you now?

Suppose I were, at this very moment,

to leave you behind,

as the drunkard leaves the tavern –

what would I lose?

For me it’s sufficient to simply

not know sadness any longer –

not know it as winter approaches

and not when it departs,

not when summer arrives,

and not when the season moves on.

The rivers’ vagrancy wouldn’t sadden me,

nor would the birds’ being sent away.

Not even the flowers

themselves

would stir

the obscure shades of sorrow in me,

or the various sorts of melancholy

that always remain a mystery.

 

2

Birds,

flowers,

and you, O river –

after my sadness is freed from you,

rivers will no longer be rivers,

nor birds birds,

and even the flowers themselves

will cease being flowers!

For without my sorrow,

at the end of the day,

rivers will only be water,

and the flower

merely a plant –

without my grief.

Without me

The bird will be seized

by night and perish.

And those that remain

after my longing

and apart from my solitude –

a crow here,

a screech owl there –

won’t be birds,

and not songbirds.

For. . . what is the bird

without my memories?

What is the songbird

without my longing,

and what is song?

What is the bird beyond my burning?

Without my sadness

the songbirds are only

a forest of beaks,

a thicket of claws!

The songbird without my sadness

is merely a mass of flesh;

it wouldn’t be covered

by a single feather,

except. . .

for the adder’s pursuit;

and no fine down would clothe it –

the sand’s gown across the dune –

apart

from the kestrel’s enticement

and the hunters’ lure!

 

3

And still,

it seems

I really will

be freed of you –

that I’ll leave you

and find rest at last!

For the very first time,

I’ll give up

and abandon you

as the pirate abandons his ship.

But I will not bury you

in the sands of the shore

as the thieves of the sea

bury their earrings and coins.

I’ll leave you to the foxes –

and never return.

 

 

4

And yet. . .

by God, my sadness,

before we part

I’d ask of you,

before you leave

as those who’ve already left us,

I have but a single request:

I fear that I won’t see you

after I say farewell –

for when it comes

to saying farewell,

I am – in fact – something wondrous:

Every single thing I leave

in the world

is lost for eternity!

And I do not stretch

out my hand

in saying farewell to a creature

without my wishing, in vain,

not to die

before I’d see it again.

 

 

5

I’d like you, sadness,

to tell me

something that perplexes me.

I will not ask you how

it is that I was destined

to be slaughtered in this fashion!

Nor will I ask

what your purpose is

in having made me so –

to fall like kingdoms

and crack like the walls of volcanoes.

I will not plead with you to tell me

why you’d have me

scatter like clouds

and collapse

like the eagle’s features.

Matters such as these,

undoubtedly,

concern me,

but I have become addicted to them

and now I’d like to let them rest,

as fear, sometimes, begins to doze

and seeds seem to drowse.

 

 

6

Also. . .

I will not ask

where you came from

how you prepared,

or where you are going.

More than once

I followed you

when you weren’t paying attention.

Like a Bedouin tracker,

I followed your trail. . .

And always you led me there –

to that same place,

and that same time,

and to those very same springs!

 

 

7

I won’t even ask you

when,

where,

or how you came

to settle like this

in the palm of my hand,

a trained falcon

whose memories come

in waves like the sailor’s weeping –

whose wings in the night

are blue daggers,

whose eyes are like two lovers,

their lids resembling

two green imploring arms.

 

 

8

What baffles me,

my sadness,

is why you’re so much

greater than I am –

deeper than my wakefulness,

and more remote than all my dreams!

Your fingerprints are more complex

than my identity.

And your visage resembles

A vast desert:

before it the path loses heart.

Ports refuse it!

What confuses me is

that you are bigger than my day,

greater than my past,

and larger than my tomorrow.

 

 

9

In my childhood,

sadness,

I saw a songbird

being attacked by a viper.

The bird had been maimed

and the flock had left it,

and the fear I witnessed

exploding in its eyes. . .

as it tried to flee –

I cannot forget:

Forests, moons, and lakes –

exile, streams,

and pastures the eye can’t hold –

all were heaped up around its neck

and gave way,

unraveling in a flash,

so strong was its fright!

Massacres and cities

were gathered there in its gaze

with tremendous speed

and, in terror, were burning –

spreading across its feathers,

its cry, its legs!

That small bird’s fear

cannot possibly be

its alone!

That songbird’s fear cannot possibly

be the fear of a single bird!

The fear of that small bird,

my sadness,

cannot be fathomed except

as the fear of the flock as a whole.

 

 

10

Yes, you baffle me, sadness,

in that, most of the time,

you’ve confused me –

for I haven’t been able to recognize you!

And how often have I denied you. . .

How often have doubts contended with me

over you, when evening and birds

and trees fall in –

aligned like columns

in the distance toward the horizon,

all waiting for their portion from you

like the dispossessed awaiting aid

upon their day of calamity?

How often have I denied you

even as I was studying your traces,

bewildered by you,

unsure of you,

turning over

what remained of your nest,

as remains of ancient manuscripts

piece by piece are turned?

Are you my private sadness?

Are you truly the sadness

of a single person?

Is it conceivable

that you are mine alone –

for I cannot understand you

except to think that you might be

a secret sadness the flock

has hidden with me?

Is it in my power to leave you

when I barely know you

except as something stalked,

pursued by snakes

and anticipated by spears?

Could I really let you go

when I am not aware of you

except in your being

a forbidden sadness

the age has left me,

entrusted to me,

charged me to protect?

 

11

Most likely,

sadness,

you are not mine alone

and, so long as you are mine and theirs,

how could I possibly

do with you what I will?

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