Guest Editor for Poetry, Issue 131
Guest Editor for Poetry, Issue 131, April-June 2018
Yahya Frederickson is the author of In a Homeland Not Far: New & Selected Poems (Press 53 Silver Concho Poetry Series). He is the author of The Gold Shop of Ba-‘Ali, which won Lost Horse Press’s 2013 Idaho Prize. He’s also the author of four chapbooks. The latest chapbook, The Birds of Al-Merjeh Square: Poems from Syria, won the 2013 Open Chapbook Competition at Finishing Line Press. His other chapbooks are Month of Honey, Month of Missiles (Tigertail, 2009), Returning to Water (Dacotah Territory, 2006) and Trilogy (Dacotah Territory, 1985, with Julie Taylor and Richard Schetnan). His poems have appeared in numerous journals includingArts & Letters, Black Warrior Review, Clackamas Literary Review, Crab Orchard Review, Cream City Review, CutBank, Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts, Flyway, Great River Review, Green Mountains Review, Hanging Loose, The Laurel Review, Midwestern Gothic, Mizna, Ninth Letter, Prairie Schooner, River Styx, Quarter After Eight, Quarterly West, The Southern Review, WLA, Water~Stone Review, and Witness. He teaches writing and literature at Minnesota State University Moorhead and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Montana and a PhD in English from the University of North Dakota. Between graduate degrees he taught for six years in Yemen, initially as a Peace Corps Volunteer. He has served as a Fulbright Scholar in Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Kyrgyzstan.
by Yahya Frederickson
with versions of Arberry’s translations
Because of his prodigious poetic skill and ego, Abu al-Tayyib Ahmad ibn al-Husayn al-Kindi became known as al-Mutanabbi, “the one claiming to be a prophet.” His greatest poetic output occurred during his nine years as court poet for Sayf al-Daula, the Emir of Aleppo, in the mid-10th century.
Easter 2005: whenever my family and I enter an Aleppine hotel, the receptionist raises his eyebrows once, Syrian body language for no. Though I’m a Muslim, I’m thinking of the Bible story about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem—in Arabic, Bayt Lahm—“House of Meat.”
The worst land is a place where there’s no friend.
The worst thing a person can earn is dishonor.
Aleppo—in Arabic, Halab—means “milk,” the place, it is said, where the Prophet Abraham stopped to milk his cow on the way from Mesopotamia to a land that would become holy after he arrived.
Where have you decided to go, gallant hero?
We are the plants on the hills, and you are the clouds.
At Funduq al-Gawaher—“Hotel of Jewels”—we take the only room left. The sink slobbers onto the floor. The bedspreads bear their blotches. I lean against the tapestry, smashing hidden mosquitoes between the Armenian letters and the pink wall.
I’ve reached the point that when arrows strike me,
the tips break against each other.
In the Great Mosque, where people hang combination locks onto the grating around Prophet Zakariah’s tomb, I ask the old custodian, Ayna bayt al-Mutanabbi, “Where is al-Mutanabbi’s house?” His hand angles and jabs the air.
When I behold you, my eyes are too dazzled.
When I praise you, my tongue too bewildered.
Corridors of shops selling inlaid wooden boxes and red tapestries. Corridors of olives, almonds, and fustuq halabi—pistachios. A soap-seller unfolds his jackknife, pulls the blade through a brown bar of olive-oil soap, revealing a jade core, till the blade presses against his thumb.
Bless you for the rain that you are, as if our skin
sprouts brocade, embroidered silk, and fine robes.
From a cart, a vendor sells tumblers of soos—bitter black tonic made from licorice root. It’s said a Halabi merchant can sell anything, even the stiff hide of a donkey.
He is the sea—dive into it for pearls when it’s still,
but beware when it’s foaming.
For nearly a decade, al-Mutanabbi praised Emir Sayf al-Daula. Or was he praising himself?
He knows the secrets of all religions and languages.
His thoughts put people and books to shame.
Ayna bayt al-Mutanabbi? I ask a young man walking alone. He pauses to explain, then beckons I follow him. More alleys. He stops before a door.
The horse, the night, and the desert know me,
and the sword and the spear, and the paper and the pen.
Heavy. Wooden. Plain. Painted orange and brown. A small plaque beside it says Mu’assasat al-Nisaa’—”Women’s Foundation.”
Everything Allah has created and hasn’t created
means as little to me as a single hair on my head.
I knock. No one opens. A passerby says it’s closed, and shrugs away. “For the day? The weekend? Forever? Until when?”
What is time but a reciter of my lines—
when I compose a poem, time recites it.
In the emir’s court, al-Mutanabbi’s chief poetic rival was Abu Firas al-Hamdani, the emir’s own cousin. When the blood ties tightened around him, al-Mutanabbi fled to Egypt.
When you see the lion bare its fangs,
do not suppose it’s smiling.
Six years after leaving Halab, I’m watching the Arab Spring blossom on Al Jazeera TV. Hesitant demonstrators gather in alleys. A soldier’s rifle cracks, scattering them like mice.
Can a hunk of meat on a butcher’s block reign
when swords are thirsty and birds are hungry?
Two years after the Arab Spring, opposition and government forces battle for each street. Breaking news: the minaret of the Great Mosque in Halab has been toppled by government artillery.
In the twilight, helicopters dangle barrels of explosives over neighborhoods.
Despite its bold edge, you’ll find that the sword
in the hand of a coward becomes a coward itself.
Ten years have passed since I spent one day of my life in Halab.
I’m nothing but an arrow in the air, returning
because I didn’t find anything there to grasp.
That day I knocked on al-Mutanabbi’s door. Or maybe it was just a door.