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Empyrean Suite.

Poems from the Afterlife.


I CAN SEE everything from the sky:
An everything that’s rather far away.
They are having quite a struggle lowering the box
I am not in any more into its hole.
It’s true, I did not want to go, and now
One of the grave-digger’s planks has fallen
…….and got in the way of the soil they are shovelling in.
All rather embarrassing. Anthony looks up,
Admires the clouds which are special today: even I
…….can see that, from this, my privileged vantage-point.
They’re as various as clouds can ever be, cirrus wisps
…….as well as flotillas of cumulus.
Gwendolyn is discussing nomads with a man
…….who has just returned from Iran.
She mentions Mesopotamian tablets which describe
…….how the nomads several thousand years ago
…….were much the same as they are now;
Useful when their herds dunged the land,
…….but when the first shoots came
…….the farmers had to pay them to move on.
I feel I’ve been moved on before my time
Which the white-capped dignitary, obligatory
…….at such occasions, seeks by his prayers to delay,
As Lily remarks, wishing that he’d get a move on
…….in a loud, unarabic voice.
But Sammer reads out his favourite poem of mine,
…….and I can see that Anthony is pleased
…….— even a tear in his eye.

I seat myself in the cockpit of a spitfire,
…….looking out of this photograph from the war
…….on the wall of the Greenwood Hotel.
It is thus I observe my wake.
Which is being held in the backroom that’s been booked,
Where in the Blitz, officers of the RAF would gather with their
…….Scotch and sodas,
Keeping an eye on the young ones dancing next door in the ballroom.
Surveillance as discreet as is my own.
My sons are smoking at the benches outdoors,
…….distanced from the Arabic inside,
…….where even Anthony recalls the Gardenia,
…….although he was never there.
Through all our exiled years,
…….we’ve held reunions here, in this room;
Our discussions as intense as in that bar back in Baghdad,
Back in the bad old days that now look good.
Each poet rises to proclaim a eulogy.
Anthony notes how Semitic most of us look.
Big noses and bald heads, just like his Jewish uncles.
Now the dark wine turns to blood
…….as everyone drinks back
…….into the past of the Middle East.
We wonder what it’s all about — from Northolt.

Since Anthony must be my medium now,
Rendering these afterthoughts in yet more of his versions,
Having done two books of mine already,
I will help him enter in realms
…….that I’ve been given access to, in this, my disembodied state.
I’ve met his daughter Storm, in his dream:
He’s trying to put her together as if she were Lego.
The pieces are so small, he does it clumsily.
For an artist, clumsiness is a sin.
He stares down at his hands.
Is she so small because of the distance of years?
The sentences in dreams may not make sense,
…….and yet a dream may sentence you — to grief?
Were I alive, at this juncture,
…….we’d discuss the way
…….meaning alters as speech changes its part.
The word is seldom fixed,
…….any more than the swimmer
…….can stay in one place in the Tigris,
Except, that is, in a picture.

Yesterday, I went boating with my father.
Lily seems to get on better with me as a memory, I told him.
He made no reply, busied himself with an oar,
…….pushed us off a cloud into the azure.
We have to watch out for drones, he told me,
And vapour trails and Boeings and bullshit and false flags.
I asked him what we were fishing for.
How should I know? he replied.
You never quite get used to this state of non-being.
It’s too abstract, nothing you can get your teeth into.
The bottom of our river was the Earth.
But as we fished, the depths appeared to get deeper.
Are we fishing for thoughts of us from below, I wondered,
…….before realising that our lines no longer reached that far.

Basil sat by my grave today,
…….reading me my poems.
I must say it was difficult to hear,
Being far above, rather than below and near.
He then began to write himself.
…….I’m not sure what I felt.
Should I be apprehensive? Should I be pleased?

A goodbye nonetheless…
Felt by the wind’s breeze,
The earth’s opening and the closure
Shared between the minds of mere mortals.

Let the soil welcome our hero…
Did the poem need both wind and breeze?
I tried hard not to be critical.
The sun beams down,
Draining the dirt of any moisture…
That I liked: it was accurate.
It had been hard to break the clods with a shovel
…….on the day of my funeral.
If only I could have shown him by a gesture
…….that I was there, if not quite at his shoulder.

Like a lost moral-less thief seeking a compass
to guide him…
Basil standing lost, seeking serenity.
But all of us are lost, it seems to me.
And he should remind himself
…….that something of me is inside him.

It is advisable to attain detachment.
So the sages tell us. This is why
They seek the highest shelters to practise immobility
Above the summer pastures of the goats.
Not that this is new to me.
I’ve practised it before, learning to adapt
…….to relinquishing Baghdad,
Leaving all behind me: the stamping ground of Gilgamesh,
…….the watering-holes, oases of good wine
…….and fiery conversation.
Enchanted stretches of river, our boat, our mulberry tree, my father.
Now I’m obliged to leave behind
…….aspects of a newer life I was still getting accustomed to.
The end, for instance, of exile:
Learning to resist its title foisted on my verse.
Anthony would scold me when I voiced the faintest nostalgia.
You’re just as much a part of London’s literary life
…….as I am now. And it was true. And yet, in death,
I must surrender to life my British sons, my Greenford home,
…….my culinary contests with my brother.
It seems I am obliged to go into exile again.
Here, I will have to address myself
…….to coming to terms with heavenly renditions
…….of unearthly symphonies,
Giving up all my CDs
And bidding adieu to the Central Line.

The gentlest sprinkle of rain
…….as dawn lightens gaps between curtains
…….in the bedrooms of my loved ones.
Perhaps you will think of me, my darlings,
…….Every time you find yourselves awake
…….in the summer, just before the break
Of daylight, before the business of being alive
…….must begin again, as begin it must.
If you toss and turn, think of how I am done with that,
Done at last with the body
…….and all the discomfort it’s been causing me.
Let us be thankful for small mercies.
This is what they say, the Brits — a phrase at which
…….I’ve scratched my head.
But now let it work as a balm
…….on your disquiet, bring with it calm.
Let us be thankful for small mercies.
Let us be thankful for small mercies.
Let us be thankful for small mercies.

And now my thoughts grow fainter
…….in the inner ear of my interpreter.
Up here, I’ve been asking for ink.
I am told that it’s a commodity
…….no one sees a reason to provide
Given our immortal immateriality.
…….Pen and paper prove as rare indeed.
There is a perfectly decent bar
…….since it’s quite acceptable to drink.
Here, I’ve been chatting with Abu Nawaz
…….with Rumi and Li Po.
Sappho is here as well, and drinking rather heavily
…….with Emily Dickinson, who hardly
…….touched a drop below.
Here there’s no discrimination, and a wine
…….of such excellent vintage we refer to it as an elixir.
Dante suggests I dip my nib
…….into the night — I haven’t a nib.
He tried it once with his finger but gave up.
Less and less did I feel the need to say anything anymore.
Instead, for centuries, he’s traced
…….letters he discovers by linking star to star.
Not much of what he gets from this makes sense,
…….but Ashbery approves of the results.

Written when I woke at night for several nights just after Fawzi passed away on the 17th of May this year – Anthony Howell

FAWZI KARIM – 1945-2019

ON THE 17th of May this year, Fawzi Karim passed away after a long battle with a heart condition that first affected him in his thirties. I had the honour to create versions of his poems in English. Today he is regarded as a major poet, not only of the Arab world, but also in the universal sphere.

Fawzi Karim was born in Baghdad in 1945. The youngest poet to take part in the International Poetry Conference hosted in Baghdad in 1966, he received his degree in Arabic Literature from Baghdad University in 1967. As well as writing verse he was the Arabic world’s foremost critic of classical European music and contributed articles on literature, music and art to many journals and newspapers in the Middle East. His poetry has been translated into French, Swedish, Italian and English. Plague Lands, his first book of poems in English, was published by Carcanet in 2011 and was a Poetry Book Society recommendation. It has been described as an elegy for the life of a lost city, a chronicle of a journey into exile and an exploration of the deep history of a civilization. It could be argued however that his sense of exile began long before his arrival in London, when he found himself alienated by the ideological movements sweeping across Iraq in the sixties. He lived in Lebanon from 1969-1972, and was resident in Britain from 1978.

Fawzi Karim leaves his wife Lily and two sons, Sammer and Basil, as well as the grandchildren he adored. Lily has sent me this description of how she and Fawzi first encountered each other:

I had met Fawzi a month prior to his heart-attack in 1979. The Art school from which I had graduated was on the same road as the Arabic magazine where Fawzi worked. In that summer, after graduating, I applied for a part-time job as an illustrator at this magazine. It was there that I met Fawzi for the first time. I was at the time still reeling from the loss – to natural causes – of both of my parents two years earlier. At twenty-one, my world was in turmoil. Nothing made sense. I was drowning. Cut off from my family in Iraq and isolated from the Arabic culture in London, joining the Arabic magazine was in retrospect an attempt to connect with the culture I was born into. Fawzi was the first colleague I spoke to, since our desks were close by. His Iraqi accent reminded me of my mother whilst his gentleness and protective nature reminded me of my Nigerian father. He was knowledgeable about western art in general and art in Iraq in particular -about which I knew nothing, since I had come to England at fifteen. Fawzi had by then published four books – which I borrowed – but I did not understand his poems. England was not an exile for me, it was my home, where I felt accepted and free.

“Days went by and Fawzi was absent from work. I was told that he had just left intensive care and gone home. I went to visit him. It was whirlwind romance. Before long we were an item, lived together, married and made our home in Lowfield Road where our first son Sammer was born. It was in those happy years that Fawzi published his collection Stumblings of a Bird.

“Fawzi’s illness in the course of his last forty years, propelled this already serious man to continue leading a rich, purposeful and productive life. He cherished the friendships he made along the way with people of all generations and backgrounds. What mattered to him was their soul. He remained loyal to these friendships till his dying day.”

Incomprehensible Lesson (2019) was the second selection of his work to be published by Carcanet. It describes the gradual acclimatization of the poet to his refuge in Greenford, West London, while still affected by the experiences of the past. James Kirkup said that “decidedly, Fawzi Karim is a poet for our times, with his strong yet beautiful voice, his indignation…and the haunting memories of certain lines that seem intended for all of us, but that few can hear in the endless tumult of what is called life.”

During his career, he published more than twenty-three books of poetry and was also the author of a novel, Who is Afraid of The City of Copper (2016), as well as fifteen works of criticism, including The Emperor’s Clothes: on Poetry (2000) and The Companion of the Gods: on Music (2009). Much of his criticism related the arts to each other – such as Music and Poetry (2014), and Music and Painting (2014). The poet was also a painter, who revelled in an untaught skill. Currently a catalogue of his artworks is being prepared for publication. Not exactly naïve, but with a freshness that is more sophisticated than initial appearance might suggest, his paintings graced the covers of his two books in English.

However, there is nothing naïve about his verse, and often Fawzi would complain to me that Arabic poetry suffered from a desire to spell out a message. While remaining narrative, his poetry has much in common with Stevens and with Ashbery. Meaning is what emerges from the language, rather than a pre-ordained attempt at communication. In the nineties, he was editor of the pioneering literary quarterly Al-Lahda Al-Shi’ria, and his influential column on poetry and European classical music was entitled The Ivory Tower. Syndicated to a number of Arabic newspapers, this column was respected for its emphasis on the transcendent value of art and culture.

In an afterword to Plague Lands, Marius Kociejowski explores the poet’s life and illuminates the context of his poetry.

Anthony HowellAnthony Howell, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of  The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbookThe Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and PracticeDetails about his collaborative project, Grey Suit Online, are here. His latest collection is From Inside (The High Window).

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