I met the Syrian-born poet Adonis on the morning of 7 February in the cool but sunny gallery of the Mosaic Rooms near Earl’s Court. Widely considered the greatest living Arab poet, Adonis was in London on this occasion not for his poetry but for a major exhibition – on until 30 March – of his striking and unusual collages. Bold yet subtle, with vivid splotches of colour superimposed on fragments of Arabic poetry written in his own flowing calligraphy, the collages glimmered around us as we chatted. To me they seemed like visual counterparts of his extraordinary verse, with its dream-like shifts of tone and image; poetry written in what he himself once called ‘a language of strangled bells’.
Adonis is now eighty-two but he doesn’t show his age. In a natty tweed blazer over a raspberry-coloured sweater, he cuts a compact yet elegant figure. When I tell him that I first heard him read forty years ago in Philadelphia, when I was beginning to study Arabic, and that the impression of his reading has stayed with me ever since, he looks bemused, gazing at me for a few seconds as though trying to recall that distant occasion; then he smiles and nods. He seems pleased but, refreshingly, he displays none of the swagger that too often has bedevilled Arabic poetry from its very beginnings; the great tenth-century Arab poet al-Mutanabbi, whom Adonis admires, once wrote: ‘If I’m arrogant, it’s the arrogance of a wonder of nature/who’s never found anyone superior to himself.’ Such braggadocio is distinctly not Adonis’s style.
He began making his collages some twelve years ago, during a period when he was dispirited and could neither write nor read but passed his time listening to music. He had spoken of ‘retiring from poetry’. He spent a year experimenting with collage-making – he liked ‘the ludic dimension about playing with the hands’, not possible in writing – but then destroyed everything he had done. When a friend happened to spot a new collage on his wall and asked about it, Adonis pretended that it was someone else’s work. This was hardly plausible: after all, his collages are composed of passages of Arabic verse – his own as well as those of the classical poets – in his own distinctive script. His friend was astute enough to guess this and immediately arranged for an exhibition.
Adonis’s collages are complex creations. He seems especially drawn to splotches and accents of bright red, but when I ask him about this, he replies, ‘No, my colour is black but black demands red.’ And it’s true – for when you look more closely, it is obvious how dramatically those crimson notes enhance the blackness of the inked letters and the vertical strokes that separate the lines of the verse.
Adonis tells me that he doesn’t think of his medium as ‘collage’. He prefers to describe it with the Arabic word rakima. This literally denotes something ‘heaped up’, an ‘accumulation’, as in a cloud-bank; an early poet uses a variant of the word to describe a moonless night in which darkness is piled upon darkness. The term is apt. As he explains it, a rakima involves three elements: calligraphy, colour, and a ‘figurative element’. Adonis creates his images by aggregation: rags and scraps of paper, yarn and string, shreds of fabric, even bits of metal, have been laid over the texts in abstract shapes and the verses are at once obscured and accentuated by these ragged elements. Seen up close, the effect is somewhat disturbing; there is an aura of unexpected violence about them. From afar, at first glance, the works may look vaguely decorative, but that is an illusion. However beautiful or even exquisite the patterns, they fracture and interrupt the texts beneath them. The splendours of the past, the classical majesty of the old poetry, they seem to say, are there, just beyond our reach; we can glimpse them in broken measures but we cannot reclaim them.
Adonis has published over fifty books of poetry, essays and criticism but his magnum opus is the three-volume work known simply as al-Kitab (The Book), a massive and unclassifiable poetic work published between 1995 and 2002. I’d always been puzzled by his title: after all, in Arabic ‘the Book’ par excellence is the Koran itself (though the classic work on grammar by the eighth-century philologist Sibawayhi is also reverently known as ‘the book’). ‘No, no,’ he replies, the notion of ‘the book’ is an ‘old Semitic concept’. It embodies ‘the effort to say everything’. In fact, Adonis tells me, his ambition had nothing to do with the Koran – about which, along with Islam in general, he has strong and provocative views – but is more akin to the desire that the French poet Mallarmé expressed: ‘to put the entire world into a book’. His allusion to Mallarmé is hardly surprising. Adonis, who draws on all the poetry of the past, European as well as Middle Eastern, and whose work is full of conscious echoes of French, Spanish and English poetry, has a fair claim to be considered not simply a great Arab poet but a poet of international standing. Though he remains faithful to his roots in the small Syrian village where he was born to an Alawite family under the name Ali Ahmad Sa’id in 1930, and though his poetry springs from that soil, he is intensely cosmopolitan in his scope and outlook. In this regard, he tells me that he is ‘a mystic without God’ for whom ‘the human being is the essential thing’. And he remarks further that ‘if there is a God, He exists amongst us for despite the fact that human beings are ephemeral, they remain the centre of the world’. He proudly describes himself as a ‘humanist’ and remarks that everything depends on the fact that ‘the other is I’. He quotes a definition of friendship by an early mystic, a saying which ultimately derives from Greek antiquity, to the effect that ‘a friend is another who is also yourself’. This unswerving idealism is no doubt one reason why, alongside his monumental body of work, he has regularly been considered a strong contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
In the first volume of The Book, Adonis writes, in one of the many marginalia that festoon the text: ‘We do not know who we are nowadays and who we will become since we do not know who we have been and so I will recount to you who we have been.’ I quote this to Adonis, remarking that it puzzles me a bit since the Arabs have always seemed to me to have a long memory – indeed perhaps too long a memory. He gives an impassioned reply: ‘The Arabs must forget!’ Memory, he says, can be toxic: ‘It is a poison.’ ‘One cannot create without forgetting,’ he adds, and then he tells me a little story. One day an aspiring young poet appears before a famous critic and asks him to judge his poems. The critic asks him to read and when the poet has finished, he says, ‘Go and learn all Arabic poetry by heart and then come back to me.’ The poet goes away and much later returns with his memory filled to the brim. ‘Now,’ says the critic, ‘forget it all!’
Adonis smiles as he tells this story. Perhaps it has personal resonance for him. After all, he grew up in a poor village without any formal schooling. As a child he memorised the Koran and then thousands of poems. Perhaps he sensed even then that in order to forget creatively, you have first to amass as much as memory itself can contain.
Again and again during the hour we spend conversing, Adonis emphasises his belief that the creation of something ‘out of the ordinary’ can only be possible when it emerges out of a past tempered by a liberating forgetfulness. In his great critical work, The Fixed and the Flowing (al-Thabit wa’l-mutahawwil) – which has gone through fifteen editions since its first publication in 1974 – he views Arabic poetry as pinioned between two extremes: the realm of the Fixed, associated with official religion and political power, and the realm of the Fluid, the ever-changing and the transformational, which he identifies with the spirit of poetry itself. He is vehemently opposed to ‘official’ Islam not only because it censors views and restricts individual liberty but because ‘it kills language’. (He has the same disdain for politics and political poetry, for similar reasons.) Because of this, dogmatic religion is more dangerous than political censorship or oppression: ‘It constricts the space open to language.’ His remarks remind me of a line from one of his early collections, and I quote it to him: ‘I consider the mosque, the church, as twin executioners, and the earth as a rose.’ He completes the quote before I can and it is clear that his views have not changed since this was written.
Islam, he tells me, is ‘a religion without culture’. In orthodox Islam, ‘God is an abstract force.’ Whatever Islam may have been in its origins, ‘it has been destroyed nowadays by the Salafis’, the zealous purists who invoke a pristine – and fictional – golden age of belief in the days of the Prophet Muhammad. In fact, as Adonis shows throughout The Book, early Islam was marked by ferocious conflict: three of the first four caliphs were murdered; civil wars and massacres occurred over and over again. For Adonis, the true spirit of original Islam is to be found among the Sufis, the Muslim mystics who arose in the first century or so after Muhammad and who cultivated an inwardness and love of God absent from official Islam. Though he believes that the Sufis were not really Muslims in any traditional sense – a view shared, ironically enough, by many orthodox Muslims – he praises them because ‘they changed the very conception of God’ within Islam. He admires them too because they composed some of the most beautiful prose in the Arabic language. Adonis is putting together an anthology of this prose to complement his influential four-volume anthology of Arabic poetry from its beginnings to modern times. That anthology, it should be said, has done as much as his own poetry to reinvent the possibilities of Arabic verse; the wit and discrimination of his selections have revealed that the classical tradition is not rigid or monolithic but full of surprises.
The language of Islamic mysticism, that melange of precision and extravagance, has always appealed to Adonis; but interestingly enough, he was first drawn to Sufism because of his immersion in Surrealism. In his brilliant monograph Sufism and Surrealism, one of his few critical works available in English translation, he has explored the tacit connections between these otherwise disparate traditions: their fondness for paradox, for startling imagery, for insight gleaned from the inexpressible.
These elements pervade his poetry as well. Though he has been translated abundantly into French, translations into English have lagged behind. The poet and novelist Khaled Mattawa has recently translated a generous and representative selection of his verse (Selected Poems, Yale University Press, 2010), which has just been awarded the 2011 Saif Ghobash–Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation, and rightly so: for the first time, English readers can get a just sense of Adonis’s extraordinary poetic genius.
As our conversation winds to an end, Adonis seems to want to reaffirm his fundamental position. He has an aphoristic way of expressing himself. ‘Ideology is blindness,’ he declares. And then, spreading his arms wide, he says, ‘I would like to be like a tree, open to everything, a tree open to the horizon. I would like to be a part of space, like a tree.’ I have the feeling that this sudden lyrical exclamation is not entirely spontaneous – after all, the tree is a powerful image in his poetry. But it doesn’t matter. It captures his lifelong stance, his openness as well as his rootedness. And I feel privileged to have been able to spend an hour under his shade.