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Review | Knife Sharpener, Sargon Boulus

The Assyrian Iraqi poet Sargon Boulus died in 2007 and left behind a nearly finished manuscript, Knife Sharpener. Did he know this would be his last book, and does it contain a farewell message of any kind? A conspiracy theorist can go on for thousands of words, on hands and knees digging through the poems, searching for Boulus’s prediction of his own demise, a banal effort, as poets are a dark lot and every collection on the library shelf battles mortality in some way, the author bravely employing pen as bayonet to keep the monster Death at bay.

In fact, Knife Sharpener is a project that concerns the poet’s role as life giver— cracking language open like the pregnant belly of a woman, reaching into her warm insides and pulling out the fetal words that offer true meaning, cleaning them off and presenting them to the world.

Boulus views himself as the oud [1] player who:

            in his darkened corner
            hugs his instrument ever so gently
            as if listening to the foetus kick
            inside the belly of a pregnant woman,
            while his fingers torture
            the strings.

In 1963 Sargon Boulus, aged 22, crossed the desert from Iraq to Lebanon on foot, too young or stupid to be fearful, an illegal immigrant without a passport. He carried with him a near empty suitcase containing a friend’s manuscript of King Lear (translated from English to Arabic) to be delivered to a mutual mentor, Yousif Al-Khal, upon arriving in Beirut.

Years later, in an interview with Banipal, Boulus articulated his belief that with a young person’s initial realization that he is destined to be a poet comes a gift (or a curse) for navigating endless lone journeys across physical and symbolic borders. At that time he told his friend and editor, Margaret Obank, “. . . that magic, once it strikes you, you can never live without it. You always go back to that source to find out—how did this happen? Why did this thing happen to me? Why was I chosen, in fact, to see the world in this way, through words?” [2]

Most of the poems in Knife Sharpener echo this vocation, exploring the poet’s heroic quest from different angles. Boulus may very well have been referring to his first journey towards Beirut in his poem “A Key To The House”:

            A man dreamt
                that a woman
            with a child in her arms
            sang a song he knew from childhood
            and kept repeating to himself
            as he crossed the desert
            as if it were
            his only well.

Using the cheap and simple tools of memory and pen, Boulus returned to the “well” of his childhood again and again in spirit but never permanently returned to Iraq. He felt called by the spirit of Poetry to live the life of a creative in exile, including long stints in Beirut, San Francisco, and ultimately Berlin.

Over the course of his lifetime, Boulus became respected as a prolific translator, making his own work accessible to English-speaking audiences and translating great works of British and American poetry into Arabic, making Merwin, Ginsberg, Plath, and many others available to Arab audiences for the first time. Knife Sharpener is translated from the original Arabic by the author himself, an arrangement almost unheard of in contemporary poetry of the Middle East.

Arabic is an ancient language, sharing Semitic roots with Boulus’s Assyrian mother tongue, and each word is ripe with multiple meanings for the translator to choose from. Like the peel of an apple, skinned from the flesh of the fruit in one continuous curl, the poems are translated out into long, sparse, breathless pieces to be read out loud without pause. At times it seems that rather than controlling the poems as the writer, Boulus is being controlled by the poetic form, stopping even while he still has more to say or when a different, more muscular line break would better suit the imagery.

Many of the poems playfully twist Western stereotypes of the Middle East, the stuff of Persian carpets, falcons, belly dancers, dervishes, and the poet’s own finjan [3]:

The piece the book is named for, “Knife Sharpener,” starts out:

            An opening
            laced with splinters
            of glass, where creation
            bodies forth
            in myriad forms:
            everyone comes
            to enter this alley—
            it is the world.

            who lie in caves
            with scorpions and snakes,
            dogs that chase cars
            in a wedding procession.

As a child, Boulus grew up under British colonialism in Iraq and was educated in English. With romantic tales of Lawrence of Arabia, blinding sandstorms and smoke-filled harems, the colonials often caricaturized the Middle East to the point of missing its underlying wisdom and depth. There is a tremendous power that comes with being able to translate one’s own work into the language of the colonizer, as if to rightly reclaim Orientalist imagery and rename it in a way that authentically reflects the poet’s own history.

Although many of these poems deal with themes such as torture, 9/11, execution, and war, they are not blatantly political, nor did Boulus consider himself to be a political poet. The poet’s Arab world contains episodes of real cruelty juxtaposed with unbridled beauty and goodness. It is clear that he thought a great deal about the ordering of the poems as a way to further communicate these complexities. “A Boy Against the Wall” documents a young boy’s raw humiliation at having to watch his father publicly flogged (presumably by the Saddam Hussein regime). On the facing page, “Butterfly Dream” stands out as a call to hope for better times:

            The butterfly
            that fluttered as if tied
            with an invisible threat
            to paradise, almost
            brushed my chin
            as I sat on my favorite
            bench in the garden,
            shaking last night’s
            from my head.

It’s as if the fulfillment of wishes and times of peace are close at hand, controlled by a God who “forgot his heavy boot / forever on our necks” and occupied with other tasks, has looked away for a time. In the meanwhile, the role of the poet is to observe, notebook in hand, as the bombs fall and the flowers grow, documenting the days in order to recount them to the people at a later date, perhaps even after his own death.

   [1] The oud is a traditional stringed instrument of the Middle East known for its soulful and melancholy sounds.
   [2] http://www.banipal.co.uk/selections/15/167/sargon-boulus/
   [3] A traditional Middle Eastern tea cup made of coloured glass, often used to drink a pot of fresh Moroccan mint tea.  


Danna Molly Weiss has recently had poems published in Mudlark, San Pedro River Review, and elsewhere. She holds an AM in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University and currently lives in Dubai, where she frequently writes about gender and culture in the Arab world. She is currently struggling through the process of editing and placing her first collection of poems, Cannibalism Among Girls, a sequence set in post-Apartheid South Africa.