The Rising of the Ashes

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What Jelloun proves throughout this book is that he has not let language(s) fail him or the people, places and historical moments he memorializes, making dates that are not headlines as important as front page news.

City Lights Books is one of the most respected independent bookstores in the country, and from the founding in 1955 of its publishing arm, it has been at the forefront of international progressive literary citizenship. An essential element of its success has been its effort to provide quality translations.

The Rising of the Ashes, poems by Tahar Ben Jelloun is another welcome example of the City Lights mission. A poet, novelist and professor, he was born in Morocco and has lived in Paris since 1971. In 1987 he won the Prix de Goncourt for La Nuit Sacred–The Sacred Night, joining the ranks of the most esteemed French writers. He also has a PhD in Social Work, making it not at all surprising that his writing has a steady– often justifiably outraged – empathy.

The Rising of the Ashes is written in both French and English, and even someone who speaks no French should appreciate the sounds and shapes that Jelloun intends, enhancing the able translation by Cullen Goldblatt. The book consists of two compelling long poems, the first, the title poem, about the Gulf War and the second about Israel’s actions in Lebanon in the 1980’s, widely perceived as obscene, a view I share.

“To remain silent would have been a kind of intolerable complicity,” Jelloun has said, and in achieving his level of excellence, he gives voice to the murdered, holds the murderers morally accountable, and makes high art out of devastation. I quote the French in my first example, from about the middle of the first , seventy-three page piece, to provide a taste of Jelloun’s original intent :

Je suis petit dans la vie
et la je nai plus de sang a verser
je nais plus faim ni soif
j’ai un peu froid
et je n’ai plus de larmes a retenir.

Pourquiu notre histoire est semee de defaites?
Est-ce la debacle des paroles?

and I have no more blood to pour here
I am no longer hungry or thirsty
I am a little cold
and hold no more tears

Why is our history littered with defeats?
Is it a failure of language?

All writers struggle with the limits and failures of language. This is poignantly gripping with Jelloun because he has been criticized for not writing in Arabic, his mother tongue. The first edition of The Rising of the Ashes, published in France, was in French and Arabic, and Jelloun has said that Arabic is his wife and French his mistress, adding that he has been unfaithful to both. What he proves throughout this book is that he has not let language(s) fail him or the people, places and historical moments he memorializes, making dates that are not headlines as important as front page news.

From “November 24, 1988:”

One bullet sufficed
stones and rifts in Gaza
at the exit of the Al Shati camp.
She was forty years old
and had gone to fetch water.

There can be no mistaking Jelloun’s urgency to place the dead in the contexts he insists they merit. Each line serves as carved stone, animated initially by the spirits of the people in the poem, then by the author. Any reader, previously unaware or aware for many years, of Jelloum’s subject matter, becomes the necessary third strand of an unbroken cord of witnessing, all the more necessary as attempts are now being made to hold Israel accountable for killing in Gaza. “This body the flies undress/hand outstretched toward the sea,” he says of one victim, an image, like so many in these pages, that makes living skin crawl, bringing to mind the best of Mark Twain’s under-appreciated “The War Prayer.”

Children in war’s crossfire are often eloquent without conscious effort, as is Ibn Hassan Mokkadam:

July 19, 1983
He told his father :
we are born in pain’s skin
a scar upon our foreheads
we are born on a rock without the day knowing
we are born with eyes bigger than our faces
with skin larger than our bodies.
We are told that the land is in us, inside our rib
cage
an orchard of mirrors
a water source and sandbags.
He said :
I am a cemetery where the dead make the sun rise
where the children invert mourning in the poem’s
exile.

Ibn Hassan Mokaddam lived in Ras En – Nabaa.
He was eight years old.

Cage thoracique is Jelloun’s French for rib cage, and the multi-syllable thoracicque has a resonance that is painfully appropriate.

The Rising of the Ashes comes as close as is humanly possible to bringing life to the dead contained within those ashes that will not settle. And so of course, this book is aptly unsettling. The late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish has written that “Every living thing/flies, “ and flight itself has many meanings and tasks. It can be vitally liberating, utterly terrifying, mundane and necessary. Jelloum recognizes this in exalting, raw, unforgettable images.

He is magnetically skilled at limning what has been lost and what must be gained by providing the detail of loss :

Such a trace of absence in the movements of these
hands that shifted the stones at the cemetery’s
entrance!
They have dispersed syllables and streams,
songs and numerals, clouds and gazes.
Stubborn,
the faint light descends time’s stairs.
And to each body, she gives bread and a name.

These are the last lines in the book, and they are written about Oum Saad, a woman who “believed in the eternity of things and knew nothing of peace,” making belief itself a tremendous, transcendently irrational gift. With that gift, though she lost husband, “house and laughter,” she carried her youngest son, leaving behind “no more country, just a sky/weighed down with stunned bodies.”

To end with her story is a generous act of defiance, enhancing the ardent attention that distinguishes The Rising of the Ashes.


Barbara Berman is the senior Rumpus Poetry reviewer. More from this author →