Wednesday 27 June 2012

Rain of Poems. Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi

Poems are hard to catch… I didn’t believe that Chilean collective Casagrande was really going to release 100,000 poems last night at Poetry Parnassus.  Surely that was a typo for 10,000, an order-of-magnitude error?  One reason soon became clear: in a gusty breeze, the helicopter struggled to drop its bookmark poem-cards on target.  Crowds in Jubilee Gardens swirled to and fro, many people chasing few poems, each catch greeted with cries of delight and disappointment.  The poems looked lovely as they fluttered down, half giant moth, half propeller – and they were as quirky as paper planes, banking and diving away from reached-up hands. Some drifted towards the Shell building and were floodlit purple.  

Eventually we got direct hits, but there must now be poems all over the hinterland of Waterloo, Waterloo East and The Cut.  A few were floating downriver as I walked over Hungerford Bridge.  The tiny slips of card made the waves and bridge-pier currents appear to scale – larger than I usually think of them, from so high up.  Poems were scattered around like miniature railway sleepers on the track between Charing Cross and Waterloo East.

Casagrande have rained poems down in several other cities, including Berlin and Warsaw, the common factor being that they have suffered aerial bombardment.  This wonderful idea was even better in reality, making one see things anew (and breeding lots of metaphors).  Our rain felt nearer to a drought, which was somehow right: a few good poems are more valuable than many. 

The subtext of aerial threat became horribly real when, at last, a poem evaded several people’s grasp and zoomed into my hands.  It is by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner from the Marshall Islands.  It’s an extract from ‘History Project’.  It ends like this:

        God will thank you they told us
as if god himself ordained
those powdered flakes
to drift onto our skin our hair our eyes
to seep into our bones
we mistook radioactive fallout
for snow

I googled the Marshall Islands to check where exactly in the Pacific they are. Creepily, the first map was from the CIA’s website. 

Every day this week there is a lunchtime reading in the garden on the top of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, among olive trees and flowers.  I think, in retrospect, I’d heard of the Sudanese poet Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi, who writes in Arabic.  But I didn’t realise this yesterday lunchtime.  He read with Sarah Maguire, his translator – vivid and conceptually interesting poems, which seem to draw their authority from a sort of stillness.  Among those we heard were ‘Nothing’, which begins:

Before you start reading,
put down your pen:
consider the ink,
how it comprehends bleeding

and ‘Someone’, which contains this:

I wrench beauty from ugliness
and fall prey to possibility
In the knot of temptation
the possible is jettisoned

I am nothing but a digger of graves
The dead are abandoned
beneath the roof of their loved ones
They turn pale keeping watch
over those not yet dead

This is the sort of poet for whose work one wants to learn a language.  There is a generous selection on the Poetry Translation Centre’s website; apparently he has a pamphlet in English – I hope it’s available at the fair later this week.  See also a Guardian interview here.  

Nice piece from the BBC, with rain and poets, here.  


  1. Sadly I missed Rain of Poems due to another commitment, but I'm very excited about the events I will be attending this week.

    How nice that you were able to hear Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi read with Sarah Maguire. I just recently read some of his poems for the first time and was utterly blown away. As you say, I'd like to learn Arabic to read the originals. Sarah Maguire's translations seem beautiful and I've loved her own poems too.

  2. Thanks Clarissa. I agree about the translations. As for Sarah Maguire's own work, I very much like her poems on the Poetry Archive - want to read some more.

  3. I'm coming to London for the Olympics. I hope all the poetry wouldn't have come and gone by that time. I fully intend to immerse myself in poetic celebration for the duration, with or without Simon Armitage's help!

  4. I hope it won't, Tomas, there is sure to be something happening, even in August. Online listings at the Poetry London and Poetry Library websites will help identify what...