For three decades, James E Montgomery taught the poetry of Al-Khansa without feeling much of anything for it. He went through the motions – helping students to parse the seventh-century poems – without making a personal connection to the work.
"I did not know how to read them," Montgomery writes in the introduction to Loss Sings, the slender new chapbook in which he reflects on his relationship to trauma, voice, and translation. He says that as he read and taught the poems, he found Al-Khansa's elegies for her brothers cliched, a "conventional catalog of virtues."
Then, in 2004, the professor's son was in a near-fatal accident. After that incident, the poems reached him.
Loss Sings is part of the Cahier Series, which brings out short reflections on writing and translation by world literary luminaries, including Nobel winners and acclaimed translators. For his part, Montgomery is a professor of Arabic at Cambridge and the translator of knight and poet Antarah ibn Shaddad's War Songs.
In Loss Sings, he translates 15 of Al-Khansa's poems, and sets them among journal-like essays written between August 21 and September 11, 2007, three years after his son had a series of operations.
This book answers a question fundamental to the translation of classical poetries: How do we help a reader travel not just across languages, but also through time and unfamiliar cultural landscapes? To borrow Montgomery's italicised emphasis: How do we help people not just read the poems, but read them?
Traveling to al-Khansa
The poet Tumadir bint Amr ibn al-Hareth ibn al-Sharid al-Sulamiyah (575-645) is best-known as Al-Khansa, Arabic for "the snub-nosed." She lived in the Najd, in what is now central Saudi Arabia, and was a contemporary of both Antarah and the Prophet Muhammad. In 612, when she was 37, her life changed. That's when her brother, Mu'awiyah, was killed by men from another tribe. History has it that she insisted her other brother, Sakhr, avenge Mu'awiyah's death, and while Sakhr got his revenge, he too was killed in the process.
Al-Khansa spent the rest of her life crafting elegies. In the essay, Al Khansa, by Egyptian author Bint al-Shati, there appears a conversation between the poets Al-Khansa and Al-Nabigha, and in this couplet, which achieved wide acclaim, the latter tells the former: "If Abu Basir [the poet Al-A'sha] had not already recited to me, I would have said that you are the greatest poet of the Arabs. Go, for you are the greatest poet among those with breasts," Al-Khansa is said to have replied: "I am the greatest poet among those with testicles, too."
This wit should surely appeal to 21st-century readers. Yet, in English translation, Al-Khansa's poems have made little impact. Most readers have felt much like Montgomery's earlier self: that the poems were conventional, monotonous.
But in Loss Sings, he creates a way for us to travel – not to the seventh century itself, but to the poems from the era. By placing the poet's work within the setting of his own grief, he makes the work newly intimate. Al-Khansa's elegies now come as a response to Montgomery's loss: "From the clouds of your eyes / Weep a torrent of tears / like a string of pearls."
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In From the clouds of your eyes, the poet urges us to "keen for Mu'awiyah." This command comes soon after we hear of a report Montgomery receives from a surgeon, which "medically, forensically, and meticulously charts my son's ever-increasing pain." At this we, too, are moved to keen.
It is easy for a reader to connect to the professor's grief. Whether or not we have spent time in hospitals, we can imagine fearing the loss of a child, helping the child through surgeries, and navigating legal paperwork. Through this, we learn also to imagine Al-Khansa's trauma, and to hear her voice.
Grief and cliché
We read over Montgomery’s shoulder as he comes to see Al-Khansa’s poetry in a new light. “Whenever I read early Arabic laments in the past, I would weary of their iterations and predictability,” he writes. But these very features are paradoxically the ones “that I now see as being central to grief, and to Al-Khansa’s poetry, in particular.”
He amplifies this new understanding by weaving in more familiar poetry of loss, by canonical innovators such as Ben Johnson, John Milton, and Seamus Heaney. These poems, too, make use of formulaic imagery. But far from being unwelcome, it is the cliches, Montgomery tells us, that help us "reclaim loss by rehabilitating the commonplace." They also remind us that, more than any other literary art, poetry consoles.
Al-Khansa obsessively returns to the site of her traumatic loss, crafting an oeuvre of elegies. This was a genre into which many classical Arab women poets were ghettoised. Yet, she seemed to have embraced it. In the poem You've gone grey, interlocutors imply she should forget her brothers, move on. At the beginning of them poem, Al-Khansa writes: "'You've gone grey,' the women say." The narrative voice retorts: "My plight would turn grey hairs grey." Then she turns to a dead brother: "'O Sakhr,' I reply, 'I am all alone / How can life be sweet," the narrative voice says.
Through the lenses that Montgomery provides us, the poems shape-shift. What was monotony, becomes incantatory; what was cliche becomes a permission to voice our own grief. And although Montgomery's first act of translation is gifted, it's largely through his second act, wherein he shares his own grief, that we can read Al-Khansa's poems.