When Khaled Mattawa moved from Libya to the US 40 years ago, he left behind not only his homeland but his home sea.
In the poet's stunning new collection Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) he reflects on his return to the Mediterranean by tackling the migrant crisis. Mare Nostrum does not describe events so much as "pierce through them", to quote Syrian poet Adonis.
Mattawa, 54, details the dinghies "fitted / with plywood floors / fixed with nails and screws / that puncture people's feet". The bodies of the dead and the survivors "are full / of scratches, bite marks / cuts and bruises but it's / fuel burns that horrify most". This is a sea where "barely out of the jetty, the boat rises / with every wave, and in the back / two or three fall into the sea".
When The National speaks to him, Mattawa has recently returned to Ann Arbor, where works as a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Michigan, after spending two months in Libya visiting his extended family. He also runs a website, Qaseaed-lilhayat (poems for life), which publishes a poem translated into Arabic every day.
When I draw a comparison between Mare Nostrum and English poetry from the First World War, Mattawa refers to his teaching of Wilfred Owen's Dulce et Decorum Est, in which the soldier-poet meets a victim of gas attack with "white eyes writhing in his face" and blood "gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs". "Owen presents one case study, one death, which becomes an argument against patriotism being sweet and delightful," Mattawa explains. "In some ways, I teach the poem because of its music, its cacophony … it's a work of art that combines high aesthetics and factual detail."
Mattawa was drawn home to Libya, and the Mediterranean, in 2000, both by the easing of tension in the country and the death of his father. Having been absent from the country for 21 years, Mattawa has returned every year since then. Amid the Arab uprisings, Mattawa and his wife, Libyan artist Reem Gibriel, established a community arts group in the country.
"There was possibility of creating something out of the revolts and then we realised they had created this slew of humanity heading north," Mattawa says. "The environment is part of it, these places had become bereft of their source of living, with devastated economies. The stories are connected. Humanity is all involved."
Mattawa's journey into writing English poetry was uneven. After trying political science, architecture and business studies, Mattawa wrote about the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, Derek Walcott and Rabindranath Tagore while studying for his doctorate at Duke University in North Carolina. He wanted both to write for himself and to absorb the work of Arab poets. "I felt the need to translate both as a search for identity and as a way of learning how to write," he says.
Since then, he has published translations of work by poets such as Egypt's Iman Mersal and Iraq's Fadhil Al Azzawi. Mattawa's translations of poems by Adonis, including in the 2011 book Selected Poems and 2017's Concerto Al-Quds, attracted the most acclaim.
In Mare Nostrum, two poems feature Malouk, a character Mattawa borrows from a novel by Eritrean author Abu Bakir Khaal that was written in Arabic and published in English translation as African Titanics in 2017. "Malouk is a Nigerian poet in the novel," Mattawa explains. "With me, he's a more general post-colonial figure who takes a little from Walcott. He's writing from one of those detention camps in Libya."
Mattawa says that Malouk is not an autobiographical character. "I'm wearing several masks, including the Malouk mask, and using the language of Walcott," he says. "But at the same time, I am also a post-colonial poet."
Mare Nostrum also includes what Mattawa calls "allams". Derived from improvised shepherd songs heard in the desert between his home town of Benghazi and Alexandria, he says they can be read "across, diagonally, or in any order you wish" to reflect spontaneity. Mattawa's allams are dedicated to American poet Robert Hayden, evoking his poem Middle Passage.
"These songs talk about the trip from Libya to Lampedusa [an Italian island] or further north as the middle passage," says Mattawa. "People are packed together as in the slave boats crossing the Atlantic. Given the torture they have gone through, the tortuous sea journey is a kind of relief."
Another song form in Mare Nostrum is the psalm. "If you are caught out at sea and there is no one to listen to you, the power that you approach, the voice you plead to, that's God," he says. "The psalm is the prayer to the overwhelming absence of any power. There is so much pleading with God, which emphasises both the absence and the presence of God. It's the emptiness that makes them pray."
Two poems from Mare Nostrum:
Someone reaping land, trading it
for a 4x4 or a shipload of gasoline,
each body delivered or shipped.
Something to the trafficker, rescue worker, boat mechanic,
truck driver, salesman, food exporter, tire repairman,
money changer, doctor, medicine man, volunteer.
For each house torn down or blown
up, each bullet-riddled school, each
clinic built, detention center overran.
Something to peace-
keeper, terrorist, jet-
drone bombing him.
A salary, a bribe
a grant, a stipend
a ransom, a fellowship.
Psalm Under Siege
Speak the jet fighter’s contrails,
speak the rumble of my pulse,
its screech and roar of barrel bombs.
A cesspool of sewer overflow
and a broken water main—a gleaming
lake haunting your thirst.
Reeds shoot up from its shores,
sununu hop in between, chirping
when the shellings pause.
Read more at qasaed-lilhayat.com