Review: Abdellatif Laâbi, Fragments of a Forgotten Genesis, trans. Nancy Hadfield and Gordon Hadfield (Leafe Press, 2009) ISBN 978-0-9561919-0-8
Vigils in the Confines of Memory
“Genesis” as a term evokes, on the one hand, the sense of an event: the Big Bang, a flash of light, a cosmic egg being broken etc. At the same time, the narrative nature of creation myths gives us a sense of process: and on the Nth day God created etc. Even the writers of the Bible – if not all of its interpreters – knew that beginning is ongoing. God takes a breather on the seventh day, but the building work continues. There is a woman, we’re told, to be made from the man’s rib, and some basic moral questions to be settled with the help of an apple and a snake.
In his “Fragments d'une genèse oubliée”, Moroccan-born and Paris-based Abdellatif Laâbi imagines a myth of our origin, passing from a quasi-Biblical/Koranic creation narrative through to our present of hypertechnological wealth co-existing with lethal, structural poverty. In doing so, he treats Genesis very much not as an event but as a process. The key term which flags up the processual aspect is the “Fragments” of the title. With their varying line and stanza lengths, the 26 sections make an onward narrative-cum-reflection unable to settle down into a definitive form.
Before going into the poem, let me skim across the relationship of the fragment to knowledge, event, process and poetry. Complete human knowledge has usually been held, at least implicitly, to be impossible. Even if – or precisely because – you believe in divine omnipotence, you have to come up with concepts like mystery and ultimate plan that admit the incompleteness of our knowledge. Events may crystallize a certain stage of elucidation – the decoding of the genomes of fruit flies, zebra fish and homo sapiens for example – but the exegesis will always remain unfinished.
This conception of Genesis gets forgotten by fundamentalist world-views – not just religious ones, but also some secular-rationalist ones, which suffer a nasty surprise when the Enlightenment (classificatory science, administrative rationalization, industrialization etc.) ends up in the Shoah. The notion of a fragment goes against the pre-modernist, nineteenth century notion of genesis, which not only aimed to explain everything (an aim without which meaningful scientific activity is impossible) but also thought that that aim was readily achievable.
Poetry and its reception are subject to fragmentation as much as any other activities. There is the historically contingent poetic fragment – Sappho, or some of the Greek plays, lost in transmission. Then, much, much later the more-or-less deliberate fragment (that then tries to make a new whole) – The Waste Land, and perhaps The Cantos. Between them, there is the fragmentary nature of the written record and then the canon – the men and especially women producing and publishing in their own lifetime but without advocates after their death. And I hereby declare my own fragmentary response to this text, based on a reasonable knowledge of the Bible and virtually none of the Koran, and on a reading of the whole of the English translation but only fragments of the French original.
In a variant on Biblical Genesis, it is not the Word that kicks everything off here but an exclamation – visceral, spontaneous, non-hegemonic, barely linguistic – that will be repeated several times in the whole poem:
In the beginning was the cry
and already discord
So no. It wasn’t a perfect world that some human being – in the Bible a gendered human being – walks into and screws up, but a mess from the word go. The first section continues:
sordid struggles of separation
and staggering blows of solitude
Sky drew back from fire
water drew back from sky
earth drew back from water
idea drew back from clay
and the form surged
cut in two.
One half was retained
the other thrown in the abyss
No one thought of good
Who could have done otherwise?
“Cut in two” indeed. No surprise that a passage of language should contain both abstract and concrete vocabulary, but both here and throughout the poem the two oscillate strongly: “violation”, “separation” and “solitude” versus “fire”, “sky”, “water” and “clay”. The contrast of abstract and concrete in these two stanzas marks up this divide, as if two languages were meeting in the poem. “No one thought of good / or evil // Who could have done otherwise?” Well, clearly, the book religions have done otherwise. There seems to be a despair at the mess we have got ourselves into with the tenets and effects of monotheism – ironically, as these themselves represent amalgamations of previously existing Middle Eastern beliefs. The end of Fragment 3 notes:
Monster was born
in Hybrid’s defeat
There is something hyper-modern about an attempt by an individual author to create something like a foundational myth, as opposed to the slow accumulation of tales by multiple individuals, worked and reworked over for generations before becoming fixed in the written record. “Fragments of a Forgotten Genesis” is a pastiche but a serious pastiche, a psychological, visionary grand narrative, with a cast of abstract characters.
The leading roles are introduced early, among themes of conflict and tumult: Hybrid, Monster, Shadow, Creature. Each of these is less a character with clearly defined limits, more overlapping figures of some provisionally conceived essence of creation, a series of – if not anti-messiahs or anti-prophets – then de-moralized messengers, or grey angels. Bit-parts, walk-ons and cameos include Time, Creation, Evil, Reason, Law, the desert, and Waiting.
The middle fragments are moments of calm after the storm of the first. We meet more positively laden terms and figures: heaven, silence, beauty, Echo, newborn man. There is a fresco of human activity, we are told, which remains veiled, glimpses are seen through the veil, it is finally removed. Is this the Enlightenment? Parallel to all this is a complex of jail images – the prison is correlated with a skiff, its inmates as galley slaves – interwoven with a birth narrative. At some point it is no longer “man” who is referred to but “I” who does the talking, and we are now with the writer in a real, unabstract prison, in a subjective consciousness contemplating its position in existence, its relationship to the interlocutor (“my brother the escapee”), and what will last of our words.
The road of all this excess ends up not at Blake’s Palace of Wisdom but at “the tavern of oblivion”. Out of the desert walks the figure of the Messenger – and you might think here of the four hundred Moroccan political prisoners who walked out of their desert jails in 1994 as part of a government amnesty. At the end of the poem we move into a modern apocalypse of technological plague and parasite, and shift into the future, rendered in the translation with the ‘will’ form, the future form that denotes inevitability as the speaker sees it:
Serial suicides of athletes and politicians adored
by the people. Invasion of mechanical grasshoppers,
of highly intelligent fleas
The apocalypse will not be
a rehashing of the flood
after the destruction of sinful cities
For those who have learnt to read
it will unfold
in a lost corner
in the mud of a refugee’s tent
an emaciated child
covered with vermin
exhales his last breath
The apocalypse has already been televised – by Michael Burke in Ethiopia in 1984 for example. “For those who have learnt to read” – well, that’s everyone in on this right now – we might ponder the route that leads from the spread of literacy and print media to the rise of nationalism (I probably need to be able to read about you in order to imagine that we’re in some kind of larger community together, as Benedict Anderson argues in Imagined Communities). You need literacy beyond the walls of a monastery as well as a functioning modern nation-state to organize genocide.
The apocalyptic, quasi-hallucinatory feel of the later sections of this long poem is as much Revelation as Genesis, but its final statement is an anti-Revelation:
This is what we call eternity
An impenetrable jar
no magic will open
The translators in their introduction generously – I mean this without irony – suggest recourse to the original for the remedying of “any inadequacies in our translation”, a course of action which in a language as relatively well-known and accessible to English-speakers as French is a possibility. The original is printed not alongside but following the translation of this 75-page poem, a move which gets the best of both worlds of the standalone translation and the facing page translation. The translation has space on the plate to let its own flavours come through, but the competent reader has something to taste if liked (this is language-specific though – Romance languages with Latinate/abstract vocabulary shared with English lend themselves to this tactic). The original can indeed offer a different flavour:
Cela se nomme l’éternité
Un bocal hermétique
qu’aucune magie ne peut ouvrir
My French dictionary gives airtight, watertight, impenetrable, sealed, closed, abstruse, obscure and, of course, hermetic for ‘hermétique’. The latter seems to have everyday, concrete meanings as well as a philosophical usage, the English loan word having more or less only the latter. ‘Hermetic’ would have given a more flagged-up philosophical feel than ‘hermétique’ does, thus perhaps the translators opting for ‘impenetrable’. With the latter though, that philosophical tone perhaps gets a little lost though, and a religious element introduced into the English. Translation, translation: damned if you do and damned if you don’t. It, too, is a fragment. Remedied here though, by the juxtaposition of another fragment, the original, as well as the fact that the translation is a fluent and readable text combining precision and an elevated tone.
In one sense, the original text feels like a kind of translation already, or a pastiche of a translation – a vernacular version of a tale the early stages of which might have been written in Hebrew, Classical Arabic, Sumerian or Akkadian. It comes to us in French – a vernacular gone imperial and picked up by its (post)imperial subjects outside the metropolis, such as in Morocco. That “translated” quality, however, turns the language on its head. The cultural passengers of French in terms of poetry – Villon, Baudelaire and all the rest – are refused boarding on the no-frills-flight of postmodernity. Goodbye to the lyric, but goodbye also to the Western epic – no lists of sinners in hell or warriors on the Aegean, no geographical and historical specificity – but rather, largely, essences, figurations, a genesis that knows itself to be a myth.
I mention this because I think some elements in this poem may rub against some of the expectations which socialization into the English poetic tradition can bring with it – in particular the essences embodied in figures such as Creature, Monster etc. But neither is the poem assimilable to the good/evil scheme of one of the grand narratives behind the West, namely the Bible. The figures in the poem – Monster, Hybrid etc. – are not resolvable to good and evil in the way that the Christian creator and the Serpent are. Monster and Hybrid are not even resolvable to clearly defined visual images such as the Serpent or Cerberus. The fluidity of forms perhaps has more to do with Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Here’s Monster:
It shakes off its shell
transforms into a column of smoke
Dissolves into air
enters through the nostrils
Its warmth spreads
until vision explodes
releases its spiders
in a flood of colourless blood
Then we see the crouching form
intent on its double
trying to stifle the cry
miming the first rituals
One important counter-theme in the poem is that of the experience of exile, itself a kind of psychic fragmentation, it seems, according to the accounts of those who have undergone it:
Exile and its complicated grammar
all its verbs irregular
before releasing them to the phrase
And there is a statement of a myth-making, self-delusive aspect to humanity:
Knowing itself vulnerable
it was capricious
Knowing itself ephemeral
it conjured up eternity in the present
Creature was prolific
“Eternity in the present” – one thinks of the huge meaning-giving myths of religion and nationalism that provide their adherents with a meaningful past. “Fragments of a Forgotten Genesis” also returns us to the shared historical beginnings of poetry and religious text, the shared tools of verse and image. And flags up differences. Though religious texts have also been famously open to widely differing interpretations, those interpretations have tended to view themselves as corrective and final. No such finality will be possible here. The richness of imagery and slewing of the narrative in more than one direction work against any such tactic.
In the beginning was the word. Fragments of a Forgotten Genesis takes us back to the origins of poetry, verse, chant, epic, tale of the tribe in its subject matter and form. But it flips back out of that to a personal subjectivity evoking a sense of ourselves as individuals too – in this case the individual in a confinement both physical and mental. Yet it can’t be reduced to either one or the other – the supra-individual grand narrative nor the individual lyric perspective – it combines both.
The first man
is also the last
So it goes for everyone
With the intensity of their imagery, these fragments form a space in which Genesis is partially recovered.
[Alistair Noon's first full-length collection is Earth Records, forthcoming from Nine Arches Press in 2012. His poems, reviews, essays and translations from German and Russian have appeared widely in magazines and several chapbooks, most recently Out of the Cave (Calder Wood). He is currently preparing a full-length collection of translations of Osip Mandelstam, and lives in Berlin]
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