By Greg Bem
Riad Seleh Hussein’s work has been a long time coming. Impassioned by political activism and experimental writing, Hussein’s work is not to be missed. Following a short but active youth, the Syrian poet (1954-1982) died due to unknown causes after a brief arrest and despite Arabic publications highlighting his contributions to prose poetry in Syria and the Middle East, English readers only now get a gaze into his world. Tango Below a Narrow Ceiling is a powerful book unlike any other and I hope it find its way into many libraries, personal and beyond.
The poetry here is often compared to prose poetry, but one might find more similarities in English to Amiri Baraka and Ray Bremser, with long, sword-like lines cutting out across the page over, and over, and over. The effect in English is hypnotic and stunning, concussive and paralytic, though Hussein’s work is charged with density and relentless presentation of fantastic lines. But these lines are not without difficulty, because they aren’t afraid of war, they aren’t afraid of hardship, they aren’t afraid of carrying the voice of the people, and the country, of Syria:
O poor knives
O dirty human body
O dogs stuffed with sausages, love and the aroma of mint.
I am Riad Saleh Hussein
My age is twenty-two dry oranges
And hundreds of massacres and coups.
Thousands of times my hands have been terminated
Like two trees of happiness in a desert.
(from The Pure Artist and a Clean Flower, pg. 28)
I am reminded of the prose poetry of Burmese writer Maung Day here. I am also reminded of the Hmong poet Mai Der Vang’s recent book of documentary poetics, Yellow Rain. Concerning the lines or the sum, not all of Hussein’s poems are long, of course. Some of the most spectacular moments in the book occur with short, concise poems that are packed with image, metaphor, and a longing to provide words for impossible situations. At other times, these short poems feel like songs or prayers, exquisite and heavy at once:
Forever we shall lead you into the springs.
Forever we shall dry your blood with our green fingers
And your tears with our dry lips.
Forever we shall pave roads for you
And never let you get lost O Syria
Like a song in a desert.
(from Syria, pg. 21)
Tango Below a Narrow Ceiling is not a long book, but it contains the best picture of Hussein that we have in the English language. Many thanks should be given to translators Saleh Razzouk and Philip Terman for their efforts in bringing forward these poems. The book is divided into three sections and includes a swathing survey of Hussein’s work, opening the door for more translations to come. The collection includes historical information, including an opening essay and a timeline of dates centering the poet’s life. It also includes an homage by Terman, reinforcing the impression and inspiration Hussein’s poetry creates.
The sense of love in Hussein’s poetry is second to none, and this love is clearly integral to the poet. In one of the latter poems of the book, a five part love epic, he closes:
What do we do
if there is only one jubilee for the kiss
and many jubilees for the killing.
What do we do?
(from Jubilee for a Kiss, Jubilee for a Killing, pg. 78)
This is a universal love poetry, one that responds to the cycles of violence faced across the world, time and again. That we can appreciate it is a gift. That it can be present during the many breakdowns facing the West is a gift. This is a poetry that will lead us to new forms of resilience and an ongoing commitment to the poetry of the lyric.
You can get the book here: https://www.spdbooks.org/Products/9781734653526/tango-below-a-narrow-ceiling.aspx
Greg Bem is a poet and librarian living on unceded Duwamish territory, specifically Seattle, Washington. He writes book reviews for Rain Taxi, Yellow Rabbits, and more. His current literary efforts mostly concern water and often include elements of video. Learn more at www.gregbem.com