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Tango Below a Narrow Ceiling & Other Poems by Riad Saleh Hussein. Translated by Saleh Razzouk with Philip Terman. The Bitter Oleander Press, 2021.
Riad Saleh Hussein never will be older than twenty-nine years old. His book jacket portrait from 1982—the year of his lonely, difficult death—shows a romantically handsome yet enigmatic face with collar-length dark hair, dark eyes, and a full mouth. It might have been taken yesterday instead of nearly forty years ago. Although Riad lived in Bulgaria and then Damascus, his native place was Aleppo, an ancient cosmopolitan city whose recent history of destruction and exile seems to be anticipated in Riad’s fresh and startling work—which also points a spectral finger toward his own untimely end.
Perhaps Riad even anticipated the translation of his poems into English, although the story behind the production this volume (which contains a selection from Riad’s four books) is as complex as that of his brief life. Riad’s poetry, like the work of some other Levantine Arab writers, frequently draws on Western influences as well as on Arab references. In their last face to face meeting, Riad borrowed from Saleh Razzouk Arabic translations of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and The Picture of Dorian Gray.
In the Arab world, Riad is considered as a pioneering Beat poet and an innovative prose poet. His style is prefigured, as Razzouk points out in this book’s introductory essay, “A Portrait of the Poet Riad Saleh Hussein,” by the early twentieth-century work of Lebanese poet Amin Rihani (one of the Mahjar, or writers of exile, who settled in the United States and included Kahlil Gibran) and the feminist and reformist Lebanese-Palestinian poet May Ziadeh. Razzouk distinguishes Riad from the iconic Syrian poet Adonis because the nationalist Adonis predominately “employed poetic elements of Syrian myth” in his work.
This English language reader finds in Riad’s poems echoes of many poets, including Keats, Whitman, Stephen Crane (“Take a bite of my delicious heart,” from “Tango Below a Narrow Ceiling,” reminds me of Crane’s “In the Desert”: “…Because it is bitter, / And because it is my heart”). Also of William Carlos Williams, e.e. cummings, Sylvia Plath (to whom Riad dedicates a confessional poem, “The Bad Guy”), and contemporary political poets such as Carolyn Forché. Riad identified as a communist and among other journalistic commitments, served as editor of Palestinian Studies in the four years before his death. This volume contains, among other passionately original verses, his poem “Nicaragua…Nicaragua.”
But before taking a closer look at the poems, let’s glimpse the man through the eyes of Saleh Razzouk, a writer and professor now living temporarily in United Arab Emirates:
…Riad would visit me on occasion in my father’s court[yard in Aleppo], the one with the beautiful garden and the two clean steps you have to descend before you enter. Despite the fact that Riad never met my father, he admired his handsome face. In fact, Riad looks more like my father than I do—even more, he resembled my grandfather: both of them were deaf. I would communicate with each of them with a paper and pen.
Riad was largely mute as well as deaf, the result of complications from kidney disease and surgery in 1967, when he was twelve years old. That same year, he published his first poem in a Syrian student journal. Whether Riad would identify as a Deaf writer today is another unanswered question. He attended a school for the deaf in Aleppo for a year. Did Riad know sign language or read lips? Razzouk mentions only his use of written notes for communication, but his friend Hashem Shafiq writes in the blog Al-Antologia that he and Riad used sign. Riad’s deafness and chronic illness had a profound influence on his choice of work in journalism and poetry. It also intensified his “living-on-the edge spontaneity,” in Razzouk’s words, which both fed his art and put him in danger.
Tango Below a Narrow Ceiling is divided into three sections of ten poems each (in the third section, eleven poems). The tone of the poems chosen by Razzouk and his co-translator, the American poet Philip Terman, seems to darken throughout the book, as if Riad’s work is racing to keep pace with his life.
Section One includes the joyful, Whitmanesque “Wishes,” whose giddy trajectory nonetheless encompasses perils that Riad would experience:
…I want to build a room
Enough for a thousand friends
I want to befriend the sparrow, the air and the stone
I want to put a river
I want to steal the jail cells
And throw them into the sea
I want to be a magician
And hide my knife in a hat
I want to reach my hand inside
And pull out a white song
I want to possess a pistol
And aim at the wolves
I want to be a wolf and swallow the shooter
In “The Bad Guy,” dedicated to Sylvia Plath (who may be the poem’s “blue woman” who tells the narrator that “your two eyes are mirrors showing fifty continents of aches and useless waiting”), Riad takes on the haunting persona of “the bad guy”:
…I am the bad guy
I had to die soon
Before I got to know terrorist trees and mafias of peace
Before I got to see the death of the ice cream man on a railroad
Or the gypsy who gave me an omen and a kiss
Plus many lies
In Section Two’s “Nicaragua…Nicaragua,” Riad employs a form of poetic magic realism in a poem that seems to teeter on the brink of that country’s 1979 socialist revolution, as follows:
…Smuggled sandwiches through borders
Wizards live in matchboxes
Rabbits learn how to ride bicycles
Squirrel monkeys drink sparkling beverages on beaches
Pockets packed of armored cars
Tongues covered with Nivea
Colored whips like peacocks
And peacocks without fans on display in parks…
In the poem “Three Days” Riad uses shorter, blunter lines, and combines a blistering world critique with a cry for individual love:
…What would happen in this vast dagger
If America stopped eating human flesh
For three days?
What would happen amid this vast world
If we went on strike to abandon despair
For three days?
But what would happen in my vast heart
If I do not love you any more
After three days?
After 24 years of cold fatigue
And after that by three days
Stay in love with me?…
And in the poem that concludes the third section of this surprising book (although the translators provide a coda), “Room of the Poet,” Riad writes a sad, even bitter third-person elegy for himself:
…He sees growing grass in the neglected library
And a wellspring from the wall.
After a little while the night will attack him with moons and nightmares,
The trees of the jungle will attack him,
The sand of the beach,
The gravel of the rivers
And the empty wells
That he filled with black letters.
What does he leave
Except withering poems
And dusty words?
Life seemed to be going well for Riad in the summer of 1982. He had published his third book of poems, was engaged to be married, and was looking for new housing in Damascus suitable to married life. Then, he was arrested and tortured by Syrian security police. Although his detention lasted less than a week—and he resumed working as a journalist afterward—the experience broke Riad.
With little money and in fragile health (he had a second operation for his kidney disease in Bulgaria in 1974, and his liver had been damaged by alcoholism—Razzouk likens Riad’s drinking to that of Dylan Thomas), Riad’s physical and psychological trauma at the hands of the Assad regime proved fatal. Despite his great popularity, he withdrew from others—and others withdrew from him, according to Hashem Shafiq, who believes that with proper treatment Riad might have survived. On November 19 he was found alone in his Damascus apartment, hallucinating, and begging for water—and then he fell into a coma. Riad died at the National Hospital on the following day. He was buried in his parents’ birthplace, Maré, a small town outside of Aleppo. Razzouk summarizes this sad sequence of events: “[Riad] was a victim of the whole situation—the dark tunnel through which Syria had to pass.”
The final poem in Tango Below a Narrow Ceiling is a tribute to Riad by Philip Terman, “It’s All Possible.” (For an essay on how Terman became involved in this book project and a friendship with Saleh Razzouk—including his doubts and fears, due in part to ideas about Arabs formed in his American Jewish childhood, see: https://www.poetryinternationalonline.com/sing-for-the-lost-souls-by-philip-terman/)
Terman addresses these paradoxes in a moving section of his tribute poem, written with appreciation and hope:
…Riad, I try to hallucinate with you, to know those erupting rhythms.
But what do I—raised in another scripture,
our people enemies cursing each other even
onto the next generation—have to do with you?
That’s what I would inquire, if we could sit in my small study,
sipping tea in the light turning to dark turning to dream
that says it’s all possible.
Angele Ellis is a Pittsburgh-based writer and editor of Lebanese descent and the author of four books, including Arab on Radar (Six Gallery Press).
Copyright 2021 by Angele Ellis