Home > Essays > Poetics of Islands
Translated from the French by Kazim Ali
Published: Mon Oct 25 2021
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, El Fracoso de los Texeles / The Failure of the Church Women (detail), 2004, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
AGNI 94 Politics Youth Dystopia
Poetics of Islands

I could have written poetically of the islands since they draw our destiny with their constellations on the ocean; I could have spoken from the heart of this resonance, the sound of water on the senses, forgetting that their volcanic earth and basalt roots are all that keeps them from drifting out to sea, that they hold within them the stamp of time, of the ages, of people sanded down, the people we have become.

Then again no.

I have no business writing the poetics of the islands. Of the tea trees, their sublime homeopathy, of the deceptive blue of our skies, the lean and slender music of the bird-flutes of our sinister shepherds, our bait that waits like little girls, open-mouthed to infinity

I’m sick of biting off and chewing this dust, of scratching with my thin claws, searching for some chunk of literary gold

to hell with all the disarrayed images of our homelands

reflections of our particular misery

gravitational images that weigh us down with too much self and condemn us to keep our noses to the ground, to the acid-cropped earth

images of us made to weep by the infinite smallness of our dreams

And being unable: to say more, to do more, that the words can’t wear another hat, something incandescent, a sort of burning, that they have no other power except to remain silent unless one speaks from the pulpit in the name of some god or from the rostrum, so many votes lobbed among the ruins like hopes scattered by the blows of billy clubs

No—the others—words dissected like worms that slither and twist like branches of a banyan tree, words charged with angelic and metallic use, by life by death by the lurid leers of dreams by disillusionment, writing like one can’t remember anymore, but the words don’t travel any farther than the tips of my fingers, stuck in darkness and amnesia, dispersing as soon as they are spoken, gone to the shipwrecked sailors’ cemetery, or the graveyard of elephants who died losing their tusks

What can we do, we don’t have anything other than words to think to translate to certify to betray words that lead nowhere but indifference and have never been spoken except when accompanied by a threat, and when we listen, terrorisms of words, why not, but writing never convinced with threats nor answers, only with questions, interrogations, the whys and hows, you cannot say because because you know you know nothing at all, all you can do is ask yourself if there are other responses than those of a preacher, a fortune teller, a doomsayer, you should realize only your own judgement and truthfulness matter, why do you always believe everything you hear, all the images remote-controlled into you, oh excuse me, televised into you without which you’d be lost like children and never understand anything important, you don’t even know the names of things anymore, not a tree, not a chair, a face, you need someone to tell you what is white and what is black, this is a tree, this is a chair, this isn’t a man this is a woman who has gone bad throw a stone of words and deliver yourself from evil

Tell me how in these circumstances

How can you possibly

How can you not enter a state of rage like entering a state of grace

Then you see a wing, a flickering shadow of a will-o’-the-wisp in the poor neighborhoods, a stroke of light, a slap of rain, a brownblack ray, and you follow it to find out where it goes to not lose sight of it to understand what you’ve seen, his light and his laugh, to hang on to him, as long as he is there you’ll have hope, then you see where he goes, where he buries himself and where you know he will no longer be

How to speak to this child, yes, him, ‘there’ the one who brags before the cameras, this young street kid with his slender body and strong sinewy calves from so much running on the pavement, his loud clear laugh fading suddenly away through his shoulders, his delicate neck, his smooth back, the power

Power of life and death until he wakes up one day, his carefree careless ways shot down by a Kalashnikov dropped into his hands

And life takes on a different shade, a different metal

How to tell him, this kid who could have been mine, that this isn’t the only way, that there are others you can choose if you want, past these explosive impulses, the deceptive casual power of a bullet, because at the moment you think yourself ready to receive it, to take your destiny by the hand, it will escape you, contemptuously reverse and strike you in the face, the killing blow you do not see coming but from your exploded mouth hangs the mud of your dreams and with this in your hands you will know nothing of others but their fear you will bend by your rage but no other body will ever have offered you love

What will you gain? Nothing but a lonely death and an ignominious one even before having lived even before having known the vast possibilities the many temptations you are a little dead heap and the air spitting out of your mouth is your last

Do you think those who gain power by climbing on your back will remember the little sun and moon of your face

your starry laughter

your nose wrinkling in anger

your hands as flexible as eels?

None of it, not even the sound of their boots treading on your back

A small knife ready to slide into your belly, you will turn soon enough against yourself. You don’t matter to them any more than that.

I want to take you in my arms. Rock you like the child you are, caress your gilt edges when they burn, whisper a lullaby in your mouth until ordinariness settles into you. I want to be the one who saves you. Draws you from urgent need and gives you back innocence and insolence, contemplates your sleeping limbs, legs splayed out, your arms thrown wide, your head slumped to one side, all this looks like death, but it’s not death, it’s something else, the storm of a dream passing in a downpour against your sails, a leafy respite in your mouth, tasting of freedom.

The kid fled. He didn’t want anything to do with me. I had to let him leave. He will rejoin his militia, the seduction of a flag. In his country, they take the words of poetry and turn them into butchery. Such is the fate of chimeras. Each of our gods whispers its own incantatory lines into our ears. If we are told to kill, should we listen? How long do we continue this obedience?

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Ananda Devi is one of the major French-language writers from Mauritius and the Indian Ocean. Her work, which includes novels, short stories, and poems, has been translated into a dozen languages. The French government awarded her the titles of Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in 2012 and Officier des Arts et des Lettres in 2021. (updated 10/2021)

Kazim Ali’s books include poetry, fiction, essay, and cross-genre work. He has also edited several critical volumes and anthologies, most recently New Moons: Contemporary Writing by North American Muslims (Red Hen Press, 2021), and translated books by Marguerite Duras, Sohrab Sepehri, Mahmoud Chokrollahi, and Ananda Devi. Before his academic career he worked in public policy and organizing. He later danced with Cocoon Modern Dance and co-founded and was the first publisher of the independent press Nightboat Books. He is chair of the Department of Literature at the University of California, San Diego. (updated 10/2021)
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