Last week, by sheer happenstance, I stumbled across one of the most handsomely stocked second-hand poetry book-shelves I’ve ever seen. Delight ! I stood, sat, crouched and craned leafing through so many beautiful collections before deciding that I need limit my purchase to two.
When it came time to pay for my careful selection I complimented the man behind the counter on the collection. He smiled a kind of kindly, knowing smile and said he’d pass the message onto his colleague – who would normally be working today except for a poetry conference he had to attend (himself a poet, from what I could understand). Aha, yes, that makes complete sense we thought, perhaps reciprocally.
I asked a little about one of the books I had chosen – a beautiful hardback copy of An Anthology of Somali Poetry, translated and compiled by B. & S. Andrzejewski, published by Indiana University Press (1993). Apparently it had been sitting on the shelf for nine years (just waiting for me – I was sure). The following two poems are from the aforementioned collection.
The first, The Stolen Wife, is attributed to the late Somali pastoralist, Qamaan Bulxan, born in 1857 and assassinated in 1928. According to the brief biographical note in the text Qamaan ‘played an important role in local politics as a spokesperson and poetic champion of his clan’ (1993: 62). The introductory note to the poem reads,
‘When the poet’s young wife went to visit her kinsfolk a plot was hatched by them to provide spurious grounds for her to be divorced and to marry her to another man of their choice. The news of this treachery reached the poet when he came as a guest to the encampment of his friend Haybe’ (1993: 62). I really love this poem and the fact or experience of being interpolated as a person of Qamaan’s audience at such a moment of anguish.
The Stolen Wife
It is only right, O Haybe,
That I should stoop down low with sorrow.
Do not lead me to my bed,
For there I toss from side to side
And wait in vain for sleep to come.
If someone is told that the girl he wed
Has been given in marriage to another man,
And if a broad javelin, poison-tipped,
Has deeply pierced his flesh right to its core,
Are these not grounds enough to be bereft of sleep?
I am such a man – don’t lead me to my bed.
Once some cattle drank a water-hole quite dry –
Not even enough to fill a pitcher did they leave –
Yet back they came to it, looking for more.
I am like them – don’t lead me to my bed.
It is said that a man once lost his mare
And followed her footprints, but found her dead.
He turned away from the tracks she had made
And setting off once more he roamed in circles
Around the place where her head was lying,
Hoping that he would find her still alive.
I am like him – don’t lead me to my bed.
A man beneath whose ribs consumption has forced its way
And filled his chest with putrid matter,
Will turn on his side in search of fitful sleep,
Unable to rid himself of sore resentment.
Food he still may take
But he knows for certain he will die.
I am like him – don’t lead me to my bed!
Turning away from the tracks she’d made to set off once more only to roam in circles around the place where her head lay, hoping still to find her alive. If you’ve ever known and loved a horse who has died . . . this is just such a heartbreaking, heavy, and hopeless image.
This second poem is attributed to a 19th century pastoralist, Cali Bucul.
Guulside, The Victory Bearer
There are three that share alike the name of horse,
And first there’s the charger, that does not flinch
When javelins and arrow fly –
He’s the one that enemies will cower from in fear.
Then there’s the plodding nag, that’s good for journeys made by night –
A useful mount for those advanced in years.
And lastly there’s the mare, with which the other horses mate.
They know, these three, that all are of the same descent,
However much they differ in character and mien.
All have their respective grades of quality
And this is recognized at the assembly tree –
Is that not so, my noble people?
Now if I set out the give due praise
To my horse Guulside, the Victory Bearer,
And try to describe what he is like,
I must fall short in my account
For he is like a pool which fills with water
And fills itself again and yet again
And we will never fathom all his secrets.
Is that a fault on my part, O men, whoever you may be?
One evening is all the time he needs
To traverse the slopes of the Almis hills,
The plain of Harawo and the Gureys encampments.
Is he not as swift as ta rain-bearing cloud at night?
At times of raging drought
When men lose hope for their herds,
You can ride out on Guulside
And he drives home looted camels.
Is he not like a man of mettle, raiding others’ encampments?
At night, wherever he is put to graze,
His clamorous neighing wards off beasts of prey.
A mighty bellow he sends forth –
Is he not like a lion, the leader of a pride of lions?
Wherever he is tethered
His fierce roaring protects that place
Against an enemy bent on mischief,
Against a powerful force,
Against a horde of warriors,
Against a troop of horsemen ready to attack,
Against marauders lurking round in bands.
No hunger comes into his homestead
People can sleep there soundly – can they not? –
For is he not like the death that massacres all creatures
And from which men flinch in horror?
Even when dark and moonless night
Is enveloped by a falling sheet of rain
Whose drumming, and the road of the wind,
Sets all living things a-tremble
And scatters their wits with fright,
He can detect the scent of a lurking thief.
Is he not then a soothsayer, a knower of hidden things,
A master of divination from the telling of the beads?
His body has not yet begun to grow old
But there is white at his nape and on his mane
See – is he not like an acacia tree in bloom?
Those last few lines and just so beautiful.