Words

by Venus Khoury-Ghata

In those days I know now words declaimed the wind
besides pebbles, there were moons, but no lamps
the stars would emerge later from a brawl between two flintstones

I’ll tell you everything there were five pebbles
one for each continent
vast enough to contain a child of a different color

So there were five children but no houses
windows but no walls
wind but no streets
the first man wore a stone around his neck

He made an arrangement with the first tree
an oak if I remember correctly
the one who got there first could drink up the ocean

Language at that time was a straight line reserved for birds
the letter “i” was the cleft of a female hummingbird
“h” a ladder with one rung necessary to replace a charred sun before nightfall
“o” a hole in the sole of the universe

Unlike the consonants with their rough garments
the vowels were naked
all the weaver’s art consisted of humoring them
in the evening they counted each other to make sure no one was missing
in the rocky countries men slept without dreaming

Words
blind flight in the darkness
fireflies wheeling in on themselves
pebbles in the pocket of an absent-minded dead man
projectiles against the cemetery wall
they broke up into alphabets
ate a different earth on each continent

Alef breathes from right to left
to erase dunes and camel-drivers
who count the stars with their heads in the sand
twelve times in a row
Thus

It’s in “Ba’ ”s basin that the moon’s menstrual blood is washed
in the eternal copper
when women on nocturnal terraces make rash vows

“Ta” paces up and down land poor in grass and compassion
all that counts is the gesticulations of the shadow which
erases writes
erases writes steps and passers-by

There are country alphabets and town alphabets
Tell me what words you use I’ll tell you the number of your cattle

Where do words come from?
from what rubbing of sounds are they born
on what flint do they light their wicks
what winds brought them into our mouths

Their past is the rustling of stifled silences
the trumpeting of molten elements
the grunting of stagnant waters

Sometimes
they grip each other with a cry
expand into lamentations
become mist on the windows of dead houses
crystallize into chips of grief on dead lips
attach themselves to a fallen star
dig their hole in nothingness
breathe out strayed souls

Words are rocky tears
the keys to the first doors
they grumble in caverns
lend their ruckus to storms
their silence to bread that’s ovened alive

How to find the name of the fisherman who hooked the first word
of the woman who warmed it in her armpit
or of the one who mistook it for a pebble and threw it at a stray dog?

what do we know of the alphabets of sand buried beneath the feet of caravans
turned into silica
shards of glass
venerated by the camel-drivers as star-debris?

Must we question those who strip the dunes
those winds lawless and faithless which unearth men’s bones
then throw their chalk at the moon which bleaches the tender and the dry
must we leaf through the cliffs’ layers in search of the first hunter
who fired the first number at a stone-thrower
shut him up in a cage
and taught him how to sing up to ten

His song lit the first candle
It’s to that flame that we owe the first superstitions:
“Three lit candles mean there’ll be a quarrel”
“Four tapers around a bed call death down”

Hunter and fisherman were rooted at that time
only time walked
those who didn’t like dying shut a sun up in their wells
a man’s fortune was measured by the number of his openings
a tuft of broom grew over the dignitary’s cave
his life was measured by the number of women wrapped in his odor
his dust said so

The prudent man looped his family to his belt
that was the fashion
the moon was only a reflex of the sun which dived into the same well twice
the first time to wash itself
the second time to displace its weight of water and noise
the cold squeezed it to the size of an apple
one could pluck it merely by standing on tiptoe
summer stretched it from one horizon to another
the sky was its hammock turned upside down

Sun was the name of the first rooster
moon that of the first hen
bread within the moon’s reach disappeared according to the hunter
his rooster gone hoarse
he lost interest in the calendar
then time was written in a rough draft
they drew straws for the years
night and day tossed a coin heads or tails
the basil decided everything

Language at that time opened fire on every noise
it paced up and down the pastures in search of sound-sprouts on which it
grazed from right to left in order of their intonations
Never more than one pasture before the great seasonal migration to the
peaks of the alphabet where speech is rare

The sugared odor of the honeysuckle attracted the young letters and the bees

B came back with its mouth bearded with blackberries
F was staggering from having smoked devils’ weed
its ladder on its back, H pretended to have scaled the sound barrier

In cold countries the male letters were hairy
Water was the earth’s meditation
its intimate thoughts revealed in the light of day
its pebbly dialect
The stream read itself out loud
the sea repeated the same sentence from continent to continent

There were words with horns and feathers
and properly dressed words
those driven from paradise for their lack of modesty were naked
They wandered in search of a mirror they could penetrate with its
silvering’s approval
their presence was signaled by a trembling of the light
by a jangling of glass when they lined up on the windows’ guardrails
timid children call them the glassy ones
One marries the words of one’s own language
to settle down
traveling is for the others
who borrow lines the way they take a train

What do we know about the alphabets which didn’t survive the rising of
the waters
letters buried in their silicate vestments become silenced sounds in
the silenced silt
what do we know about “’Aïn” which lit its lamp between two waves about the
womblike concavity of “Nûn” of the putrescibility of “Ha” of the legendary
weight of “Tah”?

It was in a quadruple-knotted shroud in a net of stone that Aleph was
fished up offshore from the old city of Tyr because only the kelp spoke at
that time silence whitened the walls
“Dod” is my mother said the earth
“Sod” is my stepmother
They walked from the beginning of the alphabet in search of the first letter
which they lifted like a gravestone to find the remains of the first language
the one mumbled by lips become crumbly from rubbing their voices against
the flintstone

“Alef” a magician’s wand
a tramp translated into seven languages
a stick to train cats with and give the hummingbird’s cage to the chastest one

“Sine” a slotted ladle
that scoops up stars from the bowl where the devil makes marmalade

“Ra” calls for help to the angels
who cross the Gospels on foot

“Qaf” a gaudy letter which
sows discord among the tribes
its club foot drags along old angers come from a faraway alphabet

The words which spring up on the borders of lips retain their terrors
children dry them between the pages
head-to-tail like roses trodden by doves
the blood beating in their temples grieves the mothers who dry the walls out
after the rains

books the mothers say become sad for no reason
they want dry words when it’s the rainy season
the dampness shrinks houses and makes the laundry weep

Words, she says, used to be wolves
they lined up on the mountain peaks to tell the moon about the difficulty of
climbing the slope
the complacency of the flocks
and the chaotic movements of migrating clouds

They placed their anger at the moon’s feet when it turned the black book of night
went to sleep amidst the ranting of the pages which spoke of a golden country
where sleep drops into the wells with its load of turbaned stars
But wolves don’t know the Orient

Words, she says, are like the rain everyone knows how to make them
you only have to wring a cloud out upside down and Noah will write with
both hands
It rains to teach the streetlights how to count
to sow disorder among the pigeons
raise the hackles of the laundry hung on clotheslines

It rains to rain
and make the dead think that the sea has moved to a higher place

Unlike the wind which speaks for itself
the rain has a spokesman the mute fog
if only every man had his own drainpipe to discuss things with God through
the clouds

It was there and nowhere else
on an earth girdled with winds
that the first words discussed the problems of water and a place in the sun

their mouths filled with blaring
they told of the mute dust and the cries of the rocks

their number was no greater than that of the living
one man one word
a man who died gave up his place to the tree of his choice

Man and oak shared the same bark
the same age inscribed in the sapwood
the same shadow
the tree above
the man below
and sometimes the other way around when the earth felt like turning over

The rain had few followers at that time
the gutterspouts ran only with rumors
and the troughs on the rooftops collected the sweat of the stars

Tired of wringing out dry laundry
women leaned on the air as on a sweetheart’s arm

the houses had lost their doors along with their illusions
anyone who’d rush in through a gap in the wall won a pair of wings and a pair of scissors

they’d sharpen the bride to needle her into the man’s sleep
the child born of their coupling had woolen hands in anticipation of
the coming snow
a snow which would come up through the ground
a whole people’s toes planted there

Guilty of repeated forgetfulness words retreated over the cold ground
to endure the ordeal of silence and chastise themselves for having overflowed
their meanings in a language which admits no excesses

They lived in a white silence hunted inaudible sounds fished in the eddies of
muddy marshes

Their form changed with the light The evening which smoothed out angles
transformed them into timid objects
Crammed together against the foot of the wall they watched for sleep which would find a place for them in dreams
the herbalist’s sleep was peopled with aloes
hermits made brews of it which they drank with their foreheads pressed to
the earth

There are words from poor people’s gardens that crossbreed iron and thorns Words of obscure origins which is the usual lot of words Swift suns
send them yellow kisses The silent yew chases the bees away from
them Colorless words that sleep in the bread- box with the bread’s consent wake up with the mirrors dress up their echoes venture
into the cities cross mouths without looking both ways limp on both
feet rot at the touch of lips finish their journey in the gutter with
the moons which have used up all their matches

From: 
Translated by Marilyn Hacker

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About Venus Khoury-Ghata

Venus Khoury-Ghata's picture

Biography
Vénus Khoury-Ghata is a prolific writer of fiction as well as poetry, she made a conscious choice of French as her language of expression: she could have written in Arabic, as does her novelist/journalist sister who remained in Beirut. She translates contemporary poetry from Arabic, notably of the renowned Syro-Lebanese poet Adonis, and the Arabic language often seems to speak through her French, in the elaborate, pithy figurative language in which she delights, in the landscapes and seasons through which her poems’ protagonists (hers are poems, often sequences, with protagonists) move. Audré Lorde’s term “biomythography” is often applicable to Khoury-Ghata’s poetry, as she makes larger-than-life, sometimes tragic and often wryly humorous poem-narratives incorporating her family’s, her region’s and her country’s history.