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Audio: Read by the author.

“Speak to us of poetry and politics,”
he said to me from his seat in the audience
as I was on stage. Throughout the weekend,
before the prize was made public, he was euphoric,
buoyant, generous, said his father was a tyrant.
“Say something about exile,” he requested
a little later. We were in a small town
no one lives in, that patrons had turned
into a hostel for arts and culture, outpost
for fair and festival, colony for a future
that spares ranches, hiking trails,
vulture flocks that trim carcasses
and claim fences. The main hall was a restored
cottage where an icon was born: her mother
tended the land, her father walked to work
and home, and her brother, unaided,
built the treehouse in a pecan
we can still see. Later, the poet,
with mike in hand, took the stage and said
that he stood for beautiful things in literature,
for kind speech, then read a poem by a brilliant
woman who’d recently died. Troubadours aside,
he added, and pound for pound, the precious
lunacy of translation, “There’s no language
like ours:” We have Shakespeare, have abolished
consanguinity, erected a sky to bark up
the cellulose of time, “and I don’t say this
to be bellicose,” he preempted the thought
reserved for presidents, not prophets.
Far from morose in an age of infidels,
between his thumb and index, he held a daffodil
he’d plucked from a nearby pond, an anthem
he never abandoned. At dinner
he told me three decades had passed
since he’d come across a love poem a famous
Arab had written. He didn’t like it. That’s
all right, I thought; it’s sentimental, rhymes
in the original, and its best parts
are untranslatable. He spoke with the tender
transparency of fibers liberated
from ill will. “And that Nobel laureate,
he’s great, but arrogant,” he clarified,
“though another cried at the sight
of a hill in the backwoods of Burgundy.”
“Shakespeare is not English,” I said,
my poker face on. “You mean
he belongs to the world?” he replied
after a brief pause—then picked up a thread
from an earlier chat, on the mysticism
that pervades Asian shores,
occasionally setting sail
to us, or we to it: “As for the Sufis,”
he said, “it’s all been done before.”
And I hadn’t taken him for a believer
in antecedence. Though it is
in his spirit that pigeons fly
as lightly as they alight.


Fady Joudah has received the Yale Younger Poets Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Griffin Poetry Prize for his poetry and translations. His most recent collection, Tethered to Stars, is forthcoming from Milkweed.

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