Signaling with Two Hands: Intensifications of Language in Khalid al-Ma‘ali

By Jeffrey Sacks
Submitted to Session P4794 (Form and Language in Arabic Poetics, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
In a volume entitled al-Hub?? ‘al? al-y?bisa (1997) the Iraqi poet, translator, and publisher Khalid al-Ma‘ali (b. 1956) writes of what transpires where “Your shelter disappeared behind a cloud,” and where there is nothing left to and from language but its exposure to the finitude of the sorts of beings that we are. But with this exposure, language is no longer confined to what takes place with it when the poet uses language as an instrument to convey thought, but where language, itself, becomes displaced from the communicative function to which it is conscripted in the disciplines for literary reading. A short poem entitled “Arrival?” (Wu??l?), schools us in this displacement: “When my life had passed/ And the years had been lost/ Like birds in the sky/ I leaned my saddle bag against memory’s wall/ I travelled there a long while/ I ended up with my uncertainties/ At the crossing, where I had left/ I signal with two hands.” Like the poetic subject figured here, language ceases to be something that is to have arrived, finally, at its end. It is not only that this arrival is held an abeyance, but that, finally, when the end of the poem arrives, it splits in two and divides: “I signal with two hands.” This signaling becomes a way of describing what happens with language in poetic statement: it indicates not once but twice, with two hands. The whole body that is promised in relation to language—the body of which these hands would be parts—is not affirmed through this signaling, but is displaced and discombobulated there. The end of language is not the affirmation of the being that utters it, and whose body is promised in the poem, but only the coming apart of language into pieces, its signaling in two directions at once. This paper takes the interpretation of language in this poem to read al-Ma‘ali’s poetic corpus as an investigation of and series of experiments with language, as an intensification of a reflection on language, and it does so by reading this poetry in relation to one of the many acts of poetic translation with which al-Ma‘ali has been engaged: the translation of the poetry and prose of Paul Celan from German into Arabic, in a collected volume entitled Sama‘tu man yaq?l (1999).