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The Dice Player

ISSUE:  Winter 2009

Who am I to say to you
what I say to you?
when I’m not a stone burnished by water
to become a face
or a reed punctured by wind
to become a flute . . .

I’m a dice player
I win some and lose some
just like you or a little less . . .
born beside the water well
and three lonely trees like nuns,
without parade or midwife,
I was given my name by chance
belonged to a family by chance
and inherited its traits, features, and illnesses:

First, arterial disease and high blood pressure
Second, shyness when addressing my parents
and the tree/my grandmother
Third, a hope in being cured of influenza
with a cup of hot chamomile
Fourth, a laziness when speaking about does and larks

Fifth, a boredom in winter nights
Sixth, a failure in singing

I had no hand in being,
it was coincidence that I turned out . . . male
and coincidence that I saw a pale
moon like a lemon tree encroaching on women in late nights.
And I did not try hard to find a mole
in my most private body parts

It was possible that I not be,
that my father not be
my mother’s husband,
and that I could have resembled
my sister who screamed then died
without noticing she was alive
for only an hour
and did not know her mother . . .
Or I could have been a dove’s egg
before the chick cracks the shell

It was coincidence that I was
the one alive in the bus accident
because I didn’t board the bus:
I’d forgotten about existence and its matters
reading through the night before
a love story in which I impersonated the author
and the lover/the victim, then became love’s martyr
but alive in the traffic accident

I had no hand in playing with the sea
though I was a reckless child who fancied
sauntering around water’s gravity
as it called: Come to me!
I had no hand in surviving the sea,
a human seagull saved me when he saw the waves
catch and paralyze my arms

And I could have not been afflicted
with the jinn of the Mu’allaqat
had the house’s gate faced north
instead of overlooking the sea . . .
and had the army patrol not seen the village smoke
baking the night,
had fifteen martyrs
been able to rebuild the barricades,
and had that agricultural place not broken
I might have become an olive tree,
a geography teacher, an expert
in the ants’ kingdom
or one of echo’s watchmen

Who am I to say to you
what I say to you at the church’s door
when I’m only a dice throw
between predator and prey . . .
I gained in clarity
not to enjoy my moonlit night
but to witness the massacre

By chance I survived:
I was smaller than a military target
and larger than a bee moving among the fence flowers,
I feared for my brothers and father
and for a time made of glass, for my cat and rabbit,
for a magical moon over the high minaret,
I feared for the grapevine
that dangled like our dog’s teats . . .
then fear walked me and I walked in it
barefoot forgetting my little memories of what I want
of tomorrow—no time for tomorrow—

I’d walk/jog/run/ascend/descend/scream/
bark/howl/call/wail/speed up/slow down/
plummet/lighten/dry up/march/fly/see/
not see/stumble/turn yellow/green/
blue/crack/sob/thirst/tire/starve/get up/
run/forget/see/not see/remember/hear/
or not/moan/go mad/get lost/become less/
become more/drop/soar/descend/bleed/
fall unconscious/

It was my good fortune that there were no wolves in those parts . . .
a coincidence, or maybe they’d run away from the army

The only hand I had in my life
was when life taught me its recitations
I asked it: Are there more?
then I lit the lanterns
and tried to edit the recitations . . .

I might not have been a swallow
had the wind chosen differently for me,
and wind is the traveler’s luck . . .
I headed north, east, and west
but the south was harsh and obstinate
because the south is my country . . .
I became a swallow’s metaphor to hover over my relic
in autumn and spring . . .
I’d baptize my feathers in the lake
then extend my salaam to the Nazarene
who doesn’t die since within him is God’s breath
and God is a prophet’s luck . . .

and it is my good fortune that I am divinity’s neighbor . . .

as it is my bad fortune that the cross
is our tomorrow’s eternal ladder

Who am I to say to you
what I say to you
who am I?

Revelation might not have been
my ally, and revelation
is the luck of the lonesome:
“the poem is a dice throw”
on a patch of darkness
that may or may not glow
for speech to fall like a feather over the sand

My only hand in a poem
is to obey its rhythm,
the senses’ movements, one sense amending another,
an intuition revealing meaning,
an unconsciousness in the echo of words,
my self’s image as it relocates
from my “I” to another’s,
my self-reliance, and my longing
for the water springs

My only hand in a poem is when
inspiration ceases
and inspiration is the luck of a laboring talent

It was possible that I not love the girl
who asked me the time
had I not been on my way to the movies . . .
and she could have been a mulatto
or another dark mysterious notion . . .

That’s how words are born. I train my heart
to love, to contain roses and thorns . . .
My lexicon is Sufi. My desires are sensory
and I am not who I am right this minute
unless the two meet:
I and the feminine I . . .
O love! what are you? You are yourself
and aren’t. O love, blow our way
some thundering storms that take us to what you love
for us of the heavenly
incarnation into the bodily. Dissolve
in a source that overflows on both sides,
because you—concealed or apparent—
are formless
and we love you when we love by chance
you are the luck of the wretched

It’s my misfortune that I have escaped
death by love several times
and my fortune that I’m still fragile
to reenter experience!

Experienced love whispers to itself:
Love is our truthful lie!
When the beloved hears it
she says: Love comes and goes
like lightning and thunder

And to life I say: Ease up, wait for me
until the dregs in my glass dry . . .
There are radiant roses in the garden and the air
cannot rid itself of the rose, wait for me
lest the nightingales flee me and I mess up the tune

The singers tighten their strings in the plaza
for farewell. O life, ease up and abridge me
lest the song take too long and tone fractures
between interludes . . .
Song is a duality
and by conclusion unitary:
Viva life! O life
ease up and embrace me lest the wind scatter me

Even on the wind I can’t rid
myself of the alphabet

And had I not stood on a mountain

I would have been content
with the falcon’s solitude: there’s no higher light!
But such glory crowned with endless golden blue resists
visitation: the lonely there remains lonely
and can’t come down on his feet,
neither the falcon walks nor the human flies:
O solitude of mountaintop
you’re a summit that resembles a chasm

I played no role in what I was or will become . . .
it was luck and luck is nameless
though we might call it
our fate’s ironsmith, the sky’s postman,
the carpenter of bier or crib,
or the servant of gods in myths
whose texts we wrote then hid
behind Olympus . . .
and they were believed
by the hungry ceramic vendors,
discredited by the sated lords of gold . . .
it’s the author’s misfortune that imagination
is realistic on the stage

Behind the curtains it’s a different matter.
The question isn’t: When?
But: Why, how, and who?

Who am I to say to you
what I say to you?

I could have not been,
the caravan could have fallen
in an ambush, and a boy would have gone
missing from the family, this same
boy who’s grown to write this poem
on this couch, letter by letter, drop
by drop, with black blood
that is neither the raven’s ink
nor its voice . . . but a night
whole and squeezed
by the hands of talent and luck

It was possible for poetry to triumph more
had he, and no other, not been a hoopoe
over the chasm’s mouth.
And he might have said: Had I been another
I might still be my self the second time around

That’s how I scheme: Narcissus wasn’t as beautiful
as he thought, but his makers tangled him
in his mirror, and he contemplated long and hard
an air that drips water . . .
had he been able to see other than himself
he would have loved a girl who stares at him
and forgets the stags that run
between iris and chrysanthemum.
Had he been smarter
and destroyed his mirror
he would have seen how much he is the others
and had he been free
he wouldn’t have become a myth . . .

And mirage is the traveler’s book in the desert . . .
without it, the traveler wouldn’t keep on marching
for water. These are clouds, he says
and carries his hope’s jug in one hand, while the other
grabs his waist. He stomps his feet on the sand
to gather clouds in a hole
as mirage calls to him,
seduces him, deceives him, lifts him and says: Read
if you are able to read. And write
if you are able to write. He reads:
Water, water. And writes
a line on the sand: If it weren’t for the mirage
I wouldn’t be alive still

It’s the traveler’s good fortune that hope
is despair’s twin, or its improvised poem

When the sky appears ashen
and I see a rose that has suddenly burst
out of a crack in a wall I don’t say:
The sky is ashen!
I extend my study of the rose
and say to it: What a day!

And at the entrance of night I say
to two of my friends:
If there must be a dream, let it be
like us . . . and simple
as in our having dinner together
the three of us in a couple of days
to celebrate the truthfulness of prophecy in our dreams
and that the three of us
did not go missing
one in the last couple of days . . .
we’d celebrate the “Moonlight” Sonata
and death’s magnanimity when it saw us happy
then looked away!

I don’t say: Life over there is real
and has imaginary places . . .
I say: Life, here, is possible
and only by chance
did the land become holy:
its lakes and hills and trees
aren’t a replica of a higher paradise,
but a prophet set foot there
and when he prayed on a rock it wept
and the mount fell prostrate in piety
then unconscious

And by chance the field’s slope in a land became
a museum for the void . . .
thousands of soldiers perished there,
from either side, defending two leaders
who say: Charge! Two leaders who wait inside two
silken tents for the loot of either side . . .
Soldiers repeatedly die but never know
which side triumphed!

And by chance, some narrators survived and said:
If those had triumphed over these
our human history would have different addresses

O land “I love you green,” green. An apple
waving in light and water. Green. Your night
green. Your dawn, green. So plant me gently,
with a mother’s kindness, in a fistful of air.
I am one of your seeds, green

and this poem has more than one poet
and did not need to be lyrical

Who am I to say to you
what I say to you,
I could have not been who I am
I could have not been here

The plane could have crashed
with me on board that morning
but it’s my good fortune that I sleep in

I could have not seen Damascus or Cairo
the Louvre or the magical towns

And had I been a slow walker
a rifle might have severed
my shadow from the sleepless cedar

And had I been a fast walker
I might have become shrapnel
and a passing whim

And had I been an excessive dreamer
I could have lost my memory

It’s my good fortune that I sleep alone
and that I listen to my body
and believe my talent in discovering
pain in time to call the doctor
ten minutes before dying . . .
ten minutes, enough for me to live by chance
and disappoint the void

Who am I to disappoint the void
who am I, who am I?

—Translated by Fady Joudah


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