Four Poems by Sabreen Kadhim
Sabreen Kadhim is City of Asylum’s poet-in-residence from Iraq. She has published poems widely in Iraqi magazines and newspapers, such as Al-Sabah, Al-Taakhi, and Al-Zamaan newspapers as well as Al-Esbuaya Magazine and Al-Hurra TV. She was the winner of the 3rd UNESCO Poetry Contest in 2011 and jointly won the Iraqi Youth Poetry Festival competition in 2012 (organized by the Culture For All Association). Her debut poetry collection, I Introduce Myself To Water, is awaiting publication.
Sabreen’s poetry reflects her experience as a woman, a young Iraqi, and an artist whose message is one of reconciliation and a tenacious hope.
Water My Heart with a Jonquil
Translated by Krystelle Bamford
So you think it’s like the unspoken split
in the grafting of flowers,
both blooming brighter because of it?
That’s only distance
wearing an intimate scent.
Our votive burns low—
we’ve learned to love each other
like we love ourselves, for ourselves
only, which, really, is no kind of love,
in the end. My heart is skinned raw.
And, don’t you know, I sleep like the dead,
with the slowness of death, and here’s you
writing your life with a hack’s careless hand—
put that pen down and listen—love,
love is a poem, but it’s also
the white space of mornings in bed,
it’s the plink of the spoon at a café with friends.
Don’t you know? That when you approach me, you come
as my penitent at the altar we cobbled, together?
That you carry in your pocket a vial of rosewater,
a candle to splash my floors with wax, with light,
your voice, like a glass of sweet wine?
And when your hands unfold from prayer,
it’s not the wind that unfurls them, but you?
That though you’ve barred your heart
love’s revelation speaks
voicelessly, without cease,
like floodwaters building at your door,
and that the angels of the flood are also
the angels of what is between us?
Love is its own name on my hand in biro,
left there by your hand. It’s jonquils nested in foil
to fill my bare garden table.
It’s flying a balloon by a string from your window,
with my name shining across it.
It’s you shining much like this string
of words across the page. That, that is love.
And again, I’ll ask
how you can question it
and more, how can I possibly answer you?
Each time, I get out the thread, the needle,
to darn the tears on my heart,
but the stitches pull and lace together,
gathering tear to tear.
Are you awake? I am, though I’ve lost myself
in your dent in the sofa, so it’s just
my body men see on the street.
And again, love is knowing my fingerprints,
your hands in my hair, your eyes
lighting my own like lamps in a window,
never drawing the shades.
It’s setting a place for two
when you meant to eat alone.
It’s hanging vines in the garden with votives
and feeding each other light like grapes.
It’s bringing me a dress to dance in,
knowing that I only own trousers.
It’s playing together like children,
it’s bending to my skinned knee.
It’s growing me a jonquil. It’s the surprise
on seeing your face at its center. Love
never knocks, nor does it live in our bed.
It makes its home in our eyes,
and shelters me from the wind.
It’s the silent answer
to my silent question.
It’s sewing me with kisses, like seeds.
So, has the wick blackened to its end
or was it simply never lit?
Are you with me? Are you with me?
Don’t you dare ask me back…I’m here,
clutching my match in the darkness.
Why Write this Poem?
Translated by John Glenday
You don’t have a house, so I can’t clatter stones against the wall
to attract your attention.
I even had a hammer ready, believe it or not.
You haven’t any windows for my body to set rattling.
I could transform myself into a spirit level;
work out where you’re coming from,
your slopes and angles;
be guided towards your centre of gravity;
or how about a living set square – plot those lines of symmetry, get myself on your level;
or a child’s windmill: here I am, filling with laughter whenever you come close
and gust around me.
No alarm will go off in your head for all those nights on the tiles when I was feverish hot.
You won’t give a toss for the insults I’ll heap on you in the morning
and to cap it all I’m fresh out of cigarettes.
So tomorrow our kisses won’t taste of smoke. Oh I can hear you now:
-“Exactly how many cigarettes did you get through?”
-“I smoked the night to a stub, thanks to your bloody absence!”
Our kisses will ferry us back to the center – we’ll leave it in flames.
Here we are, draped in the city’s soot-black cloths and liturgies.
You have no wall? My kingdom for a wall! If you had a wall
there wouldn’t have been any point in writing this poem, after all.
Translated by Jen Hadfield
No one will let you in on this:
that what lies beyond that door is regret
no one will explain that you’re the outsider
despite your conviction that you’re the defining feature –
like a footnote
at the bottom of the page
that you’d need a scholar to decipher
but even the scholars aren’t letting on!
No-one is giving anything away.
No-one will offer you the benefit of his experience
or unburden himself to you
no one will linger to get this off her chest
or put her feet up or wait along with you
because what you are not
is a chair!
The thoughts that drone like flies about you
no-one will dispel
because you are not a bus or a station
or a road or a bridge
or a pavement or a tree
so you stand on one leg
looking forward to your visitor
and you sweep your welcoming arm open –
just for him to give you the slip
and escape your embrace.
So you toughen up –
this is what they say about you.
Somebody is coming, wearing perfume.
If only you were perfume.
Somebody passes through you with a suitcase.
How you wish you were clothes.
No-one will tell you
that regret is what lies beyond that door –
no-one will say “I’m telling you this
for your own good.”
You’re so scholarly, and so inarticulate!
Like the footnote languishing
in the page’s gutter.
And they will never tell you
because you are simply
The World is Dying Gently
Translated by Lauren Pyott & William Letford
after all the atrocities
triviality will make you cry
after all the explosions
it’s the cold that’ll burn you
thoughts conceived by poets
the mask relies on air
the features smile, nothing else
a kinked banner straightens
a mosquito sips on fleeing blood
a wolf consummates pursuit
humanity consummates war
war will never end..
after the atrocities
the trivial things will make them cry
after the explosions
the cold will burn them
is already dead
thoughts conceived by the world
All are masks