Fatima Naoot

Cockerel's Crest
Photo: Karolis Zukauskas
Translated from the Arabic by Valerie Gillies in collaboration with the poet in a poetry workshop

How pleasant to lie down
and stretch out your arms
to touch ceiling and cornice
or to link your hands
under your chin like a cat
who stretches her spine.

How pleasant to open out
like a butterfly
drying untouched wings
not one white smudge
on her blue.

How pleasant to breathe
all the air of the room
before it is puffed up
by coughing and wheezing
or marked
by a cockerel's crest.

How pleasant to have half
the bed for a library
and to have two pillows
rather than one.



To Zainab Ta'lab

Translated from the Arabic by Valerie Gillies in collaboration with the poet in a poetry workshop


the slender one
A white dove over her head
a sweetie-poke pocket
and a fiery ember
in place of her heart

Who will gather the scattered shreds
of the boy from the roads?
Who'll bring the torn papers together?
Who will hunt snowflakes
from the clouds
to bind a gathering of pages
between two covers
to become the whole book?

I'm devoted to solitude
the lady of two regions
I taught myself that grief is an art
to smile when grieving is an art
to be dignified in grieving is an art.

Once it was a wreath of laurels
with three blossoms in it
The first was promised
to a lover who left
on a hunting trip
a one-way journey:
the lover left me on my own

The second blossom was for a boy
whom I fed on grain
from the palm of my hand
so he grew up to reach
to the fronds of the palm tree
and drift beyond into the sky
like smoke or poems
or the children's swings.

Don't believe the colour
that left my dress
and my hair-ribbons
Don't believe the jewels
that left my neck
or the silence that falls
over my garden,
for in the heart
there's still some honey
although lovers have passed by,
sweets for the poor children
of the neighbourhood;
and in the face blanched like snow
still the warmth of mercy
that can provide life to the dead.

And the third blossom,
the bride of the Nile
dives into the Red Sea
to come up again as a water-lily
in the Mediterranean.
Bearing her spear she steps out
like a Roman goddess.
Water drips from her braid.
She is my child
on her threshold
lovers fought
so I threw her in the Nile:
beautiful, charming,
an offering
for the sake of the absent ones.

Don't ask the moon in the corridor
how I kept watching her
through its glass
as she stepped from her room
to the garden fence
and don't ask the pink strands of wool
how I knitted for her childhood
a bridge of coloured links
and a net out of the shadows
of the olive tree near home
so the child steps toward spring
as a lass.

I am the slender Isis
no diamond on my finger
no gold bracelet on my wrist
but a crown of light on my head
a smile on my lips
and in my heart
a whole galaxy.

The Sand Station
Translated from the Arabic by Robert Minhinnick in collaboration with the poet in a poetry workshop

The world will be a poorer place tomorrow.
Before he has the chance to open his newspaper
In his favourite seaside café,
Immediately after the first sip of coffee,
The Devil will die.

And life will be less
Without him. From now on
Who will care if I claim
To be better than my jealous friends?
Who will I have to blame
For the toothache that swells my jaw?
The story that Satan lived in the dirt of our fingernails?
It was an old wives' tale.

But think of Christina.
She died too, and nobody came.
Christina died lighting the Christmas tree
In a room where a poem is hung on an ebony frame.
How Cavafy had adored her young girl's gaze.

Because women
Die. Cavafy's lovers
Died. Into the dark
Without protest they go,
Those brides in black.

So we sit in the Elite café
Considering the coffins that will contain us all,
Even the fishermen who haul
Whole shoals to the harbour steps
And have dulled themselves to death.

Now it's our duty to devise
A funeral for the deceased Devil.
Think of the mourners we'll meet:
My father, who courted my mother for two lovesick years;
My mother who found a physician
To place a wafer of words in my son's mouth.
Even the shoemaker who scattered  hobnails in the street.
And I'll be there too, of course,
Silent, serious, receiving the condolences
A widow expects.

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