Les Yeux Fermés (Eyes Closed), by Soleïman Adel Guémar, translated by Tom Cheesman & John Goodby (Hafan Books, 2014), ISBN 9780992656423.
Reviewed by Andrea Tallarita
Consider – ‘à ses pieds / les disparus / les massacrés / les torturés / les détenus’ (‘at his feet / the disappeared / the massacred / the tortured / the detained’). While these lines are not necessarily representative of the whole body of work contained within Les Yeux Fermés (LYF), the new collection by Soleïman Adel Guémar, they remind us that poetry of exile can be crude and bleak in a way it is seldom written in our pacified European Union.
Adel Guémar was born in Algeria, in 1963, and has been residing as an asylum-seeker in Swansea since 2002. Having lived through the Algerian ‘terror decade’ makes his work valuable poetry of testimony even in its simplicity and brutality. His first collection, State of Emergency, brought together the poems he wrote in Algeria; Eyes Closed now contains what he wrote while living in Swansea.
The book includes poetry that spans eight years of the poet’s life, so there’s an understandably broad span to the form and the themes. By and large, it is musical free verse, with the odd loose rhyme or Alexandrine appearing in some of the poems. The recurring topic is – of course – Algeria, treated by turns as a nightmarish locus of oppression and violence, or on the other hand as a mythical Garden of Eden in which the land itself is conflated with the poet’s youth. The speaker’s perspective is always intimate, often to the point of abstraction – Adel Guémar is, formally at least, an old-school Romantic, and his verse has certain debts to the big names of 19th Century French poetry (Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine).
The poetry here is energetic and irregular. It tumbles over itself with abundant, spontaneous imagery, often leaving behind such trifles as punctuation, and the result is raw – for the good and for the bad. It’s genuinely odd how Guémar goes from some rather bland, even cringe-worthy clichés in one poem to memorable and powerful imagery only a few pages after that. A stanza like, ‘I dream of your sky / tender and fertile / that tells me about us / that writes me collections / of poems I’ll read / that I’ll sing / till the dawn’, strikes me as the kind of thing you’re more likely to find in an adolescent’s notebook than in a collection by a mature poet. But then Adel Guémar may produce a poem in which emotion is conveyed so efficiently, so simply and with such synthesis of language that commentary itself seems superfluous, such as in this extract from a memorial poem for the poet’s father:
I saw you arriving
hardly in time before your leaving
I miss you already I love you
you know it my great friend my father
my splendid capital letter
While defining Eyes Closed as a mixed bag may not be very helpful in terms of a review, it really does describe the sense one gets from reading the collection. Adel Guémar’s poems are powerful, but they also seem unpolished. The urgency of his writing is palpable, but on occasion it takes over his lucidity.
Perhaps the best example of this is Adel Guémar’s approach to the problem of testimony in poetry. I mentioned – and I stand by the statement – that his poetry is highly valuable in terms of giving a voice to those who lived (and died) in Algeria between 1991 and 2002, the ‘terror decade’. Here we have a poet who can relay the anguish of civil oppression, and the melancholy of exile, with considerable success. But he also takes a very uncomplicated approach to the questions that he raises. For instance, and as mentioned above, there is a clear tension between Adel Guémar’s deliberately crude representations of Algeria as the site of traumatic violence, and his recollections of the country as an earthly paradise (‘tomorrow I’ll go back / to my lovely Algiers / her Casbah’s warrens / her smiling children / dive back into the warm / and blue water of my love / into the magic of her eyes’). Naturally there is a difference between Algeria as Adel Guémar experienced it in his childhood and what it became in the years of terror, but how does the poet account for the (apparent) contradiction of the same place representing both heaven and hell in his mind? The answer is that he does not, or at least not as far as this reader could glean – this type of question receives scant consideration in Eyes Closed, making for a reading experience that, while largely powerful and interesting, is conceptually not as agile as one might like.
A word on the translation. Rendering other people’s poetry into your language is a task that is both indispensable and noble, and it deserves an amount of praise inversely proportional to the attention it actually receives. So it is with genuine regret that I say this, but in my opinion the work of translation by Tom Cheesman and John Goodby was inadequate. The poetry is not especially complex, but the way it is rendered seems approximative, sometimes even sloppy. Take this example among various: ‘je serai toujours celui-là qui / essuie les larmes / des laissés pour compte / mis entre parenthèses / et oubliés’.
In English, it’s rendered as: ‘I will always be the one who / wipes the tears / of the dispossessed / the excluded / and forgotten’.
Here, ‘the excluded’ seems very much out of touch with what ‘mis entre parenthèses’ (‘placed in brackets’) is suggesting, not only because the two meanings don’t really correspond, but because it lets the entire metaphorical richness of the original expression fall away.
On another occasion, the verse ‘belle qui voici m’appelle’ is translated as ‘beauty here calls me’. That the verse won’t render the internal rhyme is understandable, but ‘belle’ is a (feminine) adjective for ‘beautiful’ – changing it to beauty itself alters the meaning considerably, and to no benefit that I am aware of.
Part of this may simply speak to my limitations as a critic – I was unaware, for instance, that ‘cwtching’ was a Welsh term, and when I encountered it used in a translation for ‘se blottir’, I took it for a typo. But to the extent that dual-language editions should provide translations as a way of helping a reader into the poems and clarifying those aspects of language and expression that seem obscure, I felt that the translators here deserved more praise for their effort than their achievement. Eyes Closed is an interesting, powerful and ambiguous literary challenge, but it’s one you’ll be facing, for the most part, alone.
Andrea Tallarita was born in Rome in 1985. He commissions and edits articles for Dr Fulminare’s Irregular Features.