In Praise of Defeat by Abdellatif Laâbi (tr. Donald Nicholson-Smith) Archipelago Books. $20.00, 800pp.
Poet, activist, former prisoner, exile. Each of these identities exists in the liminal space of being and not being. The space where a poet observes, an activist takes action, a prisoner leaves one prison for that of memory, and an exile is present in his current city, one foot remaining in his home country. This liminal space is where Abdellatif Laâbi resides.
In her recent poem “Mourning,” Carolyn Forché, also a poet and activist, wrestles with the crisis of people pouring out of Syria, across the Mediterranean, to either die or become refugees, exiles. Writing from a Greek island, she evokes the ancients:
… Anacreon, himself a refugee of war, who appears
in the writings of Herodotus:
I love and do not love, I am mad and I am not mad.
The liminal space created by the statement “I love and do not love, I am mad and I am not mad”—the space occupied by exiles and the wrongly imprisoned—speaks across time and space to Laâbi’s work.
As the new collection In Praise of Defeat, deftly translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith, shows, Laâbi’s early poems are poems of protest and of incarceration. They powerfully evoke the need for poetry to bear witness. Laâbi was jailed in Kenitra Prison 1972 for because of his writing and as a co-founder of Souffles, the influential literary journal. He was sentenced to ten years and served eight, spending some of that time in solitary confinement. His poems detail the torture that he suffered. The powerful poem “Beneath the Gag, the Poem,” an excerpt of which appears in In Praise of Defeat, is at once account of torture and incarceration, a cry to humans and poets to bear witness, and evidence of the transporting power of metaphor.
The directive “Write, write, never stop” propels “Beneath the Gag.” As a poet of witness, Laâbi explores how memory and the need to record the experience are the primary tools at hand:
When indifference vanishes. When everything speaks to me. When my memory gets rough and its waves break against the shores of my eyes.
I tear amnesia apart, rise up as an armed and implacable reaper of what is happening to me, of what has happened to me.
In “Beneath the Gag,” you can feel the writer trying to survive. The pace at which the poem is delivered, the passion, and the choice of metaphors conveys a singular mind attempting to sustain itself and not break. That command over metaphor, knowing when to use some metaphorical language and when to keep his words startlingly unadorned, makes the poem more than just a chronicle; it is an experience.
Laâbi is able to use metaphor to create an undulating movement that matches the narrator’s way of thinking, and pulls the reader into the same movement. He goes from searing physical description to lyrical language, back to searing description. Laâbi weaves metaphor into his language as a thread onto which he can tug. You get a sense that metaphorical language is a relief for the composer of the poem and, as a reader, you also feel the sense of relief. The abstraction of metaphor can act as a salve as we pass through this horrific landscape. Laâbi addresses the effect of something outside of his immediate torture, something beautiful, being an occasional welcome lull:
Once again the incommensurable night. An airplane suddenly breaks the silence. Its reverberation explodes like wild aerial organ music. It must be preparing to land. Why is this so poignant? Like a sounding-board, my whole body quivers.
Metaphorical language can transport us away, but Laâbi mixes it with very precise physical description. The result is that we are never fully released from Kenitra Prison, but we’re also allowed to see the experience from multiple psychological vantage points. The sense of moving between several vistas returns us to the way in which Laâbi inhabits a liminal space: Anacreon’s “I love and do not love, I am mad and I am not mad.”
Laâbi pushes and pulls against the ways in which writing can dilute an experience. In “Talk or Be Killed,” he writes:
I do not want to abandon my dead
to stereotyped images
meant to console
are too alive within me
I unbury them
living and bloody
lay them out
on the façade of the palaces of genocide
there to endure
flag of insurrection
never at half-staff
This poem goes on to detail the torture of Évelyne. Laâbi’s friend, in searing detail. It’s the kind of poem you want to turn away from, the imagery of a person’s torture is so upsetting. But once in Laâbi’s world, I felt responsible to also be witness. I heard the imperative, “Read, read, never stop reading”.
What I most appreciate about In Praise of Defeat, however, is that it coveys the length and breadth of Laâbi’s career as an artist. His early work is very powerful, but since 1985 he has been in exile in Paris (though he has recently been able to return occasionally to Morocco). Because Laâbi’s political activism and imprisonment came at the beginning of his career, most of Laâbi’s poems are written in the thirty years since his release. As with anyone who suffers something as horrific as imprisonment and torture, it’s not something Laâbi can leave behind. And the experience permanently places him in the in-between. In “Suns Under Arrest,” dedicated to Nelson Mandela and Abraham Serfaty, he writes:
The prison that our man inhabits
is round and square
near and far away
it is of yesterday and tomorrow
subterranean and lost in the clouds
carnivorous and vegetarian
it is a hutch near a mosque in a shantytown
By evoking the in-between, the prison our man inhabits also becomes any place where we are caught in stasis.
Laâbi is the man in prison who survived and therefore he has the opportunity to continue to develop as an artist. This is evident in the wonderful “Fragments of Forgotten Genesis” from 1998. Laâbi adopts the form of fragments, in between sentence and utterance, and shifts between witness, memory and reflection. He acknowledges the way memories haunt:
All it takes is one false step
a moment of distraction
for the hourglass of my memory
to turn upside down
for me to stumble backwards
towards my death
whimpering like an animal wounded
This speaker lives in the present moment, but not entirely. The past is always right there, ready to pounce. Laâbi returns to fragments in “Perishable Poems” from 2000 and directly addresses the haunting made manifest in “My Dear Double” from 2007.
In Praise of Defeat presents a poet-activist who was born in the direst possible circumstances, survived them, and has continued on a trajectory of art and activism. He shows any poet how the artistic space created by “poet, activist, former prisoner, exile” is the space where the most crucial acts of art happen. When we can understand “I am mad and I am not mad,” we get a glimpse into Laâbi’s creative energy: “Sometimes I live / Sometimes I die / Closer to the wound / Further from the words.”
Emily Wolahan is the author of Hinge (National Poetry Review Press). Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The Georgia Review, Arts & Letters, Gulf Coast, Boston Review, Tinderbox Journal, Volt, and others. Her essays have appeared in The New Inquiry and been anthologized in Among Margins: Critical and Lyrical Writing on Aesthetics. She won the 2016 Loraine Williams Poetry Prize and the 2016 Unclassifiables Arts & Letters Contest. She is founding Editor at JERRY Magazine and Associate Editor at Two Lines Press. She lives in San Francisco.
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