Poem of the Week | March 03, 2009

This week we are delighted to present section 9 of the poem “East of Carthage” by Khaled Mattawa.  The poem first appeared in TMR 30:2 (2007).  Khaled Mattawa is the author of three books of poems:  Ismailia EclipseZodiac of Echoesand Amorisco (in which “East of Carthage” appears).  Mattawa has translated five volumes of contemporary Arabic poetry and coedited two anthologies of Arab American literature.  He has received a Guggenheim fellowship, an NEA translation grant, the Alfred Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University and two Pushcart Prizes.  Mattawa was born in Benghazi, Libya, in 1964 and immigrated to the U.S. in 1979.  He teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Michigan.

“East of Carthage” is a poem in eleven sections, the ninth of which is on display here.  The focal point is Sabratha, on Libya’s Mediterranean coast, seventy kilometers west of Tripoli.  Established abut 500 BC as a Phoenician trading post for the products of the African hinterland, Sabratha reached its peak in the second century B.C. under Roman rule.  The city also thrived during Justinian’s rule in the sixth century A.D., but has ever since been a satellite of Tripoli.

The poem makes reference to Apuleius’sThe Golden Ass.  In that work, Lucius, a youthful Roman country-aristocrat, is forced to witness the miseries of slaves and destitute freemen as they suffer exploitation at the hands of wealthy landowners, a storyline that echoes the “events” relayed in “East of Carthage.”

From “East of Carthage”

“East of Carthage: 9”
Southwest of here is Apuleius’s hometown, his inescapable
destination having spent his inheritance on travel and studies.
“Lacking the poverty of the rich,” he’d splurged, a month-long trip
to the Olympic games; and openhanded, he gifted his mentors
their daughters’ dowries. Few return to Madaura once gone,

and when heading back shamefaced like him, they’d do as he did,
taking the longest route hoping the journey would never end.
Here in Sabratha, the widow hooked him, or he let her reel him,
and that’s how that sordid business happily ended as it began.
I look out toward Madaura, my back to the theater and the latrines,

Madaura, birthplace of Augustine, site of his first schooling-
little Augustine holding a satchel of scrolls, a loaf of bread for the teacher,
awakened by his mother, his tiny feet cold in tiny sandals,
his stomach warm with a barley porridge my grandmother used to make,
forced to slurp it, sweetened with a spoon of honey from the Atlas,

a sprinkling of cinnamon (they were that well off)
and crushed almonds from the family farm.
If the world is that sweet and warm, if it is that mothering,
why then this perpetual scene of separation,
this turning-out into the cold toward something he knew he’d love?

He lets go of the neighbors’ boy’s hand warming his own.
He refuses the warm porridge forever, renounces his mother’s embrace.
It only lasted a month, this partial answer, later to be pursued
elsewhere, because even then everyone here knew
that the sweet oranges they grew housed the bitterest seeds,

that piety is its own reward, while belief only darkens
and deepens like the sea before them, a place
meant for those seeking life other than on this dry earth.
That’s why prophets had been welcomed here, calmly,
because God was like rain and they like the saplings

drawing heat from another imperfection, and from the soil
which knows only the first verse to the sky’s rainless hymn.
And that’s why Africa’s tallest minaret looms unfinished,
visible from the next town over, and for fifty leagues from the sea if
it were turned into a lighthouse for the ships that no longer come.

The merchant who built it, money made from smuggling
subsidized goods to Carthage and used Renaults from Rotterdam,
ran out of money, could not afford the mosque that was to stand
next to it, leaving its gray concrete bleaching in the sun.
There’s enough history here to enable anyone to finish the thought.

It’s useless then to track the fate of these travelers;
some, without life jackets, had never learned how to swim.
Why not let them live in text as they do in life?-they’ve lived
without words for so long-why not release them
from the pen’s anchor and let them drift to their completion?