Tango under a narrow roof by Riad Saleh Hussein, translated by Saleh Razzouk with Philip Terman

By Greg Bern

Riad Seleh Hussein’s work has been a long time coming. Passionate about political activism and experimental writing, Hussein’s work is unmissable. After a brief but active youth, the Syrian poet (1954-1982) died of unknown causes after a brief arrest and, despite Arab publications highlighting his contributions to prose poetry in Syria and the Middle East, English readers only now they can take a look at their world. Tango under a narrow ceiling It is a powerful book like no other and I hope it finds its way into many libraries, personal and beyond.

The poetry here is often compared to prose poetry, but one could find more similarities in English with Amiri Baraka and Ray Bremser, with long lines, like swords, cutting across the page over and over and over again. The effect in English is hypnotic and stunning, poignant and paralyzing, yet Hussein’s work is charged with density and relentless presentation of fantastical lines. But these lines are not without difficulty, because they are not afraid of war, they are not afraid of difficulties, they are not afraid of carrying the voice of the people and the country of Syria:

oh poor knives
Oh dirty human body
Or dogs stuffed with sausages, love and mint aroma.
I am Riyadh Saleh Hussein
My age is twenty two dried oranges
And hundreds of massacres and coups.
Thousands of times my hands have been finished
Like two trees of happiness in a desert.

(from The Pure Artist and a Clean Flower, p. 28)

It reminds me of Burmese writer Maung Day’s prose poetry here. I also remember the recent documentary poetics book by the Hmong poet Mai Der Vang, yellow rain. As for the lines or the sum, not all of Hussein’s poems are long, of course. Some of the most spectacular moments in the book occur with short, pithy poems that are full of imagery, metaphor, and a yearning to provide words for impossible situations. At other times, these short poems seem like chants or prayers, luscious and heavy at once:

We will always take you to the springs.
We will always dry your blood with our green fingers
And your tears with our dry lips.
Forever we will pave paths for you
And never let you get lost Oh Syria
Like a song in a desert.

(from Syria, p. 21)

Tango under a narrow ceiling it is not a long book, but it contains the best picture of Hussein that we have in the English language. Many thanks to the translators Saleh Razzouk and Philip Terman for their efforts in presenting these poems. The book is divided into three sections and includes an extensive survey of Hussein’s work, opening the door for more translations to come. The collection includes historical information, including an opening essay and a chronology of dates that center the poet’s life. It also includes a tribute from Terman, which reinforces the impression and inspiration that Hussein’s poetry creates.

The sense of love in Hussein’s poetry is second to none, and this love is clearly an integral part of the poet. In one of the last poems of the book, a love epic in five parts, he closes:

What do we do
if there is only one jubilee for the kiss
and many jubilees for the slaughter.

what do we do?

(from Jubilee for a Kiss, Jubilee for a Kill, pg. 78)

This is a poetry of universal love, responding to the cycles of violence faced around the world, over and over again. That we can appreciate it is a gift. That he can be present during the many crises facing the West is a gift. This is a poetry that will lead us to new forms of resilience and a permanent commitment to the poetry of the lyric.

You can get the book here: https://www.spdbooks.org/Products/9781734653526/tango-below-a-narrow-ceiling.aspx

Greg Bem is a poet and librarian living in unceded Duwamish territory, specifically Seattle, Washington. He writes book reviews for Rain Taxi, Yellow Rabbits, and more. His current literary efforts are primarily about water and often include video elements. Learn more at www.gregbem.com

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