Ali Ahmad Said Esber (otherwise known as Adonis) was born to a family of farmers in Syria’s Al Qassabin village in 1930, and has lived in Paris since 1975. Whilst he may be widely praised as the greatest living Arabic poet today at the age of eighty-six, he had no formal education until he received a scholarship to study in France in his teens, at which point his poetic journey first begun.
Among his early masterpieces are Qasāʾid ūlā (1956; “First Poems”) and Awrāq fī al-rīḥ (1958; “Leaves in the Wind”), characterised by a playful yet prophetic tone. Whilst he’s most well-known for pioneering a brand new form of surrealist Arabic poetry influenced by the Sufi poets in the 1960s, his most innovative approach has only reached the English-speaking world recently with his response to the crises in Arabic culture.
His collection Concerto al-Quds, recently translated from Arabic by Khaled Mattawa, offers a powerful and poignant reflection on war, perfectly attuned to the turbulence of today. The collection is an extended poem on Jerusalem (al-Quds in Arabic), and fills the reader with the reflection that words are actually our greatest weapon to combat the turmoil.
The first thing that strikes you when you read his poetry collection, Concerto al-Quds, is the omnipresence of war. He paints the haunting picture of a world where trees are actually tanks, fighting off danger at every turn. Even the stones are scared by the sound of war as they “scamper to the embrace of their mother earth”.
There’s an impressive breadth to his imagination, where even the moon is arrested and forced to testify. These memorable images and metaphors are what makes him a master. Many cultures across the world are lucky to live without the threat of war, which makes the constant presence of danger in this book all the more poignant.
Adonis dredges the depths of collective memory to draw attention to its darkest secrets. Not only does he describe the city as “built with bloodshed”, where murder is “hailed as a national sport”, but also suggests that delusions have become facts.
Whilst he turns up truths sometimes too dark to bear, “Silence, Poet! Silence!” he shouts, thus seeking refuge behind dense, shielding lyric, these sensitive reflections fill us with much-needed hope. However, as he asks us in ‘Tempted By Nothing: A Song’; “will anyone listen?”.
Soon the war theme splinters out and speaks of its effect upon language, which makes for an incredibly original read. “How was the continent of language not struck with an earthquake?” he asks in ‘Dissection’, hinting at its flaws.
Whilst words are suggested to be the greatest weapon to conquer war, Adonis is impressively self-aware as a poet. He constantly questions the power of these words to sum up what he is trying to say.
Most memorably in ‘Sky On Earth’, he writes that “between language and reality there are trenches that cannot be filled”, before trying to fill these gaps with poetry as best as he can.
The persistent questioning gestures to his battle with expression. “Why is every letter of the alphabet chained / every human mouth bridled?”, he asks. The book almost resembles a series of bomb craters given all its gaping, unanswered bullet-point questions.
In ‘Fifth Image’ he actually pleads “Language, listen to me please”, and admits that he struggles to “shepherd” these “herds of images” into a succinct whole. Despite the free-flowing dreamy structure, what’s clear is that his searing imagery and sensitive reflections are incredibly effective in stirring an emotional response.
If nothing else, his poems raise awareness with heartfelt and moving precision.