Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Book Review: "Desert Tracings" translated by Michael A. Sells

Desert Tracings: Six Classic Arabian Odes (1989)
Translated by Michael A. Sells (1949)

78 pages

Opening a book and finding yourself transported into a culture and period far separated from your own remains one of the most captivating and wondrous pleasures of reading. Desert Tracings: Six Classic Arabian Odes , a collection of poems of the Bedouin tribes of pre-Islamic Arabia translated by Michael Sells, grants us just such an experience, allowing us a glimpse back into the lives of people in a distant time and place.

In the Introduction to the book Sells sets the stage for the six odes, providing the reader the context necessary to fully appreciate them. He notes that the odes included in this collection are said to be from among the winning poems in an annual poetry competition held near Mecca by Bedouin tribes in the centuries before the founding of Islam. The origins of the odes remains an on-going debate, according to Sells, as to whether they developed as oral stories before finally being transcribed, or were composed by the individual poets credited, and then passed into an oral tradition. He explains that each of the odes is divided “into three major thematic movements: the nasib or remembrance of the beloved, the journey, and the boast,” (4) and reviews the typical structure and content of each of these parts. He describes the extensive use the poets made of simile, analogy and epithet: in place of ostrich, for example, a poet might use the epithet red-legged clump-wing, or for the oryx might use wide-of-eyes, confident of their audience’s understanding.

Not surprisingly, despite the existence of a typical structure, each poet stamped their own unique style on their work. In order to help the reader better understand each ode, Sells includes a brief introduction for each of them, in which he provides more specific background information on the particular theme and structure of the work, and explains some of the similes and epithets used. Without this additional information it would be difficult indeed to bridge the wide gap in time and geography that we must attempt to cross in reading these works. In approaching the odes I took the suggestion Sells makes in a footnote of the Introduction: “some may find it preferable to read the poem first, then the introduction, before returning to the poem.” (10) I felt the approach allowed me to first meet the poems with few preconceived notions, then read them a second time with greater depth and understanding after reviewing Sells’ remarks. I can testify that my level of appreciation improved significantly in the second reading, with the details from the introduction at my disposal.

But at any rate, despite the epithets and unfamiliar place names, the universality of human existence comes shining through in these works. In the opening lines of the ode The Mu‘állaqa by Lapīd ibn Rabī‘a, to give just one example, we clearly hear the melancholy in the voice of the narrator as he reflects on the time that has passed since he last saw his beloved:
The tent marks in Mínan are worn away,
where she encamped
and where she alighted,
Ghawl and Rijám left to the wild,

And the torrent beds of Rayyán
naked tracings
worn thin, like inscriptions
carved in flattened stones,

Dung-stained ground
that tells the years passed
since human presence, months of peace
gone by, and months of war,

Replenished by the rain stars
of spring, and struck
by thunderclap downpour, or steady,
fine-dropped, silken rains,

From every kind of cloud
passing at night,
darkening the morning,
or rumbling in peals across the evening sky.

The white pondcress has shot upward,
and on wadi slopes,
gazelles among their newborn,
and ostriches,

And the wide-of-eyes,
silent above monthling fawns.
On the open terrain
yearlings cluster.

As I read these works, I found myself wishing I knew Arabic, to be able to appreciate the beauty surely there in the sounds and rhythms of the originals; a desire for more familiarity of the geography and wildlife that the Bedouin communities moved through also beckoned. But all of that, of course, would ultimately be insufficient --- the critical missing element remains a knowledge of the culture and times in which the poets who created these works lived. Through his translations, and the introductory material he provides, we have the benefit of Michael Sells’ dedication to first understanding, and then making available to us, this window into our distant past.

Other reviews / information:

I discovered this collection in a reference in the wonderful book on the Medieval period in Spain by Mariá Rosa Menocal, The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (2002).

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf