An Epic Impulse: The Work of Khaled Mattawa
I first "met" Khaled Mattawa through poems that came in across, what used to be called, "the transom" (paper manuscripts that arrived in envelopes) to the Kenyon Review when I was its editor in the early 1990s. Mattawa was still a graduate student then, and, as the accompanying letter told me, had lived in the United States for only a dozen years, where he had come, as a teenage student, from his native Libya. The poems themselves attested to displacement and to a point of view enriched by what has been called, in a parallel context, double vision; they richly incarnated the details, delights, and implications of the poet's present reality juxtaposed with those of the geography of his childhood and the mother tongue that keeps enriching his adopted language. I published more than one group of poems by this challenging young writer and kept in touch with him and with his work—the publication of a first book, Ismailia Eclipse, came soon after in 1995.
Mattawa's emergence as a translator of contemporary Arabic poetry, with collections by the exiled Iraqi dissident poets Fadhil al-Azzawi and Sa'adi Youssef, was followed by two more collections of his own poems, Zodiac of Echoes and Amorisco, expanding lyric in English with their historical reach. More translations ensued, including a manuscript by a dazzling young Egyptian woman modernist, Iman Mersal. Mattawa also edited or coedited anthologies of Arab American writing and wrote germinal essays on the situation of the Arab American writer and the relevance of classical and contemporary Arabic poetry to Western writers of any origin.
In 2010, Mattawa published his fourth collection, Tocqueville, a book that is as daring in its amalgam of poetic techniques as it is astonishing in the breadth of its subject matter, bristling with perspicacity and mordant wit. The title poem uses the explosive "experimental" discontinuities, and the documentary techniques poets such as Williams, Rukeyser, and Reznikoff used to fulfill a narrative and, indeed, epic impulse, the quixotic epic of the exiled and assimilated who assess history. The paradox of Alexis de Tocqueville's denunciation of slavery and the despoliation of the Indians in his writings about the United States, while remaining mute on his native France's colonial rule and war in Algeria, informs the text as it moves from suburban America to Africa to the Middle East. Lyric, dialogue, newsreel prose, black humor, eroticism, the mise en abyme of the poem's own narrative: Mattawa creates a mural, or a hologram, disabused, unpredictable, and cannily prophetic.
In 2010, Mattawa's translation of a magisterial collection spanning forty years of the work of the Syro-Lebanese poet Adonis, perhaps the most significant living poet and literary theorist of the Arab world, was also published. In a period when, I think, the American reading public is beginning to recognize the importance and necessity of translating poetry, and doing so from as wide a range of sources as possible, Mattawa has emerged as one of the best translators of contemporary poetry, from Arabic or indeed any source—creating viable, memorable poems in the receptor language. But that work is only part of his great talent and its even greater application, through which he has emerged as one of the most original and linguistically and intellectually challenging American poets of his generation.
This essay originally appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2011 by the Academy of American Poets. To receive American Poets, become a member online.