cover image WITHOUT AN ALPHABET, WITHOUT A FACE: Selected Poems of Saadi Youssef

WITHOUT AN ALPHABET, WITHOUT A FACE: Selected Poems of Saadi Youssef

Saadi Youssef, Sa'di Yusuf, . . Graywolf, $16 (216pp) ISBN 978-1-55597-371-1

Born in 1934 in Basra, Iraq, Youssef has recently settled in London after a peripatetic adult existence. These poems drawn from his 30 books are organized by date and place of composition: Baghdad (1972–1979), Algeria (1980), Yemen (1981–1982), Beirut (1979– 1982), with later stops in Paris, Amman, Damascus, Berlin, Belgrade and Cairo. The poems work brilliantly through their differing times and places, pushing unflinching description through a steady determination to foment a more just world: "This watered wine/ awaits its moment,/ maybe in the lines of a song/ or in a narrow bed." Often, Youssef will address anonymous figures he comes across, creating a sense of fellowship and shared longings from the slightest of materials: "Think about it:/ Can we talk in a restaurant/ or find a river to dip our hands in?/ Or should we be content with breathing,/ or let ourselves be snuffed out with a question?" The Libyan-born Mattawa (Ismailia Eclipse) emigrated to the U.S. in 1979, and does an excellent job rendering the layered complexity of the poems. Mattawa's translations of Youssef's declarative iterations—"The room shivers/ from distant explosions./ The curtains shiver./ Then the heart shivers./ Why are you in the midst of all this shivering?"—create a center around which these poems move. (Dec.)

Forecast:Visa issues may prevent Youssef from touring in support of this book, but Mattawa, who has been publishing these translations in literary journals and who is based at the University of Texas at Austin, is available; look for strong support from campus reading series and post-colonial literature courses.