Black-and-white headshot of Saadi Youssef, a Middle Eastern man with a coat, suit jacket, and buttoned shirt on.
Black-and-white headshot of Khaled Mattawa, a Libyan American man with a white collared shirt.
Managing Editor Lisa Ampleman: These two poems by Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef are in a way both timeless and of every time, including our current one. With their images like ominous planes “that creep away / in the middle of the night” and dead soldiers in a small-town scene, the poems blend the everyday with the horrors of war. Khaled Mattawa’s translations are masterful and necessary.
To hear Mattawa read the poems in English, click the audio files before each poem.
Night Flight (طیَرانٌ لیليٌّ)
These planes that creep away
in the middle of the night,
their engines off,
careless and lumbering,
where do they go?
Where did they come from?
Do they bear the names of those to be killed tomorrow and their addresses?
Or the coffins of those killed in clandestine battles in the dark?
The villages cling to silence.
But this hidden roar infiltrates, settles deeply within,
and becomes our nightmares.
Our villages that do not see us,
our villages that will not sleep.
A Quatrain (رُباعيّةٌ)
Ash clouds veil the hilltops,
the lake almost frozen,
the birds gone.
We’ll go to the village pub in the afternoon.
The beer is cooling,
the curtains are burdened with haze.
The church, as always, is on the foot of the mountain.
And on the square the soldiers are dead,
the tower a nest for crows.
An evening without anguish, or candles commemorating
another evening, and without songs.
An evening that tosses me
into a waterless desert where devastation lies.
Saadi Youssef (1934-2021) is considered one of the most important contemporary poets in the Arab world.
He was born near Basra, Iraq. Following his experience as a political prisoner in Iraq, he spent most of his life in exile,
working as a teacher and literary journalist throughout North Africa and the Middle East. He is the author of over forty
books of poetry. Youssef has also published two novels and a book of short stories, and several books of essay and memoir.
Youssef, who spent the last two decades of his life in London, was a leading translator to Arabic of works by Walt Whitman,
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Federico Garcia Lorca, among many others.
Khaled Mattawa is the William Wilhartz Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan. Mattawa’s
latest book of poems is Fugitive Atlas (Graywolf, 2020). He is the editor in chief of Michigan Quarterly Review.