Mounir Ramzi

21 Aug

This excerpt comes from a book I picked up in Oxfam books about I poet I had never heard of. His name is Mounir Ramzi and he killed himself aged either 19 or 20 (I can’t find the exact day of his birth but it was in 1925 and he died in 1945). His poetry is actually very good, especially if you accept that he wrote most of it as a suicidal teenager. The book is called “The glitter of ash” (Bariq al-Rumad). It was published in 1997 and I have translated a little bit of the introduction by Edward al-Kharat as well as a selection of one of his poems in English at the bottom.

Mohammed Mounir Ramzi wrote prose poetry in Alexandria over the space of 3 years from 1943 to 1945. He even wrote a few poem in English and these are of a very high quality by any standards.

At the time he was a talented student studying English literature.

He did not publish any of his poetry in his lifetime.

After a sudden love affair, he killed himself on the 25th May 1945.

There is no doubt that he was influenced –to a certain degree – by what the Romantic English poetry that he read in the original language and by the Romantic poetry that he read translated from French and other languages. But it was the violent experience of love that seized his gentle soul. This was his primary inspiration and the real stimulus for him to write poetry. It was thanks to this that his thoughts and feelings opened up to the big questions: the issues of death, fate, and justice.

More than one notebook still survives with Mounir Ramzi’s handwriting in it. It is a selection of poems translated from the things being published in journals like al-Hilel, the New Journal (al-majala al-jadida), The Selection (al-Muqtataf), The Dispatch (al-risala), and more.

Despite what seems – now – like a perhaps excessive bent towards language, flights of fancy, and flights of imagination, either abstract or emotional, there is a solid poetic core that is not worn down by time.

Perhaps this is because of his style of gentle bitterness or sarcasm. Perhaps it is his awareness of the essence of pain that never falls into the recesses of self-pity. Instead he stands up to pain and refuses to feel sorry for himself. The poet takes pride in his dignity:

“I smashed that cup

That you gave to me to drink my life from

I smashed it

violently

on my lips

when you filled it with looks of pity”

from “The Remnants”

Several things gave me the impetus to collect his poems, from the beginning then archive and publish them now more than half a century after their writing.

The first was the love for a friend who still remains in my thoughts, for all these years, and still the years do not touch him. He is still alive, present and close to my soul. His last lines in his rubaiyat were:

“Everything goes and is forgotten

The dream goes and the night is forgotten

But these go and are not forgotten:

The screams of the dead in the nights of the living”

Truly, his poems, and his life are not gone nor are they forgotten – in my mind – one iota.  They inhabit the long nights of my life, they fill them with heat and with feelings of presence and closeness.

The second thing is the essential artistic value of his poetry, ignoring strong personal friendship. This, I feel, is a timeless quality even if his language and imagery sometimes seems excessively Romantic, as I mentioned above, that was the style in that period. Yet his is a Romanticism that is on the verge of destroying itself. The ingredients in it surpass mere Romantic poetry and anticipate – a long time in advance – the arrival of the Egyptian surrealist movement.

He surpasses Romanticism for he gives us a finely crafted vision with such originality and beauty that I can see the truth behind reality. That is, what belongs to the domain of the surrealist: constructing a vision on two levels. These are visions and compositions which increase the power and effect of “What is above reality” and make the poet’s experience richer and more multi-layered, he is limited only by time, and in the end challenges this temporality itself.

Some of his best images are as follows:

“The birds circled the dawn on lakes of blood” (from ‘The Crime of Man’)

“I touched a dream in your eye

a beautiful dream … doubting its own beauty” (from “A Heart’s Prayers)

“These deep shadows

that the moon makes for worn out

on the body of night”                                            (from “Towards Sunset”)

“My spirit returned and it had taken

from dawn her thorns”                                      (from “Towards Sunset”)

“These white graves spread out above the abyss”

(from “The Grave-Digger of Dreams”)

“The lonely ghosts of the winds

knit the thread of silence from their bodies” (from “Winter Nights”)

“Lonely, we knit from the songs of darkness

the gowns of our demise

We travel the path with torn gowns

of a rough fabric made heavy by a mirage” (from “The Caravan”)

“A tree on the way provided him with shelter for the night.

The rays of the moon imprisoned in its branches

its black roots stretched upon his chest     (from “The Rubaiyat”)

“The darkness of the moons spread out across his eyelids

and the cold of the suns eat away at his bones” (from “The Rubaiyat”)

etc.

Perhaps we should turn to Mounir Ramzi’s early sense of the value of colours in his poetry. This sense was rare in the poetry of the time and perhaps it is not even that prevalent in Arabic poetry now. This gave his prose poetry – besides a ringing and humming music, sometimes hidden sometimes manifest – sharp visual and optical dimensions that fought against the lethargy of the “quasi-Romantic” poetry which was dominant at the time.

The dominant colour in his poetry – as we might expect – is the colour black which is constantly repeated. But he also says:

“The colours of sunset make me go silent”   (from “Towards Sunset”)

“But I taste them/ the pains of that blue star” (from “The Remnants”)

“Repeat those breaths that you made from the blue of the stars”

“The drops of sweat that descend dark red

in the pale wrinkles … on the face that

the blueness of pain has darkened.”              (from “Other Tears”)

He also has the ability for gentle self-mocking or perhaps subtle self-irony. An undeniable proof of the poet conquering his troubles, and it is this awareness of the bitterness of life – that is to say refusing to surrender to it – that destroys tired Romanticism and conquers it with sincerity.

“I play my part in the comedy of life

but it is a long and boring part”              (from “Pains and Dreams”)

“A mocking voice infiltrated, the voice of fate

that has neglected you since you were a child…

I write her name on the sands

a page that doesn’t retain its words”    (from “Eternity”)

He, when he says “Silence is loud with mockery” (in “There is A Place Where Emptiness Stretches Without End”), it is as though he is describing one aspect of his own Romantic confession which hides this “Silence that is loud with mockery” (In “Echoes”). It is as though the poet had turned self-mockery into a kind of mockery brought about by harsh spirits, or one that is concealed in the heart of silence, or shines in the rays of the moon (in “Grave-Digger of Dreams), or as the voice of fate repeats “Everything mocks me so I hide myself from everything, and “everything” here includes myself, and my hiding from everything”. Yet the poet’s strong feelings about nature, the experience of love, and absence of justice all contradict this. In fact, he is up to his neck – as they say – in the heart of “Everything”.

“A spirit of mockery entered/ stirring the settled ash forever.”

Perhaps the poem that he wrote in English “Candle-Ends” is the clearest statement of his deep satirical spirit and his self-irony. Here mockery has abandoned its tenderness but it has not abandoned its wit or cleverness.

[I will now reproduce this poem in English, its original language. I do not necessarily think it is his best poem in English but since it is mentioned here I will write it out and you can see what the poetry is like when it is not mediated through my hurried translation]

CANDLE-ENDS

“Landmarks in an autobiography”

Birth: The modulation of ashes and coals not wholly burnt

fuel for a morbid mechanism

Love: The “raison d’être” of a parasite damned with selfconsciousness

Women: China clay – rough and dirty – smoothed and adored

by poets and idiots

Flowers: Coloured vases that blow through holes in neat

animals’ coats. They also grow on tombstones.

Memories: Relaxed puffs of hours dead and deformed and hours

that would have been

Beauty: A tone in things which is not there. The reflection of

a toneful self

Tears: recoils of a soul over-sensitive that leave a naked

world most despicable. Impact feelings transmuted in a catharsis.

Ideas: Fancy-framed statues of coloured crystal: colour pales

under the autumn sun and crystal fractures at a solid breath

Poetry: The delirium of a swollen head and a swollen heart

that purges the swell of other heads and other hearts.

God: The thing most insignificant, being the thing we need most

Religion: A make-believe show for souls too weak to stand

a nightmare in strong colours

Life: Death prolonged and transfigured. The cycle of desponded

ashes

Philosophy: The Would-not-be explanation of a universe

not worth how and why. The “Tour de Force” of elevated minds

Madness: The unawared-of moment to a world in which

ideas, beings, and things have more intimate significance.

A Tomb: A fenced subterranean darkness where worms lull

the remnants, dejecting songs that yearn to drowse; a woman’s

heart.

Heaven: A lullaby too sweet to be anything in a garden of

“Come-Live-With-me” and “Forget-me-nots”

Suicide: Upsetting the last spoon measuring the afflicted

nights after overfeeding one’s self with a desperate love in a godless

dream. Silencing the last refrain of a broken voice. “I have known

them all, known them all”

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