Marilyn Hacker & Venus Khoury-Ghata


Marilyn Hacker

Introducing Venus Khoury-Ghata

THE POET AND novelist Venus Khoury-Ghata was born in northern Lebanon, one of four children of a local policeman who had served as an interpreter under the French mandate and a housewife whom the poet describes as “illiterate in two languages.” Arabic was her own first language; French her language of adoption, with which she made her way in the world, including the literary world of France, where she has lived for thirty years. When she began to write, she wrote in both languages, and often felt, as she puts it, that she was writing in French from left to right on the page and in Arabic from right to left, with the text meeting in the middle in a forbidden, incestuous marriage. While she made the choice of French, in which she has since published fourteen novels and twelve collections of poems, the rhythms and tropes of Arabic, its poetry and its oral traditions, can still be heard in the undulations of her sentences, her poems’ sinuous and knotty lines.

If Arabic is her mother tongue, French is more a fraternal language than that of the real or the Lacanian Father. It was the poet’s one brother, Victor, who first harbored the desire to become a writer. Her novel Une maison au bord des larmes (Editions Balland, 1998), the only one that could be characterised as “autobiographical,” recounts the tragic story of this apprentice poet, torn between genius and madness, haunted at once by Victor Hugo and Rimbaud, the Alexandrine and the Illuminations, lost first to drug addiction and then to the electroshock treatments in a mental hospital to which he was committed by a vengeful, uncomprehending father: shock treatments which effaced his knowledge of the French language along with his aspirations.

It was the brother’s tragedy which awoke the desire to write in his young sister. (Another sister, the journalist May Menassa, who remained in Lebanon, also wrote a novel, in Arabic, about her brother’s tragedy — but the two sister-writers were unaware of each other’s projects until they were published, in the same month and year.) Now, the poet herself has said that, while she is and always will be “inhabited” by Arabic, the French language itself has become her homeland, more than any terrestrial location.

As the passage between countries and languages has characterized her life, passage of one sort or another is an underlying theme of her work. Her novels range from the picaresque (five Frenchwomen shipwrecked on the Algerian coast in 1802; a Trinitarian monk sent to bring back a dignitary’s wife eloped with a Turkish merchant in 1789) to the familial (her brother’s descent to electroshocked silence in war-torn Beirut) to the fantastic (a widow’s return to a Mediterranean island where the dead cohabit with the living). They almost always deal with a movement between Europe and the Middle East, with the ensuing misunderstandings and enlightenments, and with the passage, equally two-way, between life and death. Her poems, composed for the most part in sequences, often have the quality of exploded narratives, re-assembled in a mosaic in which the reader has at least the illusion of being able to find a more linear connecting thread. But in the end, it is the design of the mosaic itself which is most memorable. The same themes which animate her fiction are predominant in the poems: the tension between movement/change and tradition/sources, with all that is positive and negative in both; the unceasing commerce between human beings and the rest of the natural world, and between the dead and the living; the independent, puissant and trans-cultural life of words.

“The Sailors Without a Ship” is from a new collection, Les Ortises (The Nettles) to be published by Mercure de France this year. It includes the long title poem, interrogating the Muse-like figure of her mother, humble but tireless even after death, and touches on the impact of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon; but it also introduces a playful sequence of poems built on “faux” Arabic proverbs — invented by the poet. “The Sailors. . .” continues the primary interrogations of Khoury-Ghata’s work: there is the idea of exile, and of the permeability of death; there is that which is far-ranging and that which is homely. Yet the “sailors,” quintessential expatriates, create their own peculiar domesticity, not bereft of tenderness and vulnerability, while the singular “she” in her house interrogates death with the courage of a great traveler, a mental traveler perhaps, one of Khoury-Ghata’s female figures with something of Antigone and something of the exiled Zainab about her.

Venus Khoury-Ghata’s work has been translated into many languages-Arabic, Russian, Italian, and Polish among them-but she has been particularly pleased by the warm and intelligent reception of her poetry by Anglophone audiences.

Paris, France, December 2003



Here There Was Once a Country, translations by Marilyn Hacker, Oberlin
College Press, 2000.
She Says, bilingual edition with translations by Marilyn Hacker,
Graywolf Press, 2003.


Venus Khoury-Ghata

The Sailors Without A Ship

The sailors without a ship have strange hallucinations when the sea
does its spring cleaning
The bare-armed fronds of gesticulating seaweed are defunct sweethearts
The taut swings between the continents are filled with seagulls and
children’s laughter

The cabin boys’ distress is infinite when they think of the little girls’
scraped knees
their sobs pierce the waves
and the sharks which bow before the waves don’t wish them well
under their tight jackets they hide unfriendly fins
and the sailors who know it forget to put out their lanterns

The sailors without a ship link the fixed to the mobile
the opaque to the transparent
the horizon would have stretched its cord between two apple trees
without their intervention
black water is their fifth element
the sick sweat of the earth
the watered blood of coalmines
their fixed abode when the continents smash their dishes


She doesn’t sweep in front of her door any more
no longer argues with the wind which tousles her false pepper tree
she reads the rain in her disorder
learns that March stole December’s ink
and two days from February’s pencil-case

her lamp won’t let itself sleep in winter when the books think that
they’re pillows
when fireflies make a pyre of their wings to warm up chilled things:
single beds
Dear John letters
and those dead women who imperturbably cross rooms with a rustling
of fabric


The road which leads from the Compass to the Great Bear passed
under our windows
children took it to go to school
passing by, their school smocks caught on a sleeping star
a cry rose up in the form of a spark
chilly Bérénice dreamed of a quilt
and Betelgeuse the wanderer of an enclosed garden and a six-leafed

It was a time of honeysuckle and laziness
people walked in their sleep
schools followed the wind
the children were made of crepe paper


Surrounded by mountains
she waits at her window for the sea with its crowd of rowdy sailors
to help her beat down the fruit from the walnut tree that’s grown taller than her ladder

A long time ago
she owned a house with its plot of ocean
a roof with its share of wind
there were seagulls instead of a dog

Her clothesline had no reason to envy the horizon

She assumed the intrusion of waves in her bedroom was an optical
went to sleep as the water rose
their din contained the sorrowful silence of unmoored boats
become mute since their mouths filled with sand


She realized that the house was dead when the walls grazed on the
hedge’s shadow
in fact the house was not a house
but a succession of opacities and transparencies which transcribed the
eagles’ flight

the cemetery was not a cemetery either
but a place through which tears could pass
an escort for petitions the stones drank

Mourning made those who crossed it seem taller

The graves were laid out like dollhouses
to jump in feet together was part of the festivities
the visitors imitated the blackbird

the woman who followed the tree had green armpits
the hem of a branch taken down made her topple over
the axe hidden under her skirt cut through water and fire not grief
and the tree’s bark slit like a raped girl’s skirt hid another layer of


When everything was extinguished
so that shadows slipped from the walls and flattened themselves the
length of the graves
there were those dead leaves that walked on the windowpanes
their veined palms turned towards the sleepers

the little girl who bores a hole in the night with her translucent finger
mistakes them for dead bridal couples and throws handfuls of rice
at them which fall on the other side of the rain which is knitting a
warm suit for the impoverished garden


The fatherless children sweep the streets with their rage
They look for sailors with a wealth of bread-trees and centenarian
Their feet trampling the river-mouths become transparent
Their minuscule toes serve as lighthouses for sinking ships
They throw earth on the earth before embarking erase everything not
endowed with speech:
isolated houses
unmarked graves
dead-end streets
meticulous rains will erase the mountains they leave behind them
They go away on the same wave
their blood thickens as the sea ages


Her belief that death will emerge from her mirror
or from the palm of her hand
or even from the bark of the lime-tree she neglected to prune
she will lay siege to transfixed things:
chipped plates
cold teapot
sheet folded inside-out
her certainty that the parquet will cry out for her
that the shutters will gnash their teeth
that she will be buried in the mirror’s silvering
without having comforted the lime-tree which will look elsewhere

(Translated from the French by Marilyn Hacker)


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