December 8, 2022

Out of My Hut

     Get out of my hut, you mice who hug the shadows!
     You mice will find no fodder in Leonidas's crock.
     The old man's fine with two barley loaves, if there's salt.
     My forefathers lived this way, and I heed their example.
     So why do you scrabble in my corners, treat-seeking
     where prandial tidbits are never spilled?
     Go on to houses that aren't so frugal
     where sustenance is yours to scuttle away with

By Leonidas (Greek Anthology 6.302)

December 1, 2022

Auspicious Sana‘a

     I say to my near one through flowing tears
         when the will to go abroad is on me:
    Let me make my journey, let me pass unmourned.
         The stars that wander are the noble ones.
     Travel leads to betterment of outcome.
         Sitting still in comfort is damnation’s way.
     In darkness I see illumination
         as if day switched place with night,
     when lightning from [auspicious] Sana‘a reminds me,
         my destination isn't far away.
     Why would I rejoice at spending nights out in the desert
         when high above Ursa Minor is my home?
     And how will I be food for worms, with
         four elements on my every side?
     How long will I live next to Draco
         with constellated serpents for my friends?
     My union with that light will be annihilation,
         and my passing out of knowing left from right,
     and the walls will echo with a pounding
         by rejectors of my secrets with their heads.

By Suhrawardi (meter: wāfir)

November 22, 2022

If in New York City and If not

White outlines of geometric shapes decorate the grey background of this poetry flyer, announcing Will Alexander with David Larsen on November 30 at the Poetry Project in New York City.

November 14, 2022

Mysteries of the simile

On this subject, there is a story about ‘Abd al-Rahman the son of Hassan ibn Thabit. When he was a boy, he ran crying to his father, "I got stung by a flying creature!"
    "My son," said Hassan, "tell us how it looked."
    "Like it was dressed in mantles of Yemen," he said, for it was a hornet that had stung him.
    "By the Lord of the Kaaba," Hassan said. "my son has uttered poetry!"

As you see, what demonstrated the boy's talent for poetry was his creation of a simile. This is what distinguishes the poet's mind from the non-poet's. Hassan rejoiced at this, just as he rejoiced at his son's poetic spirit when [a schoolteacher rounded up a group of boys for some mischief, and was going to punish ‘Abd Allah along with them, until*] ‘Abd Allah said (meter: basīṭ):

    God knows I was [not there, but] in the house of
        Hassan, hunting insects on the wing all by myself.

You might say that similes are special effects that substitute for painting and drawing, but that's not what provoked Hassan's response. What pleased him was that ‘Abd Allah said the bug was as if "dressed" (multaff). If he had called it "a flying creature with stripes like a Yemeni mantle," the expression would be less effective, for it gives away the point of likeness. The combination [of hornet and mantle is by itself sufficient to imply the stripes, and this] was the sign of young ‘Abd Allah’s genius.

Now even though "dressed" was what provoked Hassan's admiration, it is still a case of simile, and an exemplary one at that, insofar as the hornet's likeness is captured by its "wearing" of the mantle's stripes and colors.

From The Secrets of Eloquence by ‘Abd al-Qahir al-Jurjani

*Context supplied in al-Kāmil by al-Mubarrad

November 2, 2022

Shortener of days

It was reported to me by Abu ‘Ubayd Allah al-Marzubani that Ibn Durayd said: It was reported to me by ‘Abd al-Rahman, the fraternal nephew of al-Asma‘i, that

Al-Asma‘i said: I was staying with a man of the Banu Kilab who had celebrated his marriage at Basra, and was raising his family at Dariyya. We were at Dariyya's market when we were approached by an old woman of dignified dress and unfaded beauty, mounted on a camel. She bade the camel kneel, and tied it up and came toward us, supporting herself on a shepherd's crook. She sat by us, and said, "Is any poetry being recited?"
     I said to my Kilabi friend, "Have you got anything?" "No," he said. So I recited for her these verses by Bishr ibn ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Ansari (meter: kāmil):

     The days have a shortener. Who spends them with her
         craves more, even at the cost of other friendships.
     The likes of her choke a man with longing
         for her demure air, and her antelope's eye—
     the eye of a doe of the lowlands, sallow of hide
         as if jaundiced by her timid shyness.

     At this, the old woman rose to her knees, and began tracing lines on the ground with her crook as she recited [these verses by Ibn al-Dumayna]: (meter: ṭawīl):

     Dear Umayma of my heart, do as you will.
         But let me voice my passion and my greeting
             [to this spot].
     When you tell me, "Walk through fire," I know it's
         your caprice. But could it bring us closer, all the same?
     Capricious as you are, I take it as a gift,
         and put my foot in fire and tread it.
     On the sandhill where moringa grows, ask the tallest tree
         if I hailed the ruins of your abode,
     and if I choose to haunt the ruins
         at nightfall like a heartsick person.
     May you be happy with the way my cheek shines,
         and how I clutch myself at losing you.

Al-Asma‘i said: By God, the world around me went dim from the eloquence and sweetness of her delivery and dialect. I went up to her and said, "My God! Your recitation surpasses mine." And I saw a gleam of laughter in her eye, as she went on to recite (meter: ṭawīl):

     Many a guarded maid casts off reserve when I come calling,
         dragging a train of infatuation behind.
     They let love mount, and when it's theirs,
         rip it away and swell our battles.
     Their talk is civil, low and yielding,
         winning them soft hearts for free.
     They foil the plans of the softhearted fool.
         Their jest and earnestness maze the astute.
     My blamers, meanwhile, blame the love
         that tells me to ignore dissuaders.

[The Tribulations of Impassioned Lovers by al-Sarraj adds this postscript:
     "Brava!" I said, "by Him Who created you!" "You really mean it?" she asked. "Yes," I said. "Then I share the praise with you as an equal," she said, and decamped. And by God, I have heard no poetry recital more exquisite than the one she gave.]

The meaning of "shortener of days" in the Ansari's verse is that his joy in the woman's presence is complete. So sweet are her beauty and her conversation that any day spent with her is short, for brevity is an attribute of joyful days.

From the Dictations of Abu 'l-Qasim ‘Ali al-Murtada

October 26, 2022

Oíche Shamhna Shona Daoibh

Atop a slab inscribed with the words 'I was a boxer' stands the silhouette of a figure wearing boxing gloves. In the background there is a hill with several tombstones beneath a spreading tree, under the moon and stars in a sky crossed by strips of cloud. It is a crude, monochromatic rendering in dark blue ink. Clicking on the image leads to a full-sized version, with the text of an epitaph from ancient Greece, saying: 'My fatherland was Corcyra, and Philon was my name; I am the son of Glaucos, and I won two Olympiads with my fists.'Inside rear cover of Evidence of Frozentown 4 (1995): "Dead Friends,"
ed. Rachel Frost. Linoleum block print, 7" x 7"

October 19, 2022

Somebody stole a knife

Abu 'l-Fath Kushajim elegized a penknife that was stolen from him, saying (meter: basīṭ):

     God's war be on the bureau scribes
          who think that others' knives are theirs for lifting!
     I am the victim of an elegant deceit.
          Its edge was like a sword's, honed finely.
     Vacant is the resting-place where it had spent an age
          beside the inkwell of a man distracted by writing,
     now weeping for the blade that Time made away with,
          the torturer of pen-nibs raided from me.
     It hewed my pens and made them special.
          The cuts that vexed them pleasured me,
     as I brought laughter to my pages, cloaking them
          with flowers, whole beds of them becoming to the eye.
     And it was good for spot removal. It scaled away each fleck
          and left my pages like the cheeks of calf-eyed maidens.
     It had an onyx handle fastened to the blade
          by metal pins of gorgeous make and fashion.
     Pins of gold and silver, elegant and fine—
          a deity, praise to Him, told them to "Be!"
     But my cutter turned malicious, taking joy
          in infamy, overmastery, and derision.
     I kept it close—so close, it impersonated
          my aloofness and my lofty rank.
     There is no substitute. Long as I live,
          I'll never be consoled and never forget.
     I'd give up this whole world, and my faith in the world to come,
          as ransom for the knife they stole from me.

From The Flowers of Belles-lettres and Fruits of Intellect of Abu Ishaq Ibrahim al-Husri al-Qayrawani

October 14, 2022

City of poetry

I am informed by Abu Hatim that ‘Imran ibn ‘Aqil said: I was told by my father—meaning ‘Aqil ibn Bilal—that he was told by his father—meaning Bilal ibn Jarir—that [Bilal's father]

Jarir said: I paid a call on one of the Umayyad caliphs, who asked me, "Can we talk about the poets?" "Of course," I said.
      "Who was the greatest poet?" he asked. "Ibn ‘Ishrin (The Child of Twenty)," I said, meaning Tarafa [who lost his life at that age].
      "What do you have to say about [Zuhayr] ibn Abi Sulma and al-Nabigha [al-Dhubyani]?" he asked. I said, "Their poetry was woven at a loom."
      "And Imru’ al-Qays ibn Hujr?" he asked. I said, "That villain took poetry for a pair of sandals, to trample as he pleased."
      "And Dhu 'l-Rumma?" he asked. I said, "He can do with poetry what no one else can do."
      "And al-Akhtal?" he asked. I said, "Up to his death, the [full measure of the] poetry within him went unrevealed."
      "And al-Farazdaq?" he asked. I said: "He grips poetry in his hand like a [bow of] grewia."
      "You've left nothing for yourself!" the caliph said. "By God," I said, "of course I have, O Commander of the Faithful! I am the city of poetry, from which it sallies forth and in which takes refuge. Truly, I glorify poetry in a way that no one before me has."
      "And what way is that?" the caliph asked. I said, "My love-lyrics are innovative, my invective verse is ruinous, and my panegyric is uplifting. In ramal I'm abundant, in rajaz I'm the sea, and I compose in modes of poetry unknown to anyone before me."

From the Dictations of Abu ‘Ali al-Qali

October 8, 2022

Another Book of Songs

In the handwriting of Abu 'l-Hasan ‘Ali b. Muhammad b. ‘Ubayd b. al-Zubayr al-Kufi al-Asadi,
I found it written that he was told by Fadl b. Muhammad al-Yazidi:


I was with Ishaq b. Ibrahim al-Mawsili when a man came up and said, "O Abu Muhammad! [That is, Ishaq.] Give us the Book of Songs."
      "Which one?" said Ishaq. "The book I wrote, or the one that was written in my name?"—meaning by the former, his book of reports on individual singers, and by the latter, the Big Book of Songs that's out there.

I was informed by Abu 'l-Faraj al-Isbahani that he was told by Abu Bakr Muhammad b. Khalaf Waki‘ that

Hammad b. Ishaq said: "My father never wrote that book," (meaning The Big Book of Songs) "nor claimed credit for it. Most of the lyrics in it are falsely inserted into reports of singers who never sang them. To this day, most them have never been performed. Comparison to the songbooks my father actually wrote shows how worthless that book is. It was cobbled together after his death by one of his copyists, except for the opening chapter on the permissibility [of music], which my father did write, although the reports in it are my narrations [from my father]."

Abu 'l-Faraj told me: This is the story as I remember Abu Bakr Waki‘ telling it, though not verbatim. And I heard from Jahza [b. Musa al-Barmaki] that he knew the copyist's name:

"The copyist was one Sindi b. ‘Ali, who had a shop along the Archway of Rubbish and used to copy books for Ishaq.* For the book that he foisted on him, he worked with a collaborator."
      This is the book that used to be known by the title al-Surāh (The Night-Travelers). Its first chapter is on permissibility [of music], and is the work of Ishaq without a doubt.

From al-Fihrist of (Ibn) al-Nadim

* Noted in the edition of al-Fihrist by Ayman Fu’ad Sayyid (vol. I/2, 439n3): "In the sources at my disposal, I do not find an 'Archway of Rubbish' [in Baghdad]. Perhaps it is the Archway of al-Harrani mentioned ahead [in the entry for Ja‘far b. Ahmad al-Marwazi] that is meant. In al-Ya‘qubi's day, there were over a hundred stationers' shops in the markets of that area."

September 19, 2022

What handkerchief is best?

The courtiers surrounding ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan were not particularly erudite. One day, he asked them, "What is the best kind of handkerchief?"
     "The handkerchiefs of Egypt," said one of them "They're like the membrane of an eggshell."
     "The handkerchiefs of Yemen," said another. "They're as [colorful as] the flowers of spring."
     "That's all you've come up with?" said ‘Abd al-Malik. "That's nothing.  The best of handkerchiefs was described by a man of the Banu Tamim," meaning ‘Abda ibn al-Tabib (meter: basīṭ):

      When we halted and rigged up a screen from the sun,
          pots of meat for the party were put on to boil.
      The cook's time was short. Some of the cuts
          were eaten pink, and some were just turning pale.
      We remounted then our branded horses. Their close-cropped
          manes were kerchiefs for [wiping] our hands.

From al-Kamil of al-Mubarrad (cf. Imru’ al-Qays)

August 31, 2022

A courtroom scene

Abu ‘Ali (al-Qali, d. 356 A.H./967 CE) said: My recitation of this poem by Jamil (ibn Ma‘mar, d. 82/701) was verified by Ibn Durayd (d. 321/933) (meter: wāfir):

    "What you accuse me of is not a wrong,"
          I told her, "unlike the miser's way, which is collective harm.
      Take me before two judges, one from my group and one
          from yours, impartial men and not unjust ones."
     "I want one judge," she said, "from my group only,
          lest slanderers overhear our case, and embroider on it."
      We went before the judge in his curtained chamber,
          a worldly man of weighty lids.
    "We will accept your decision," we said, "whatever it be.
          We trust you with adjudication of our case,
      which will be binding, so judge between us
          as your temper and opinion dictate."
    "I am slain,” I told the judge, “with no recrimination.
          Such wrongs unpunished lead to pasturage on iniquity.
      Ask her when she’ll make good the debts she owes me.
          Is grievance ever righted when it goes unredressed?"
    "The plaintiff is a liar," she said, "and a useless person.
          His abusive accusations go on long.
      Am I his slayer? Then where’s my weapon?
          If I attack him, what fighting strength have I?
      Nor have I despoiled his capital. The court will find
          that the alleged debt is owed to me."
      The ruling of our case was up to our sentencer,
          whose legal views were founded well.
     "Bring forth your witnesses," he said.
          I said, "God is our witness, the Exalted King."
     "The defendant's oath, that I may reach my verdict,"
          ordered the judge, whose every verdict was just and fair.
      When she gave her oath, she said the charge against her
          weighed less than the skin around a date pit.
      [Afterwards,] my reserve gave out, and I asked,
         "Our case, Buthayna—has it not been settled?"
      She knit her brows and said, "[Do you think]
          you’ve prevailed? You, who prevail in nothing you do?
      And don’t let your enemies find us together, lest I be
          bereaved of you. A bereft woman is no one to mess with!"

From al-Qali's Dictations

August 22, 2022

A disputation of frost and ice

In this book (e.g.), I have repeated what others have presented, and cited their sources. I will now tell of madmen observed by me on my travels, for due to my passion for the subject, I have often repaired to madhouses and studied people in various states of madness.

At Merv I entered a madhouse that was located in a graveyard. I heard the clamor of raised voices, then beheld an old man who was tied up next to a young man in chains. They were arguing over ice and frost, and which was better than the other. On spotting me, they said, "Here comes one to moderate between us!"

The old man said, "I speak on behalf of frost, which is superior to ice, because frost is God's doing and not His worshipers'. But [human] beings created by God are capable of creating ice."

The young man said, "Frost has a harmful dryness to it that is lacking in ice. Ice is what occurs [in water] when it turns into ice."

"You're both right," I said, for as I pondered each one, the madness of the opposing statement would catch my ear.

From Madmen Who Were Intelligent by Abu 'l-Qasim al-Nisaburi