December 8, 2019

Merchants and weavers

Sayf al-Dawla found fault with verses 22 and 23 of the poem al-Mutanabbi delivered in his honor (meter: ṭawīl):

   To stand your ground was certain death, and there you stood,
      as if your doom were asleep with your foot in its eye.
   Wounded and sullen, [defeated] warriors filed past you.
      Your face was bright and your grin was toothy.

His objection was that its hemistichs were mismatched "Here's how it should go," Sayf al-Dawla said:

   To stand your ground was certain death, and there you stood.
      Your face was bright and your grin was toothy.
   Wounded and sullen, [defeated] warriors filed past you,
      as if your doom were asleep with your foot in its eye.

"Otherwise," he said, "it's as bad as [verses 37 and 38 of the poem] where Imru’ al-Qays says" (meter: ṭawīl):

   As if I never mounted a courser for sport
      or went belly to belly with a total babe, her ankles jingling!
   As if I weren't the buyer of wine by the skinful,
      nor told my horse, "Attack!" after wheeling about!

"Connoisseurs of poetry will agree that these hemistichs are reversed. The part about the courser goes with the bit about the horse, and the wine belongs with the buxom lass."
        Al-Mutanabbi said, "May God perpetuate the dignity of our master Sayf al-Dawla! If the one who finds fault with Imru’ al-Qays knows more about poetry than he, then Imru’ al-Qays and I are both in error. But our master well knows that in matters of fabric, the expertise of the fabric merchant and the expertise of the weaver are not the same. The merchant knows it as a finished piece, and so does the weaver - but the weaver, who transforms spun filaments into fabric, knows how the finished piece was put together.
       "What Imru’ al-Qays does here is to match his delight in women to the joys of the mounted hunt, and to match his supply of wine for the guest to his bravery in attacking the foe. Now in the first of my own verses, when I mention death, it is fitting that I go on to mention doom. And by way of describing the defeated champions, whose faces cannot but frown and weep, I say: 'Your face was bright and your grin was toothy,' which, through antithesis, gets both meanings across."
        Sayf al-Dawla was pleased with this explanation, and added a bonus of fifty dinars to the reward of five hundred he had paid al-Mutanabbi for the poem.

From al-Wahidi's Commentary on the Diwan of al-Mutanabbi

November 21, 2019

Cretensis mare

Ὁ Κρὴς τὴν θάλασσαν: "A Cretan to the sea," i.e., unfamiliar with the sea or fearful of it. Strabo gives this proverb in Geography, book 10, explaining that in ancient times, the people of Crete were unsurpassed in navigation and other maritime matters through their long experience. And so "The Cretan knows nothing of the sea" became proverbial for people who feign ignorance of something they know extremely well. For Cretans are islanders. The sea girds them on every side. How could they be ignorant of it?

An alternate form of this expression is Ὁ Κρὴς [δὴ] τὸν πόντον. Aristides uses it in regard to Pericles, and Zenodotus (sic) writes that it is somewhere in Alcaeus. An analogous expression is found in Horace's epistle to Octavian: "I, when I claim not to be composing verses, / am more deceptive than a Parthian in my designs." This is because the Parthians would launch their fiercest attacks by pretending to run away.

Erasmus, Adages

November 15, 2019

If on Astor Place

Flyer by Jay Grabowski

November 7, 2019

ِA loom seen in a dream

Weaving means travel. The preacher Abu Sa‘id [al-Khargushi] said: "Who dreams of spinning and weaving something to its completion will die." Al-Kirmani said: "Who dreams of weaving a robe to completion will go on a long journey with a successful outcome. To dream of a robe left incomplete means the opposite. To dream of weaving a robe and cutting it in a way that mars its border means an abrupt end to some affair." Al-Salimi said: "The interpretation of weaving is anxiety and mental effort, but if the weaving is completed it means an end to all of that. To dream of a group of weavers in one's home means a legal battle against multiple contestants, possibly one's own relations."
        A dream of fabric has multiple interpretations. Who dreams of folding cloth or buying it or receiving it as a gift will go on a long journey. This is due to [homonymy: al-shuqqa means "fabric," but also "journey" as in] the Qur'anic verse (9:24): "But distant to them was the journey." Al-Kirmani said: "A dream of green fabric means safe travels. A dream of yellow fabric means travel with a bad outcome. White fabric means safety and health, and blue and black fabric mean travel that is dispraised." And according to some interpreters, a dream of receiving woven fabric as a gift from someone means that friendship will develop with that person.

From A Digest of Pronunciations on the Exegesis of Dreams
by pseudo-Ibn Sirin (on the margin)
Weaving in a dream is a sign of passing out of life, or the nearness of the end to one's allotted days. It may also signify a middling condition, or [alternating periods] of tension and relaxation in worldly matters. To dream of setting up a warp means to decide on travel, and to dream of weaving a robe means actual travel. If one dreams of cutting fabric after weaving it, then some case in which the dreamer is a contestant will come to an end, either in the dreamer's favor or contrary to it. Whether one dreams of weaving the robe from cotton, wool, the hair or down of goats, or silk or anything else, it all means the same. To dream of a folded robe means travel, and to unfurl a robe means that something absent will become present. To command that a robe be woven from goat's down signifies a matter of domestic help, possibly involving sexual intercourse.

From Perfuming Humankind with Dream Interpretation
by ‘Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi (in the frame)

November 1, 2019

November memories

Columbus, OH, 2015

October 4, 2019

Description of the spider

Since you are so taken with Penelope's loom - having found a good picture where it appears to lack none of its component parts, its warp tightly and handsomely stretched, its weft containing the bulging fibers - and you hear not only the whir of Penelope's shuttle, but her crying out the tears that Homer melts ice with as she unravels her web: consider the spider [in a picture] nearby, and whether it doesn't outweave Penelope and even the Seres ["Silklanders"], who work in strands so fine as to be nearly invisible.

These gates open onto an ill-kept household. You would say its owners have deserted it. The courtyard within is obviously abandoned. No longer held up by its pillars, the structure sags and is falling in. It is a home to spiders only, for the animal likes a tranquil setting to do its weaving. Look at the strands, and how the spider secretes its spinning and anchors it to the floor. The artist shows them climbing down the web and clambering back up, the "high-flying" spiders as Hesiod calls them, and flying is what the spiders do. They weave their homes in corners, some wide outspread, some concave hollows: the outspread webs are excellent summer quarters, whereas the hollow nests they weave are good in winter.

Nor do the artist's accomplishments end there. The exacting adumbration of the spider, the naturalness of its stippling, the rendition of its wild and shaggy fur - these are the productions of the awesome, truthful power of a good craftsman, who wove for us these slender cords. Look at the rectangular one girding the web's four corners. Like the cable of a loom, it supports a delicate net that whorls round in many orbits, its interstices tautly strung from the outermost circle to the smallest, knitted crosswise at intervals that match the distance between each circle. And all about the web, the weavers ply their trade, tightening up the threads that have fallen slack. As payment for their weaving, there is a feast of flies whenever one gets entangled in the webworks. Accordingly, the artist has not left out the spiders' prey. One is caught by the foot, and another by the tip of one wing, while a third is being eaten up headfirst. And struggle as they may to escape the web, they cannot shake it loose or cause it to come undone.

Philostratus the Elder, Images II.28

September 24, 2019

If in Philadelphia

September 5, 2019

The hair of another animal

Abu Dulaf al-Qasim ibn ‘Isa al-‘Ijli paid a call on the caliph al-Ma’mun, who said, "I must say, Qasim, how excellent is your poem that describes war and the delight it brings you, while you scant the delights of singing-girls!
     "Which poem do you have in mind, O Commander of the Faithful?" asked Abu Dulaf.
     "This one," said the caliph, reciting (meter: mutaqārib):

      Here's to drawing swords and crashing through ranks,
         and raising dust and smiting head-crowns...

"How does the rest go, Qasim?" asked the caliph. Abu Dulaf said:

   ...and going dressed in soot and waving banners!
         Fatalities you'll see on spearheads
      when through raised torches comes Fatality's Bride,
         baring the sharp extremity of her fang.
      On she comes on with a seductive gait,
         flanked by the bright vigor of her offspring.
      Ignorant she, who gives the ignorant away!
         When made to speak, her answer is nonverbal.
      When her hand is sought, she claims a dowry
         of heads that plop to earth amid mixed fighters.
      Her company brings more joys than singing-girls
         and a drink of fine old wine on a rainy day.
      The sword's edge is my father, and the flat side my best friend,
         I who am death's nearness and fortune's downturn.*

He then said, "This is the pleasure I take in the thick of your enemies, O Commander of the Faithful, and the power I exert amid your supporters, and the might I wield on your behalf. While other men delight in bouts of wine-drinking, bouts of war and conflict are what I choose."
    The caliph said: "If these verses describe your true nature, and the delight they describe is your true delight, then tell me, Qasim: What's left over for the sleeping beauty on whom you parted the curtain and swore by God?"
    "In which of my poems was that, O Commander of the Faithful?" asked Abu Dulaf.
    "This one," the caliph said (meter: khafīf):

      To the sleeper who makes my eye wakeful, I say: Sleep on,
         and be untroubled. In sleep be your delight.
      God knows my heart is ailing, because He knows
         the torment that I suffer at a look in your eyes.

    "An old conjurement of mine," said Abu Dulaf, "A mere trifle at the end of a sleepless night. The other verses express my mature opinion."
    "Qasim!" said the caliph. "This couplet was well authored, I must say" (meter: ṭawīl):

      It's your fault I cast aspersion on the days we were together.
         For the nights of our togetherness, there is none to accuse.
      If lovers encounter each other only in memory
         of a thing that has passed,  away that thought will fade.

     "Bravo, Commander of the Faithful!" said Abu Dulaf. "How excellent is this couplet by [you who are] the master of the house of Hashim and the Abbasid sovereign!"
     The caliph said: "How does your acumen guide you to my authorship, to the exclusion of delusion and all doubt?"
    "Poetry, O Commander of the Faithful, is a carpet of wool," said Abu Dulaf. "And when pure wool has hair mixed in, and a weaving is made from it, the hair shines through and gleams like fire."

From the Meadows of Gold of al-Mas‘udi

*In al-Mubarrad's Kāmil a version of this poem is attributed to
  Ishaq ibn Khalaf al-Bahrani.

August 19, 2019

Another description of the locust

It is said [in al-Damiri's Life of Animals] that the locust unites the features of ten mighty creatures: the face of a stallion, the eye of an elephant, the neck of a bull, the horn of an oryx, the torso of a lion, the belly of a snake, the wings of the vulture, the forelegs of a camel, the feet of an ostrich and a scorpion's tail. Such was the theme of a poet who said (meter: ṭawīl):

   Thigh of a camel, shank of an ostrich,
      a vulture's paw and the breast of a biting lion.
   Its belly was a gift from the viper of the earth,
      and the noble horse gave up its face and nose.
   The elephant's eye is aped by its, and its
      horns are the wild cow's, do you follow?
   Its neck and its tail are a bull's and a scorpion's,
      and God is the One Who knows best.

Another poet has said (meter: kāmil):

   The times are rotten. The stench is general.
      Indeed, the majority of created beings are corrupt.
   Take the locust, which spares the money of the rich.
      All the wealth of the poor it can find, it engulfs.

From the Rare and Marvelous Tales of Devout Luminaries
of Times Gone By
of Shihab al-Din Ahmad al-Qalyubi

June 16, 2019

In memoriam Kevin Killian

Portrait of Kevin Killian, 2002
Linoleum block print, hand-tinted (2002), 8" x 10"
(Reprinted 2006)

June 7, 2019

Palms up ears down

                            A palm grove is slow
                                to give back to the planter.
                            But a happy return is assured
                                once the leaves start to show.
                            Time sustains the palm
                                when other stumps wither.
                            In a race against wheat,
                                the palm is the winner.

Ibn al-Rumi

Meter: majzu’ al-ramal

May 18, 2019

If in New York

Poetry Project
St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery
131 E. 10th Street

May 12, 2019

Sheep for sheep

Al-Asma‘i said: I was told by Khalaf al-Ahmar, who heard it from a man of the Banu Hirmaz, whose father told him:.

       Al-‘Ajjaj came to me and asked, "Would you accept a ewe lamb in exchange for another sheep that answers my description?"
     "What is your description?" I said.
     "Not much hair in the front, but lots of hair in back. From the front, you'd think it was a goat, but from behind you can tell it's a sheep."
       I searched my flocks, and found one sheep answering his description, which I gave to him, and took his ewe lamb in exchange. I wouldn't have done this for just anyone - but this was al-‘Ajjaj, who might bring fame to my flocks!

Al-Asma‘i, The Book of the Sheep

April 26, 2019

Women who loved women

Names of [books about] graceful women who were lovers:

   The Book of Rayhana and Qaranful (Basil and Clove)
   The Book of Ruqayya and Khadija
   The Book of Mu’yas and Dhakiya
   The Book of Sukayna and al-Rubab
   The Book of Ghatrifa and al-Dhalfa’
   The Book of Hind and the Daughter of al-Nu'man
   The Book of ‘Abda the Clever and ‘Abda the Fickle
   The Book of Lu’lu’ and Shatira
   The Book of Najda and Za‘um
   The Book of Salma and Su‘ad
   The Book of Sawab and Surur
   The Book of al-Dahma’ and Ni‘ma

(Ibn) al-Nadim, Fihrist VIII.1 (circa 987 CE). (Ibid.)

April 4, 2019

To the Graces

   On spying Aristagoras, you the very Graces
       flung your gentle arms around his darling person.
   Thanks to you's the fire thrown off now by his frame, be he
       sweet talking or making silence talk with just his eyes.
   Keep him away from me? As if that would help! Like a new Zeus,
       the boy knows how to make a bolt land far from Olympus.

By Meleager of Gadara

March 25, 2019

An imbecile from the Age of Ignorance

Another imbecile was ‘Ijl ibn Lujaym ibn Mus‘ab ibn ‘Ali ibn Bakr ibn Wa’il. One example of his idiocy is that when asked, "What do you call your horse?" he stood before it, put out one of its eyes and said, "I call him al-A‘war." And al-‘Anazi said (meter: tawil):

    The Banu ‘Ijl accuse me of their patriarch's malady.
        But what man was ever dumber than ‘Ijl?
    It was their patriarch who made his steed half-blind, when
        into a byword for ignorance he made their name.

From Reports of Imbeciles and Simpletons by Ibn al-Jawzi (Ibid).

March 9, 2019

If in Chicago

AOS poetry flyer sm
Image source: Composite drawing of Irtašduna's personal seal
by Margaret Cool Root and Mark B. Garrison, courtesy of the artists
and the Persepolis Seal Project. Colored pencils and gouache by LRSN
(2007 throwback)

February 16, 2019

On the eve of al-Waqit

Abu ‘Ubayda said: This is what I was told by Firas ibn Khandaq.

        Al-Lahazim ("The Middle Ranks") were [a tribal subgroup of Bakr ibn Wa’il, comprising the clans of] Qays and Taym Allah ibn Tha‘laba ibn ‘Ukaba, ‘Ijl ibn Lujaym, and ‘Anaza ibn Asad ibn Rabi‘a ibn Nizar.
        On some pretext, the Lahazim held a gathering whose true purpose was to launch a raid on the Banu Tamim. Their movements were spotted by a man of Tamim held captive by the Banu Sa‘d of Qays ibn Tha‘laba. The captive hostage's name was Nashib ibn Bashama al-‘Anbari, called the One-Eyed (al-A‘war). He said to his captors: "Bring me a messenger, that I may instruct my family concerning some affairs of mine."

        The Banu Sa‘d (who had purchased Nashib from the Banu Abi Rabi‘a ibn Dhahl ibn Shayban) feared that he would alert his tribe, and told him, "You may dispatch your message in our presence."
       "Okay," he said. But when they brought him a lad belonging to no tribe of the Arabs, he objected: "You've brought me a simpleton!"
       "By God," said the lad, "I am no simpleton."
       "You're an idiot," said the One-Eyed, "I can tell."
       "By God, there is nothing idiotic about me!" the lad said.
       "Then which are there more of," the One-Eyed said, "stars or moons?"
       "Stars," said the lad, "by a lot."
        The One-Eyed filled his hand with grains of sand, and said, "What is the quantity in my hand?"
       "I don't know," said the lad, "but I reckon it's a great many."
        The One-Eyed pointed at the sun and said, "What is that?"
        The lad said, "That's the sun."

       "I see now that you are bright and clever," said Nashib. "Go to my family and communicate my greetings. Tell them to treat their hostage with kindness and generosity, since that is how my captors are treating me." (At this time, Hanzala ibn Tufayl al-Marthadi was in the hands of the ‘Anbaris.) "Tell them to unsaddle my red stallion and eqiuip my white mare, and see to my affairs among Malik's kids. Tell them the boxthorn is in leaf, and that the women are complaining. And tell them to ignore the commands of Hammam ibn Bashama, who is a no-good, marginal person, and to obey instead Hudhayl ibn al-Akhnas who is felicitous in judgement."
       "Who are the kids of Malik?" asked the Banu Sa‘d.
       "My nephews," said Nashib.

        When the messenger reached Nashib's people and relayed to them the message, they were nonplussed. "This discourse is unknown to us," they said. "The One-Eyed must have lost his mind. We don't know anything about a mare belonging to him, nor a stallion. His whole herd is with him, as far as we know."
        Then Hudhayl ibn al-Akhnas said to the messenger, "Tell it to me from the beginning," and the lad related all that the One-Eyed had said from beginning to end. "Go back and convey our greetings to him, and tell him we'll carry out his instructions." And the messenger departed.

        "O ‘Anbar!" Hudhayl then cried, summoning the people. "Your comrade has expressed everything to you clearly. The sands in his hand are to make you know that a host of incalculable numbers is on its way. By pointing to the sun, he says that the danger is clearer than daylight. The red stallion he orders you to 'unsaddle' is the area of al-Summan, which he orders you to evacuate, and the white mare is al-Dahna’, which you are to fortify. And he orders you to warn the Banu Malik, and to bind them with an oath of mutual protection.
        "The enemy host bristles with weapons, and those are the 'leaves on the boxthorn.' And the women's ishtika’ is [not 'complaint,' but] their crafting of shika’ - meaning 'water-skins' for the men to take on their raid!"

         Nashib's people heeded the warning, and rode to al-Dahna’. They tried to alert the Banu Malik ibn Hanzala ibn Malik ibn Zayd Manah, who said, "We don't know what the Banu 'l-Ja‘ra’ are talking about." (This was their nickname for the Banu ‘Anbar. Ja‘ra’, like ja‘ari and jay‘ar, is the hyena.) "Their comrade's say-so is no cause for us to withdraw."
         The Lahazim showed up the next morning to find the settlement abandoned, its people having fled. So they went to seek them out at al-Waqit.

From The Flytings of Jarir and al-Farazdaq by Abu ‘Ubayda

January 18, 2019

An actor to the end

 O Death, whom love of jest escapes - you who know nothing
     of indulgence or happiness - what have I to do with you,
 when these are what brought me my prestige, my world-wide renown,
     my income and my roomy house?
 Ever was I full of cheer. If cheer give way
     to mundane vagary and deception, what's the use?
 When I was on the scene, the irate ceased their raging.
     The acutely pained would laugh when I showed up.
 Nagging cares were of no concern, and mischances
      of fortune lost their power to disappoint.
 The grip of every fear was broken by my presence,
     and all times spent with me passed blessedly.
 To see and hear me at work, even in a tragic role,
     was a thrilling and consoling pleasure in more ways than one.
 I put on my characters' faces, their manners and their words,
     such that many seemed to speak out of one mouth.
 Any man whose likeness I replicated for all to see
     would shudder at himself magnified in my face.
 And how many times did a woman behold my mimicry of her
     gestures, and turn bright red, slain by shock!
 However many the appearances my body was seen to take on,
     so many are disappeared with me on an evil day.
 Whereby with somber mien I am stirred to beg you now
     that you read aloud my inscription in pious tones,
 saying through your grief: "Happy as you were, O Vitalis,
     may you be no less happy at this moment."

Epitaph of Vitalis, a mime of the fifth century
San Sebastiano fuori le mura, Rome