Clare Best reviews The Water People / Gens de l’eau by Vénus Khoury-Ghata, translated by Marilyn Hacker (Poetry Translation Centre, 2022)
Vénus Khoury-Ghata is a major figure in the realm of literature written in French. Born and raised in Lebanon, she left to escape the war and has lived in Paris since 1972. She has published extensively – twenty-one volumes of poetry and twenty-three novels as well as non-fiction. Among many other prizes her work has won the Grand Prix de Poésie of the Académie française, Prix Apollinaire, Prix Mallarmé and Prix Goncourt, and she was named a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur in 2000. Khoury-Ghata’s work has been translated into Arabic, Dutch, German, Italian and Russian, and she herself translates contemporary Arabic poetry into French.
All this, and yet relatively few of Khoury-Ghata’s poetic works are available in English – I believe there are now seven, all translated by Marilyn Hacker. The Water People represents Hacker’s most recent translation of Khoury-Ghata’s work, and demonstrates her strong affinities with the poet and her mastery of the material. In an insightful and informative Introduction to The Water People / Gens de l’eau. Hacker refers to Khoury-Ghata’s way of creating work that has “the quality of exploded narratives, reassembled in a mosaic in which the reader has at least the illusion of being able to find a connecting thread”. She had previously highlighted other aspects of Khoury-Ghata’s relationship with narrative in her Introduction to Alphabets of Sand (Carcanet 2009): “[her] exuberant use of narrative in poetry – sometimes a mythos of the self, but more often narrative in all its inventive bravura – has been an affirmative return to poetry’s tale-telling sources, as strong in French as anywhere, while her surrealist, or magic realist, imagery honors the verbal shape-shifting familiar to readers of poetry in, or translated from, Arabic”.
There is a great deal packed in to the small slim volume (perfect for a pocket) in which Marilyn Hacker’s English translations and Khoury-Ghata’s original poetry in French sit side by side. Karen McCarthy-Woolf has written an Afterword which provides multiple ways in to reading the poem. And Carol Rumens has also contributed to this tardis of a book, summarising the project of The Water People / Gens de l’eau:
“This beautifully readable, book-length sequence combines epic and lyric, history and song, magic and realism. The water people are not spirits or naiads, confined to mysterious pools or vague archetype. Sturdy and resourceful, profoundly at home among their forests and stony hills, they are essentially human, and might even be our ancestors … Khoury-Ghata avoids message-preaching, dodges abstraction. Symbols are never merely symbolic but tangible objects, weighed in the hands, felt under the feet … The re-telling of traditional stories and fables is an enduringly popular genre in contemporary poetry. Vénus Khoury-Ghata has gone farther, inventing a new ‘ancient’ mythology which has a particular relevance to the present moment. Her water people mirror our own potential, and challenge the violence and materialism of the post-20th century.”
I felt it would be helpful to present here these words from Marilyn Hacker and Carol Rumens to give context to The Water People and to tempt other readers to find the work and read it. My own contribution, writing as a new reader of Khoury-Gata, consists of some personal reflections on my experience of reading The Water People / Gens de l’eau.
It was a while before I allowed myself simply to be swept along; to begin with I feared drowning in the sheer power of Khoury-Ghata’s images as they bubble up and tumble through the lines
There is certainly a sense of multiple languages and traditions (Arabic, French, symbolism, myth) carrying this poem along in a relentless (and largely unpunctuated) stream. At times, alterations in line length bring the feeling of a slightly halting torrent, but the overall movement is forwards, onwards. It was a while before I allowed myself simply to be swept along; to begin with I feared drowning in the sheer power of Khoury-Ghata’s images as they bubble up and tumble through the lines:
Separating day from night makes the bracelets of the woman
in labour jangle
the bread that cries out beneath her hand remembers the first
blood and the cleft of the first furrow
at that time bread and stone were eaten raw
if you step on the stream’s foot it will make the ocean’s
water level rise the shamaness had said
and no one contradicted her
Reading this work felt at first terrifying, the experience visceral. But by the third reading, I had let go of wanting to try and hold on to the language. It was marvellous. I let myself slip through, falling – it was a read that knocked me off my feet and spun me around until I found myself in a place that seemed slightly known, yet utterly new. That’s part of the genius – some of the writing, elements of it, felt just familiar enough that I kept wondering ‘Is this the past or is it the future? Or is it a parallel world?’ But I knew it didn’t matter: this place Khoury-Ghata took me to is a place I will never forget, and it changed, and continues to change, the way I see and hear the world:
The racket the children make playing underground sours the
fig tree’s milk
no consolation will come from the photo
the bodies in their Sunday best pared down to lines
the faces’ water turned to gel
how to explain the weeping when the mother drags the cradle
as far as the river rubbing till she’s exhausted the husk
staining the little hands that keep on applauding
Death and some kind of underworld or parallel world are suggested here, and throughout the poem there are intimations of two-way passage between life and death – a sense of the veil being permeable and being known to be permeable. There is also a democracy between all forms of life and states of being (animate and inanimate) which perhaps derives from what Hacker explains as “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 transcultural life of words.”
Death and some kind of underworld or parallel world are suggested here, and throughout the poem there are intimations of two-way passage between life and death – a sense of the veil being permeable and being known to be permeable
The interaction of humans and characters and stories with the ‘natural’ world presents an existence without divisions – even hinting at some kind of utopia. But this is not an innocent or a light-hearted world – it is real and hard and might be dubbed cruel. One reading of The Water People / Gens de l’eau is as a myth of societal survival after climate collapse:
The walls didn’t stop her when she hurled
crumbs and children out the window
threw them so they wouldn’t be afraid of the wolf
wouldn’t grow old with the grass
die with the fig tree
There is no need to try and work out if this poem is about the end of time or the beginning of time, or whether it points towards pre- or post-apocalyptic existence. Climate seems to be disrupted; the wind does odd things, water is unpredictable. From the first page, readers are urged to “Weep as if the river had entered you […] / And leave your voice behind to listen better when it rains”.
Karen McCarthy Woolf, in her Afterword, raises important points about the cultural and stylistic features of Khoury-Ghata’s work – her intense lyricism with echoes of the ghazal, her lines that often read like aphorisms or riddles. All these aspects of The Water People / Gens de l’eau are part of the richness of this poet’s cultural heritages, and all hold great fascination. But the central questions raised, for me, are about human relationship with place, the dilemmas and responsibilities of belonging:
Which of your two feet does the road trust
what wind must you put in your pocket to swear the storm
how many matches are needed to brave the lightning
the one who carries his house on his back avoids the edge of
the stones that cry out beneath his soles have the first pebble’s
memories and the wound of the first furrow
stone and bread were eaten raw back then
the clay spoke
the man standing on the mountaintop was waiting for the sea
to climb the hill and come lick his toes
I found infinite complication and nuance in the way the poem treats co-existence, cooperation, the painful and joyous mess of life and living. I felt the complexity of physical and emotional states, of living in a state of hellish beauty: everything we recognise as life, in fact. For me, it is this truth that makes the poem great, and also opens it to any number of readings, none of which is inconsistent with the state of the world as we hurtle into climate collapse.
This is powerful writing that settles into the unconscious and disrupts. Generous and tender as well as harsh, the ‘exploded narrative’ rearranges a reader’s thoughts and image banks
The Water People / Gens de l’eau seems different to me each time I read it, throwing up new questions. It has me standing on my head to try and see the poet’s imagined world the way I did last time I read it, but somehow I can’t see it that way any more. What I see now is something quite new. This is powerful writing that settles into the unconscious and disrupts. Generous and tender as well as harsh, the ‘exploded narrative’ rearranges a reader’s thoughts and image banks. I feel as though I will never again see human life and the world through any of my old sets of lenses. Khoury-Ghata’s languages and cultures have climbed inside my head and rewired my consciousness. This effect may be temporary, but I doubt it. Time and further re-readings will tell. Meanwhile, I’m happy to live not only with the changes in my head but with the multitude of questions the poem raises.
A note about the bilingual edition compared with the original French edition:
The Water People / Gens de l’eau is a book-length poem, divided into short sections of 5-20 lines each (the group of lines quoted above from p.27, and the groups from p.45 and p.47 of the Poetry Translation Centre’s bilingual edition, for instance, each form one short section). But I was puzzled from the start that this handsome little book doesn’t present the whole poem, but rather ‘excerpts’. One thing led to another, so having read the English alongside the French several times in the bilingual edition, I decided to find a copy of the original 2018 French edition from Mercure de France and read the poem whole, i.e. with the parts that had been excluded from the 2022 bilingual edition.
The Mercure de France edition is elegantly produced and the layout beautifully paced so that one section of the poem appears in the centre of each page, and although my French is rusty and I was often reaching for the dictionary, I discovered that having to stop to re-read and look up words actually made the reading easier, on one level. I suppose I was finding rocks and plants to hold on to in the torrent of the poem, and not simply being swept along as I had been by reading mainly in English.
I hoped, by reading the original French, to find some clues as to why the bilingual version had been cut by about one third. I didn’t. Perhaps Khoury-Ghata and Hacker decided between them to present a shortened version, or maybe it was an economic decision, but the thinking behind the cuts is not mentioned in any of the blurbs, and remains a mystery. And a great pity, I can’t help feeling.
Clare Best has published a memoir, The Missing List, two full collections of poetry, and several pamphlets and collaborative works. Her latest publication is End of Season / Fine di stagione (Frogmore Press, 2022). Clare often collaborates with visual artists and musicians. In 2020-21 she was a Fellow at Guildhall School of Music & Drama. Clare Best’s website is here.