By Mario Colella
If only we were not that seedling of Creation,
Of Earth and its generations,
If only we had remained simple Clay or Ember,
Or something in between,
Then we would not have to see
This World, its Lord, and its Hell, twice over.
— Adonis (“The New Noah,” tr. Shawkat M. Toorawa)
NANJING, China — The excerpt above comes from the Syrian poet Adonis, widely regarded as the greatest writer of Arabic verse for more than half a century. His linguistic experimentation has led an international movement, inspiring poets from Lebanon, Iran, Syria, Egypt, France, Libya and others. His verbal powers, expressed in radically original forms, sacrifice none of the complexity or passion found in Arabic poetry. When I learned he would read from his latest collection “My Anxiety is a Spark,” at Nanjing’s Librairie Avant-Garde, it was as if I had the chance to meet Du Fu or ask Walt Whitman about his work. On October 3, I took advantage of this remarkable opportunity along with seven other students from the Hopkins-Nanjing Center.
When we reached the bookstore, it was clear that this was a major event. The seating area quickly reached capacity, and many of us had to occupy spaces on the floor to hear the speakers on stage. When Adonis arrived, it was as if a spirit had reached the audience; the crowd instinctively parted for the diminutive old man dressed in a bright pink shirt and a light blue scarf around his neck. Adonis walked slowly, seeming initially uneasy among the sea of unknown faces, but noticeably relaxed when his translator Xue Qingguo arrived at his side. It was touching to see them together. M.A. student Amanda Bogan noted, “Not only was Xue able to interpret more than three minutes of Adonis’ speech at a time, it was clear that the two were close, intimate friends.”
Adonis and Xue were joined on stage by Zhao Lihong, an insightful professor of foreign languages at Beijing University, along with a host whose unprofessional demeanor drew criticism among audience members after the event. In contrast to the host’s disappointing performance (asking Adonis to say ni hao without a translator, checking his phone during the talk, and nearly ending the discussion without a poetry reading), Adonis was gracious, modest and wise. His deep love of literature and the possibilities of poetry was evident throughout the discussion; Amy Bodner, another M.A. student, observed that the childlike vitality that flowed through him needed no interpretation to be understood.
Poetry, Adonis explained, cannot change society. It does not solve the evils of the state, and it has no answers for what we cannot bear — death, loneliness and anxiety are not destroyed by the poet’s work. What poetry gives us, he said, are the questions. What poetry gives us is the ability to confront the awful truth of our existence, to be able to face the challenge of this world and the glory of being alive. Poetry does not change society: Poetry changes human beings. Each one of us, no matter how frail or marginal, has the potential to truly live. The precondition of this miracle, however, is that we remain awake to witness deep sorrow and infinite richness of this life. It is the questions that matter, not the answers; our answers are transitory, but the questions are immortal.
In a 2016 interview with the New York Review of Books, Adonis said, “The East and the West are economic and military concepts and were created by colonialism. We can say geographically that there are East and West…but in art there is no East and West…Walt Whitman is just like Abu Tammam for me. He is a part of me, and I am a part of him.” This affirmation of our universal humanity was particularly relevant in Nanjing; Ben Sinvany, another SAISer, pointed out what a strange experience the reading was for native English speakers. After all, we’re used to having English exist as a conduit for multicultural communication, and English is treated as a global lingua franca.
Watching an Arab poet speak in Arabic and understanding his words as interpreted by his Chinese translator, we, as international students, were reminded that America, after all, is not the center of the world. An old Chinese story seems particularly relevant here. After losing his bow, the King of Chu (regarded as a wise and generous king) said, “A man of Chu lost his bow, a man of Chu will find it.” Confucius was unimpressed when he heard the story, and replied, “A man lost his bow, a man will find it, is there any need to say they’re from Chu?”
Mario Colella is an HNC Certificate ’19/SAIS M.A. ’20 student concentrating in Chinese Studies.