Tessa Ransford and Iyad Hayatleh
(Luath Press, 2012); pbk, £8.99
This collaboration between Tessa Ransford and Iyad Hayatleh, both poets and translators, offers a creative amalgam that weaves religion, ritual and culture to produce some remarkable poems. Ransford, a founder of the Scottish Poetry Library met Hayatleh, a Palestinian from Syria, through the “Writers in Exile” committee of Scottish PEN. From a few translations of each other’s work the idea of a larger project took shape. The resulting poems are arranged according to the Five Pillars of Islam: Shahada (Testimony), Salah (Prayer), Zakat ( Almsgiving), Siyam (Fasting) and Hajj (Pilgrimage). Each wrote their poems independently before working together to translate and distil the other’s poem.
The opening poem, Hayatleh’s “Fifty”, traces the poet’s life from his birth into an exiled community where: “the tears of old women / who weep for the warmth of the homes they left – ”. Into this “tin-housed neighbourhood” the infant is born: “I fed at her breast on poetry / and the catastrophe of my people”. Here, the coupling of the creative encounter and the experience of exile is seen as the sustenance of life and art—a theme to which the poet later returns. The yearning for a lost land and distant family leads the reader to consider the meaning of home and belonging.
In Hayatleh’s poem “Shahada”, the athan ( the Islamic call to prayer) provides a structural and conceptual thread. The declaration of faith contained in the “voice of athan” is both “the source of our belief / where the first page of life is opened” and also the accompaniment to his final moments: “I wish that when I am dying / there remains one who will prompt me / in that recital”. The “serene voice of athan ” becomes even more vital to the refugee who yearns to return home “where my mother lays out my poems in the sun”.
In Salah (Prayer), both poets meditate on the nature of prayer. Hayatleh’s recital of the athan to his new-born causes the “astonished midwife” in Glasgow to gasp “what is he mumbling in the baby’s ear?”. In contrast, his visit to his old neighbourhood mosque in Syria offers some solace for his father’s passing: “a corner where he used to pray, perfumed with his breath, / invited me”. These experiences are brought together through the recognition that though “each has their own tongue / … there is only one language for prayer”.
Ransford’s poem “Prayer-sequence” also addresses the nature of prayer. Prayer is not undertaken in “in panic” or “in pain”; the act of prayer is a quieter act of openness and acceptance, even to the extent of becoming the one “who must lose or fail / or wait”. Her “nod” to Milton in the line above continues : “To pray, as blind Milton knew, / is not even to want / circumstances to change / but to believe they will”.
Responding to the third pillar, Zakat, both poets celebrate the act of giving, whether it is money and food or the abstracts of love and patience: “Come share the love and forbearance / hunger and bread / the sweet and the bitter / the fear of crossroads and darkness” (“Zakat”, Hayatleh). Ransford’s poem “Almsgiving” explores the mutuality of giving—how the act of sharing comes back to enrich : “… the given is returned / in strength, not fully / but sufficient to continue / until the last is taken”.
In the final section, “Hajj” (Pilgrimage) reflects on the idea of the journey of religious devotion. Hayatleh emphasises the sense of ritual and surrender to God and his place in the world. The poem ends by asking the question so vital for the speaker and the Palestinian people: “When shall I enter you, Jerusalem, as a free man?”
Ransford’s “Pilgrimage” is rooted in the detail of the medieval procession to Canterbury: “tongues wagging with their tales, / a pell-mell people’s holiday excursion / along with dogs and horses, all and sundry there”. As the poem makes its way through the allegorical Bunyanesque landscape, the nature of the speaker’s journey emerges: “ I creep back and find old tales — / of love of love of love of love. / Not once in a lifetime this pilgrimage / but simply my life”. Thus, earthly journey and spiritual pilgrimage become one.
These poems do not seek to “convert”, rather, they invite readers to reflect on faith, experience and their own “humanness”.