(I was devastated to hear yesterday of the death of Gaarriye, one of the great Somali poets of his generation, and an under-sung, insufficiently-acknowledged figure in African and indeed world poetry. I am still reeling – the last I’d heard, he was chronically ill, but recovering slowly, and was at least, being in Oslo, in a good place from the point of view of medical support. Now, abruptly, he’s gone.
Together with Martin Orwin, Ayan Mahamoud, Sarah Maguire and others, I was just setting up another session of translation of his work, designed to produce, finally, a full collection of his poetry in translation, which might demonstrate to readers in English his cultural range and impact. That work, now more important than ever, must go on.
For me, as with so many others in the poetry community and across the Somali-speaking world, the loss is personal. Gaarriye was an unforgettable presence, and will I’m sure be unforgotten in absence. His personality, his performances, his complete imaginative grasp of Somali poetry, its metres and its imagery, its sweep and its accessibility, was visionary. He was responsible for establishing and communicating its rules and its role in a unique and dynamic manner – he was a great teacher within the Somali community and an eloquent ambassador outwith it.
He showed me great kindness, hospitality and insight into the craft, and I realised fairly rapidly that I was in the presence of one of my masters – those writers who challenge and extend you by their example. I wrote a little about that for the Poetry Translation Centre – to whom I am deeply grateful for the introduction to Gaarriye – the link is below. I’ll try and write more about this as the shock recedes, but for now my thoughts are with his family, and with Martin Orwin, who did more than anyone to bring me and many others into the orbit of this great writer.
I originally wrote the following short note to go in the edition of poems and essays produced at what seemed the drop of a hat by the Somali community in London earlier this year, to focus fund-raising efforts for Gaarriye, then gravely ill in Norway. I’ve left the text as it was, filled though it is with misplaced optimism, and added the poem ‘Arrogance’, a key statement by this most humane of writers, a poem we translated back in 2008, which there wasn’t room for in the Enitharmon pamphlet.)
The impact of Maxamed Xaashi Dhamac ‘Gaarriye’ both as poet and person on my life and my work is more pervasive and more subtle than I can easily articulate, and I was saddened to hear of his current ill-health. I touch on his extraordinary generosity and hospitality in the following essay, but would like to add that it sparked a continuing fascination with his work and with Somali poetry and culture in general. For this I am deeply grateful, and I wish him as thorough a recovery as his condition allows. The poem ‘Arrogance’ was translated with Martin Orwin as part of the Poetry Translation Centre’s 2008 project, but there wasn’t room for it in the Enitharmon pamphlet – I’m delighted that it’s appearing here, where, for me, it stands as a harbinger for further translations I hope to embark on from the work of this great and internationally significant poet.
Wandered brood of Adam,
lost, bewildered people,
hear what I have to say.
Stop for a moment before the mountains
and for the simple sake of awe
be humbled, let your tears fall.
Look to, look through the air above,
be moved by the sight of stars,
watch their bodies wheel.
Ask the thunder, see what lightning says
the rain-bearing wind which blows
the good grey cloud, ask them.
The camel’s old keen for her calf,
be hushed and hear it, hear how
the birds’ song weeps with it: weep with them too.
How the sea sounds out its old chorus,
what moves in its abyssal womb:
acknowledge these and what they mean.
Examine the earth at your feet,
the rush of the rivers,
raise your eyes to the clouds.
Glimpse what lies above
the auroral mist, the winds,
understand what these things have to say.
The scent of wild acacia –
inhale it, relish it, and
delight in the green of pastures.
Count up the lineage of all life,
mark the endless days and days:
this worthless arrogance of yours,
you have to let it go.
All nebulae and galaxies,
the Camel of the Southern Cross,
our own burning sun, who said these
were lit for humankind?
Before a man was made in this world
didn’t Virgo blaze above?
Aren’t all those gatherings of stars
far older than us?
Since when was their high light
kindled only for you?
Exactly when do you think the heavens
were told to carry out the order
‘Confine yourselves to the human race’?
If you simply ceased to be
wouldn’t their light continue?
Wouldn’t it be then as it is now?
Wandered brood of Adam,
your bluster is a lie.
You shared this womb with all
wild things that roam,
all roots that flourish,
you entered this world together.
All creation is your cousin,
each creature your equal
and you share an ancestor:
all living things are to you
as stick is to bark, bark to stick.
You and they are like two eyes –
when one sheds tears
the other weeps.
They were not made for you alone,
nor were they created to serve.
Of everything which is, half is secret –
however things appear
the meaning is always deeper.