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Tales of a Severed Head

Overview

This volume brings Moroccan poet Rachida Madani's remarkable poems to English-language readers for the first time. In Tales of a Severed Head, Madani addresses present-day issues surrounding the role of women in society—issues not unlike those explored a thousand years ago in the enduring collection of Arab tales known as The Thousand and One Nights.

In the ancient tales, the insanely distrustful King Shehriyar vows to marry a new wife each night and have her beheaded the ...

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Overview

This volume brings Moroccan poet Rachida Madani's remarkable poems to English-language readers for the first time. In Tales of a Severed Head, Madani addresses present-day issues surrounding the role of women in society—issues not unlike those explored a thousand years ago in the enduring collection of Arab tales known as The Thousand and One Nights.

In the ancient tales, the insanely distrustful King Shehriyar vows to marry a new wife each night and have her beheaded the next morning, thus eliminating the risk of being cuckolded. Through the courage and wit of young Scheherazade, who volunteers to be the king's bride and then invents the legendary tales that go on for a thousand and one nights, Shehriyar is healed of his obsession and the kingdom's virgins are saved. Like her brave-hearted predecessor, Madani's modern-day Scheherazade is fighting for her own life as well as the lives of her fellow sufferers. But in today's world, the threat comes as much from poverty, official corruption, the abuse of human rights, and the lingering effects of colonialism as from the power wielded by individual men. Madani weaves a tale of contemporary resistance, and once again language provides a potent weapon.

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Editorial Reviews

The Paris Review
Marilyn Hacker's translation from French is scrupulous and lively.—Robyn Creswell, The Paris Review

— Robyn Creswell

The Paris Review - Robyn Creswell
"Marilyn Hacker's translation from French is scrupulous and lively."—Robyn Creswell, The Paris Review
Warscapes
"Hacker’s translations of Madani’s poems are fueled by her love of language; indeed, this is the work of a poet and translator who deeply believes in language as a means of transformation and imagination."—Warscapes 
PEN American Center - Poetry in Translation Prize
2013 Poetry in Translation Award Finalist, sponsored by the PEN American Center.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300176285
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 10/9/2012
  • Series: Margellos World Republic of Letters Series
  • Edition description: Bilingual
  • Pages: 176
  • Sales rank: 1,319,492
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 7.70 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Rachida Madani, a native of Morocco, has published several volumes of poetry in French, a language she taught for thirty years. A lifelong political militant, she expresses her resistance "not by shouting slogans and waving banners. I fight with my words." She lives in Tangiers. Marilyn Hacker is a poet, translator, and critic. For her work she has received a National Book Award, a PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, and a PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, among other prizes. She lives in Paris.

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Read an Excerpt

Tales of a Severed Head


By RACHIDA MADANI

YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS

Copyright © 2012 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-17628-5


Chapter One

    PREMIER CONTE

    I


    Quelle ville et quelle nuit
    comme il fait nuit sur la ville
    quand une femme et une gare se disputent
    une même moitié d'homme qui s'en va.
    Il est jeune, beau
    il s'en va pour un peu de pain blanc.
    Elle est jeune, belle comme une grappe
    de printemps
    qui essaie de fleurir une dernière fois
    pour son homme qui s'en va.
    Mais le train arrive
    mais la branche casse
    mais soudain il pleut dans la gare
    en plein printemps.
    Et il surgit de partout
    il siffle puis traverse la femme
    de toute sa longueur.
    Où la femme saigne, il n'y aura plus jamais
    de printemps.
    La nuit, dans sa tête, sous l'oreiller
    il passe des trains chargés d'hommes
    chargés de boue
    et tous la traversent dans
    toute sa longueur.
    Combien d'hivers encore, combien de neiges
    avant la première lettre qui saigne,
    avant la première bouchée de pain blanc?

    II

    C'est peut-être la même ville
    mais c'est une autre solitude
    un autre chemin de pluie.
    Un enfant marche dans la rue déserte
    il suit un autre enfant
    qui suit un chien
    qui suit un autre chien
    qui suit une odeur de pain.
    Plus il s'approche de l'odeur
    plus l'odeur de pain s'éloigne
    voltige
    tournoie dans l'air
    puis soudain monte se percher
    sur le réverbère
    comme un papillon de nuit.
    Et les deux petits garçons
    et les deux petits chiens
    au pied nu du réverbère
    restent bouche ouverte
    dans un rond de lumière.
    Et c'est la même nuit
    et c'est la même solitude
    et c'est le même enfant
    dans la même rue
    dans la même ronde de réverbères.
    Maintenant la faim sur sa joue
    a rendu plus profond
    le sillon tracé par les larmes.
    Maintenant au bout de ses membres chétifs
    il traîne un jouet de pauvre:
    un carton
    avec dedans un petit chien tout maigre
    et une enfance toute rapiécée.
    Cela fait un drôle de petit bruit
    l'enfance rapiécée que l'on traîne
    sur le pavé.
    Mais l'enfant écoute la nuit
    et rêve de toute sa faim
    qu'il est devenu marin,
    son carton un navire qui vogue
    et porte loin son enfance
    devenue oiseau
    d'un seul tir d'aile.

    III

    Elle a perdu jusqu'à ses tatouages
    la femme qui marche sur la falaise.
    Elle a vendu ses bracelets
    vendu sa chevelure
    vendu ses seins blancs.
    Elle a mis au clou sa dernière larme
    sa dernière bouchée de pain.
    Elle a parlé aux voisins
    parlé au juge
    parlé au vent.
    Elle voulait son enfant la femme
    qui marche sur la falaise.
    Elle le voulait à elle
    pour elle toute seule
    l'enfant de ses entrailles.
    Elle voulait le bercer encore
    comme font toutes les femmes
    doucement, doucement en chantant
    comme toutes les nuits, le bercer
    l'enfant de ses entrailles.

    Mais les hommes
    mais le vent la poussent sur la falaise.
    Elle regarde l'océan
    elle voudrait se précipiter dans l'océan
    pour boire l'océan.
    Mais d'un seul coup tous ses tatouages
    reviennent s'installer à leur place
    et tous se mettent à parler en même temps ...
    D'un seul coup elle retrouve
    les légendes vertes et bleues
    inscrites dans sa chair.
    Maintenant elle est debout face au ressac
    ses yeux sont secs
    sa bouche est un pli.
    Maintenant elle quitte la falaise
    et elle s'en va ...
    Maintenant, elle va vers sa propre justice.

    IV

    Quelle femme et quel départ!
    Elle a nommé sa peur
    elle lui a mesuré les pieds
    puis elle a mesuré sa propre bouche
    puis elle s'est élevée d'un pas.
    Elle fait le tour de la cité de verre
    fait du porte à porte
    elle parle
    et rien ne peut plus l'arrêter.

    Elle parle de toutes les nuits
    et de toutes les femmes
    elle parle de la mer
    des vagues qui emportent tout
    comme si tout était à emporter,
    des vagues qui recommencent la mer
    là où elle s'est arrêtée.
    Elle fait le tour de la ville
    elle marche avec la mort
    la main dans la main
    et sa main ne tremble pas ...

    Elle parle autour de votre crâne
    et quel rire dans sa gorge, cette femme
    si au pied du mur, Shahrayar, surgissait!

    V

    De combien de villes châtrées
    la femme est-elle née?
    De combien d'hommes-vampires
    de demi-dieux ivres de sables?
    Combien a-t-il fallu de pommes
    pour dégringoler du ciel?
    La terre est si peu vaste
    qu'elle va toujours vers le même arbre
    est-ce toujours la femme qui va vers l'arbre?
    Je me contenterai d'une grenade
    et jamais je ne me sentirai coupable
    d'être cette pomme qui te tranche
    la gorge
    car je ne suis pas née de ta lèvre
    je ne suis pas née de ton coeur
    ni de ton crâne
    et si j'avais su que tu resterais
    tordu à vie
    je ne serais pas née non plus
    de ta côte.
    Combien a-t-il fallu de pommes
    pour que tu dégringoles nu du ciel,
    demi-dieu ivre de sable?


    VI

    De quelle ville châtrée
    la femme est-elle née?
    Pourquoi une seule rue
    et si étroite?
    Pourquoi s'en va-t-elle coupée en deux
    ses mains précédant son corps?
    Pourquoi s'en va-t-elle faire le tour
    de votre crâne
    la femme qui a épuisé ses larmes?
    Combien de portes fermées vous séparent?
    Combien de mots lancés contre votre porte
    avant que vous ne sortiez sur la place?

    VII

    Cette femme qui marche à l'horizon
    qui marche depuis toujours
    qui marche depuis qu'elle n'a plus de jambes pour marcher
    Cette femme sans sourire, sans regrets
    sans illusions en marche vers sa parcelle d'azur,
    sait-elle que le temps n'est plus à la halte?
    Que le temps n'est plus au pardon?
    N'est plus à l'attente devant l'arbre
    qui ni ne se meurt ni ne vit?
    Sait-elle la femme en marche vers sa parcelle d'azur
    que le ciel a changé de goût
    que le ciel est noir et que l'océan
    l'océan clair et riant de son enfance
    en frémissant monte et redescend
    le long des vaincues?

    VIII

    Elle a brûlé ses terres avant de partir
    elle a incendié la plus haute tour
    de votre ville
    car elle ne croit pas à ces voix blanches
    dans vos livres
    ni à ce coq haut perché qui prétend à lui seul
    lever une nouvelle aube.
    Elle ne croit pas à cette paix qui la passe
    sous le pressoir de votre silence
    ni à vos soirées dansantes au profit des dormeurs
    à la belle étoile.
    " Je te donnerai l'adresse de mon coiffeur
    et ma plus belle recette de crabes. "
    Paix en pâte d'amandes
    et danse
    danse jusqu'aux transes
    dans les bras des nouveaux marabouts-guérisseurs
    qui t'exorcisent
    reprennent ton corps et recommencent
    selon les caprices de la richesse
    et de l'esprit.
    Paix, paix sur leur corps que préservent
    les amulettes modernes des comptes bancaires.
    Paix sur elles qui connaissent
    les paroles à dire
    et les paroles à taire autour d'un banquet
    où tout est dit sur
    le chemin à suivre.
    Paix de petits fours et thé à la menthe
    avec juste ce qu'il faut de maquillage
    autour de l'oeil
    pour ne pas voir ses rides.
    Jamais vous n'affaiblirez la tempête
    qui gonfle sa poitrine vers les places publiques
    où le vent cogne votre tête
    et vous fait saigner du nez sur les murs.
    Elle a brûlé la plus haute tour de votre ville
    où vos palabres verdissent
    en toute conscience
    le long des murs.
    Elle a brûlé vos villes avant de partir
    un seul mot lui reste à dire
    après mille et une nuits pour
    sauver sa peau,
    un seul mot
    après mille et une nuits en pure perte.

    IX

    Je est le mot unique à proclamer.
    Je dis Je
    et j'ai l'air d'être moi
    mais le Je est innombrable
    dans la fièvre de ma poitrine
    dans le désastre de ma poitrine.
    Je est innombrable dans le jardin de verre
    où pend, douloureuse des branches,
    toute une forêt d'arbres
    vers le bassin où s'étiolent
    de pauvres esclaves aux noms de bijoux.

    Sous l'oeil torve d'une armée d'eunuques
    suis-je revenue dans ce vacarme de rapaces?
    Est-ce le jardin d'autrefois
    le même hibou hululant ma mort?
    ou est-ce moi réapparue dans ce même cauchemar
    sous une épaisseur de moisissures?
    Suis-je jamais partie de ce jardin
    aux portes closes?
    Ai-je vraiment pu un jour tromper la vigilance
    du Grand Vizir, chef des eunuques
    et coupeur de têtes dans ses moments de loisirs?

    Est-ce moi cette femme prisonnière de Shahrayar?
    Est-ce moi cette femme qui tresse sa chevelure
    tresse sa rancune
    et le chemin d'où nul ne reviendra?

    Est-ce à moi cette voix plus légère qu'une plume
    mais écharde
    mais émeute
    dans le harem de Shahrayar?
    Suis-je revenue sur mes pas dans ce palais de cristal
    où je suis seule avec toi, ô ma chevelure
    le seul cri?
    Où suis-je?
    Qui suis-je?
    Pourrait-on un jour se poser d'autres
    questions?

    X

    Il est vrai que pendant des siècles
    elle a donné du front dans des villes absurdes
    pour se constituer un squelette
    à sa mesure.
    Un vrai squelette de femme, tendu
    comme une harpe
    et sonore dans ses moindres recoins.
    Un rêve étranglé parmi tant d'autres
    pour que soit payé en sang et en
    larmes,
    son tribut à Shahrayar.
    Il fallait jouer cloué dans la cité
    de Shahrayar,
    reclouée sous les pas d'un être invisible
    entre ciel et terre,
    le jeu sans fin des palais sans portes
    des rideaux tirés à la hâte
    et des couvertures de soie
    sur couvertures d'émeraudes.


    FIRST TALE

    I


    What city and what night
    since it's night in the city
    when a woman and a train station argue over
    the same half of a man who is leaving.
    He is young, handsome
    he is leaving for a piece of white bread.
    She is young, beautiful as a springtime
    cluster
    trying to flower for the last time
    for her man who is leaving.
    But the train arrives
    but the branch breaks
    but suddenly it's raining in the station
    in the midst of spring.
    And the train emerges from all directions
    it whistles and goes right through the woman
    the whole length of her.
    Where the woman bleeds, there will never be spring
    again.
    In the night, in her head, under the pillow
    trains pass filled with men
    filled with mud
    and they all go through her
    the whole length of her.
    How many winters will pass, how many snowfalls
    before the first bleeding letter
    before the first mouthful of white bread?

    II

    Perhaps it's the same city
    but a different solitude
    another road of rain.
    A child is walking down the empty street
    he follows another child
    who is following a dog
    who follows another dog
    who is following an odor of bread.
    The closer he comes to the smell
    the farther away the whiff of bread moves
    flutters
    circles in the air
    then suddenly climbs to perch
    on the streetlight
    like a moth.
    And the two little boys
    and the two little dogs
    at the bare foot of the streetlight
    stay, open-mouthed
    in a circle of light.
    And it's the same night
    and it's the same solitude
    and it's the same child
    in the same street
    in the same circle of streetlights.
    Now on his cheek hunger
    has deepened
    the furrow traced by tears.
    Now with his scrawny limbs
    he drags a pauper's toy:
    a cardboard box
    and in it a skinny little dog
    and a patched-together childhood.
    It makes a peculiar little noise
    that patched-up childhood dragged
    along the pavement.
    But the child listens to the night
    and dreams with all his hunger
    that he has become a sailor,
    his carton a ship which floats
    carrying away his childhood
    which becomes a bird
    in one wing-beat.

    III

    She has lost everything, even her tattoos,
    the woman who walks on the cliff.
    She has sold her bracelets
    sold her hair
    sold her white breasts.
    She has pawned her last tear
    her last mouthful of bread.
    She has talked to the neighbors
    talked to the judge
    talked to the wind.
    She wanted her child, that woman
    who walks on the cliff.
    She wanted him for herself
    for herself alone
    the child of her womb.
    She wanted still to be rocking him
    as all women do
    gently, gently, singing
    as she sang every night, to rock him
    the child of her womb.

    But men
    but the wind push her out on the cliff.
    She watches the ocean
    she would like to hurl herself into the ocean
    to drink up the ocean.
    But suddenly all her tattoos
    return to their places
    and they all begin to speak at once ...
    All at once she finds
    the green and blue legends
    inscribed on her flesh.
    Now she is standing facing the backwash
    her eyes are dry
    her mouth is a fold.
    Now she leaves the cliff
    and goes away ...
    Now she goes toward her own justice.

    IV

    What a woman, what a departure!
    She has named her fear
    she has measured its feet
    then she measured her own mouth
    then rose up in one movement.
    She goes through the glass city
    goes from door to door
    she speaks
    and now nothing can stop her.

    She speaks of all nights
    and all women
    she speaks of the sea
    of waves which carry everything away
    as if everything could be carried away
    of waves which begin the sea again
    there where the sea stopped.
    She goes through the city
    she walks with death
    hand in hand
    and her hand does not tremble ...

    She speaks all around your skull
    and what a laugh would burst from her throat, that woman,
    if, at the wall's base, Shehriyar arose!

    V

    Of how many castrated cities
    is the woman born?
    Of how many vampire-men
    and demi-gods drunk on sand?
    How many apples had
    to tumble down from the sky?
    The earth is so far from vast
    that she always goes toward the same tree
    is it always the woman who goes toward the tree?
    I would be satisfied with a pomegranate
    and I would never feel guilty
    of being that apple which cuts
    your throat
    because I was not born from your lips
    I was not born from your heart
    or your skull
    and had I known that you would stay
    crooked for life
    I would not have been born
    from your rib either.
    How many apples did it take
    to make you tumble naked from the sky
    demi-god drunk on sand?


    VI

    Of what castrated city
    is the woman born?
    Why only one street
    and that one so narrow?
    Why does she leave cut in two
    her hands preceding her body?
    Why does she leave to go around
    your skull
    the woman who used up her tears?
    How many closed doors separate you?
    How many words hurled against your door
    before you come out on the square?

    VII

    That woman who walks on the horizon
    who has always been walking
    who has been walking since she no longer had legs to walk
    with
    That woman with no smile and no regrets
    no illusions, walking toward her plot of blue sky
    does she know that time is no longer at her stopping point?
    That time is no longer there to grant forgiveness?
    Is no longer waiting in front of the tree
    which neither lives nor dies?
    Does she know, that woman walking toward her plot of blue
    sky,
    that the taste of the sky has changed
    that the sky is black and that the ocean
    the bright and joyous ocean of her childhood
    rises and falls trembling
    alongside the defeated women?

    VIII

    She burned her fields before leaving
    she burned the highest tower
    of your city
    because she doesn't believe in those white voices
    in your books
    nor in that cock perched high above who thinks he alone
    can make a new dawn rise.
    She does not believe in that peace which pushes her
    into the winepress of your silence
    nor in your parties at the expense
    of those sleeping outdoors:
    "I'll give you my hairdresser's address
    and my best recipe for crab."
    Marzipan peace
    and dancing
    dancing into a trance
    in the arms of new marabout-healers
    who exorcise you
    take your body back and start again
    according to the whims of wealth
    and wit.
    Peace, peace be with their bodies preserved by
    the modern amulets of bank accounts.
    Peace be with those women who know
    the words to say
    and the words to be silenced at a banquet
    where everything is said about
    what road to take.
    Peace of petits fours and mint tea
    with just the right amount of makeup
    around the eyes
    to hide her wrinkles.
    You will never undermine the storm
    that swells her chest toward town squares
    where the wind slams your head
    and makes your nose bleed on the walls.
    She has burned the highest tower of your city
    where your chatter comes into leaf
    shamelessly
    along the walls.
    She burned your cities before leaving
    she has only one word left to say
    after a thousand and one nights to
    save her own skin,
    only one word
    after a thousand and one nights of pure loss.

    IX

    I is the word, the only one to be pronounced.
    I say I
    and I look like myself
    but the I is innumerable
    in the fever of my chest
    in the catastrophe of my chest.
    I is innumerable in the glass garden
    where hangs, with sorrowful branches,
    a whole forest of trees
    toward the pool where they wither,
    poor slaves with jeweled names.

    Beneath the vicious eyes of a eunuch army
    have I returned to this racket of raptors?
    Is this the long-ago garden
    the same owl hooting my death?
    or have I reappeared in the same nightmare
    beneath a layer of mold?
    Did I ever leave this garden
    with locked doors?
    Was I really able, one day, to escape the vigilance
    of the Grand Vizier, head of the eunuchs
    and headsman in his off moments?

    Am I this woman prisoner of Shehriyar?
    Am I this woman who braids her hair
    braids her grudges
    and the path from which no one returns?
    Is it mine, this voice lighter than a feather
    but still splinter
    still riot
    in Shehriyar's harem?
    Have I retraced my steps back to this crystal palace
    where I am alone with you, O my long hair,
    the only cry?
    Where am I?
    Who am I?
    One day can we ask ourselves different
    questions?


    X

    It is true that for centuries
    she has gone head-on against absurd cities
    to make herself a skeleton
    to measure.
    A real woman's skeleton, taut
    as a harp
    and resounding in its smallest crannies.
    A strangled dream among so many others
    for which a tribute will be paid in blood
    and tears
    to Shehriyar.
    She had to play locked in Shehriyar's
    stronghold,
    nailed down again beneath the steps of an invisible being
    between sky and earth,
    the unending game of doorless palaces
    of hastily drawn curtains
    and silken coverlets
    on coverlets of emerald.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Tales of a Severed Head by RACHIDA MADANI Copyright © 2012 by Yale University . Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Contents

Preface, by Marilyn Hacker....................vii
First Tale....................3
Second Tale....................69
Third Tale....................107
Credits....................153
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