The Seated Woman: a Tuareg poem



BlaiseP is the pseudonym of a peripatetic software contractor whose worldly goods can fit into an elderly Isuzu Rodeo. Bitter and recondite, he favors the long view of life, the chords of Steely Dan and Umphrey's McGee, the writings of William Vollman and Thomas Pynchon, the taste of red ale and his own gumbo. Having escaped after serving seven years of a lifetime sentence to confinement in hotel rooms, he currently resides in the wilds of Eau Claire County and contemplates the intersection of mixed SRID geometries in PostGIS.

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22 Responses

  1. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    I can’t begin to express how awesome I think these are. Thank you so much for doing them.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP says:

      Isn’t this stuff great? All I have to do is translate these poems et voilà, a window opens, exposing a marvellous vista.

      I’m not sure when poetry lost its apparent power in the world. Perhaps it was when poets started writing all this wretched stuff about themselves, never mastering the fiery art of distillation, boiling away at the mash of cant and drivel, ageing the results in proper barrels. Thus poetry became an undisciplined thing, what Robert Frost scornfully called free verse: “playing tennis without a net”

      But poetry, like good booze, lasts: Edmund Spenser, Sonnet 75

      One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
      But came the waves and washed it away:
      Again I wrote it with a second hand,
      But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.
      Vain man, said she, that doest in vain assay
      A mortal thing so to immortalize,
      For I myself shall like to this decay,
      And eek my name be wiped out likewise.
      Not so (quoth I), let baser things devise
      To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
      My verse your virtues rare shall eternize,
      And in the heavens write your glorious name.
      Where whenas Death shall all the world subdue,
      Out love shall live, and later life renew.

  2. Avatar North says:

    I wanna second Tod here, this is great stuff. Really different but fascinating.Report

  3. Avatar J_A says:

    I loved the poem (i can read the french version), and I am surprised by how open and daring (and erotic) it is. I knew always that the tuared is far from a typical muslim culture, but do es this poem reflect the tuareg’ s ideas or is it westernized?Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP says:

      My observation about Islam has always been this: its entire theology can be uttered in a single sentence. Thus, what we call “Muslim Culture” varies as widely as the various cultures which adopted it. The Tamashek are a matrilineal society. Islam is a veneer religion in the Sahel. It is mostly of the Sufi variety and genially coexists with animism.

      The strong Salafi/Wahhabi variety of Islam is imported and widely disliked. It serves as a veneer for another culture: crime and brigandage. It is an un-culture of sorts: other religions have their iconoclastic phases but Wahhabism makes an art form of rejection. It goes in search of a simple past which never was but unlike the Amish or what-have-you, never finds it nor learns to build anything in the present.

      Does the poem speak for all the Tamashek? It speaks for one and the poets speak for the rest of us. For some time, I have been writing about the fate of the Sahel. It was once my home. I can explain the past. But the present, the future, un espoir de survie, that hope of survival belongs to those are born into it and must survive and thrive in their turn.Report

  4. Avatar Glyph says:

    Blaise, I normally am not much one for poetry, but I really enjoyed this, and suspect that much of that enjoyment is due to the translator’s efforts. Thanks.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP says:

      Well, thanks. I fussed over this translation, passed it through three sets of hands. The author finds it all a bit funny: he doesn’t read English. The photographers readily assented to the use of their images: Victor Engelbert, the photographer of the doe-eyed woman is Belgian and thinks his image is perfect for the poem.

      I stumble back into French, as if on stilts. It’s a nuanced language which doesn’t readily move into English. Baudelaire did some translation work from English into French, he was some guide. Translators are drudges, pedants usually — and I am no exception to this rule. Making a poem sing in translation is difficult and I do not feel I have completely succeeded. But if you sensed the effort and enjoyed it, perhaps that is enough.Report

  5. Avatar Boegiboe says:

    It seems to me the poet is using “cour” in a third sense, as “coeur.” Or maybe these ideas are so linked that the word “palpiter” applies just as well. Indeed, the heart can be a closed space, and courtship certainly involves the heart.

    I read the poem a bit differently than you, and this is not to say you’re wrong–French allows such misunderstandings, and francophone poets have long exploited them–but you read the courtship song as being that of the wind, whereas I read it as being hers. Is there some cultural insight you have that leads you to your reading, or maybe a hint in the French that I missed? Please share it if there is.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP says:

      I ran that by three native French speakers, thinking, as you do, perhaps it was “coeur”. It would be an elementary spelling error if it was: he seems to make the same error in other poems.

      O seigneur à toi ceci, une simple prière modeste et venant du cour.

      Any assistance you could provide would be helpful. I am reticent to change his poem, though it probably should be changed.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP says:

      At any rate, at last I have you around to straighten out some of this. I’d much rather substitute “heart” for some of those “courtship” usages, though some might stand up to scrutiny. What do you recommend?Report

      • Avatar Boegiboe says:

        Hmm, no, I think the poet means “cour” not “coeur.” His rhyming scheme works much better by rhyming “cour” and “amour”; “coeur” wouldn’t do that. I was just saying that the poet seems to be playing with the word in a way that makes one think of “coeur”. This is a distinctly un-French way of using language; in my experience, French (from France) folks detest puns of this sort, which require a certain deafness to proper pronunciation.

        After reading a bit more carefully, I see that both the wind and the woman are singing. In Tuareg culture, do women sing to attract men, or vice versa, or both?Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP says:

          You’ve made the points the others observed as well. I’ll edit the précis a bit to include that “heart” business. I have never observed Tuareg courtship but I have heard both men and women sing, play the viol and drum. The women sing their own form of poetry.Report

        • Avatar J_A says:

          For what is worth, I also think the poet meant “cour” as in courtyard, and not “coeur” (heart), though I think the wordplay with coeur is intentional. When I read it thinking “heart” the metaphor looked clumsy to me. I hadn’t picked up the rhyme with amour, but that only confirms it.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP says:

            I concur, especially la femme laisse couler la mélancolie de son cour,

            Which I will gloss as court, courting, courtyard.Report

  6. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    A taste of Tamashek music, Tinariwen: LullaReport

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      Blaise, you’ve used both Tuareg and Tamashek. Could you elaborate a bit on the distinction between those and how they relate to one another?Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        By the way, that’s a great song. I expected to be interested, but not necessarily get really into it, but I did.Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP says:

          This is a bit more accessible, with English and (very African) French translations in the verses, a love song to the wilderness, Tenere, the Tamashek word for the desert itself.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP says:

        They’re essentially synonyms. kel tamashek, kel tagelmust, mostly that’s what they call themselves these days, though they willingly call themselves touareg, the outsiders’ word for them, as does Diagho on his own site. I always called them tamashek, that’s what the Hausa call them. My perspective on the Tuareg/Tamashek is essentially Hausa. I speak a few courtesy words of tamashek: when I’ve spoken to them, it’s invariably been in Hausa, with the occasional French word shoved in where needed. There was one American boy I knew who spoke good Tamashek: he was the only outsider I ever knew who did.

        The Tamashek aren’t so much as a tribe as a cluster of clans, speaking essentially the same language with strong dialectic differences. Nor do they only speak tamashek, pretty much everyone also speaks Hausa, the demotic trade language and you’ll hear Hausa words in their speech, but without Hausa’s tonal constructs, especially Aderawa Hausa, where it gets very odd the farther north you go. As you go farther north, you’ll hear more Arabic, which assumes the role of Hausa in the south, the language of commerce.

        Circumstances have thrust the Tamashek together. They’re forming a new identity for themselves, centred on their language, thus kel tamashek, the speakers-of-Tamashek.Report

        • Avatar James Hanley says:

          Thanks. That’s really interesting. Living in the U.S., with the vast span of continent and predominantly a single language and culture, it’s often hard to fathom the amazing diversity in Africa.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP says:

            We’re awfully diverse here in the States, James. We just don’t think we are. Here’s why:

            We take in anyone. Every culture in the world has given us people. We’re amazingly tolerant of new speakers of English: the worst among us say “Learn English, dammit”, not “You don’t speak English.” Huge difference. And it never occurs to us to demand immigrants give up their prior identities: you can be [insert your odd little group here]-American.

            The immigrants, naturally enough (despite all the cruel liars who would tell us otherwise) are amazed at our tolerance as a nation. They often become intensely patriotic and their children appear in the ranks of the military in surprising numbers. There are some exceptions to this rule: I’ve seen some hard-case Somalis who were just awful people. But that one clan (the bane of my existence for about two years) was led by a tyrannical jerk who I am convinced is a would-be terrorist. I know the FBI is keeping a close eye on him — but he’s still here. And that clan had seen an awful lot of warfare: all of them had PTSD, even the little kids.

            Africa is coming into its own. It took Europe five or six centuries of hard-bitten warfare to sort out its borders. I am hoping some mechanism arises to reorder Africa more sensibly: it never had one. Oh, a few kingdoms arose here and there but nothing which lasted. The current governments are worse than nothing: as Africa rises, and it will, surely some wise leaders will appear. I’m looking deep in the weeds for them.

            It’s not all bad, Africa has come a long way. I still pine for the old days but that’s just the tricksy and illusory veneer of Misty Water-Coloured Memories. They weren’t so good back then. The were horrible, truth be told. But there were fewer people and more leopards and elephants along the river banks then, too.Report