Vénus Khoury-Ghata

Venus Khoury Ghata

Vénus Khoury-Ghata came to France as a young adult, from the bilingual community of Beirut where she had begun to establish herself as a writer. Prolific as a writer of fiction as well as poetry, she made a conscious choice of French as her language of expression: she could have written in Arabic, as does her novelist/journalist sister who remained in Beirut.

She translates contemporary poetry from Arabic, notably of the renowned Syro-Lebanese poet Adonis, and the Arabic language often seems to speak through her French, in the elaborate, pithy figurative language in which she delights, in the landscapes and seasons through which her poems’ protagonists (hers are poems, often sequences, with protagonists) move. Audré Lorde’s term “biomythography” is often applicable to Khoury-Ghata’s poetry, as she makes larger-than-life, sometimes tragic and often wryly humorous poem-narratives incorporating her family’s, her region’s and her country’s history.

Though she has lived in Paris for over thirty years, the always-implied and often very specific landscape of her densely populated poems is always Lebanese, in fluid transformation from a fable-textured place of origin to the warscape of yesterday’s news. She is the author of seventeen novels and fifteen collections of poems in French, and was the recipient of the Grand Prix de Poésie de l’Académie Française for the totality of her work in 2009.

Five books of hers are available in Marilyn Hacker’s English translations:

  • Alphabets of Sand, Carcanet Press, UK, 2009
  • Nettles, The Graywolf Press, USA, 2008 (bilingual)
  • A House at the Edge of Tears, The Graywolf Press, USA, 2005 (fiction)
  • She Says, The Graywolf Press, USA, 2003 (bilingual)
  • Here There Was Once a Country, Oberlin College Press Field Translation Series, 2001


In those days     I know now     words declaimed the wind
besides pebbles, there were moons, but no lamps
the stars would emerge later from a brawl between two flintstones

I’ll tell you everything     there were five pebbles
one for each continent
vast enough     to contain a child of a different color

So there were     five children but no houses
windows but no walls
wind but no streets
the first man wore a stone around his neck

He made an arrangement with the first tree
an oak if I remember correctly
the one who got there first could drink up the ocean

Language at that time was a straight line reserved for birds
the letter “i” was the cleft of a female hummingbird
“h” a ladder with one rung necessary to replace a charred sun before nightfall
“o” a hole in the sole of the universe

Unlike the consonants with their rough garments
the vowels were naked
all the weaver’s art consisted of humoring them
in the evening they counted each other to make sure no one was missing
in the rocky countries men slept without dreaming

blind flight in the darkness
fireflies wheeling in on themselves
pebbles in the pocket of an absent-minded dead man
projectiles against the cemetery wall
they broke up into alphabets
ate a different earth     on each continent

Alef breathes from right to left
to erase dunes and camel-drivers
who count the stars with their heads in the sand
twelve times in a row

It’s in “Ba’ ”s basin that the moon’s menstrual blood is washed
in the eternal copper
when women on nocturnal terraces make rash vows

“Ta” paces up and down land poor in grass and compassion
all that counts is the gesticulations of the shadow which
erases     writes
erases     writes steps and passers-by

There are country alphabets and town alphabets
Tell me what words you use I’ll tell you     the number of your cattle

Where do words come from?
from what rubbing of sounds are they born
on what flint do they light their wicks
what winds brought them into our mouths

Their past is the rustling of stifled silences
the trumpeting of molten elements
the grunting of stagnant waters

they grip each other with a cry
expand into lamentations
become mist on the windows of dead houses
crystallize into chips of grief on dead lips
attach themselves to a fallen star
dig their hole in nothingness
breathe out strayed souls

Words are rocky tears
the keys to the first doors
they grumble in caverns
lend their ruckus to storms
their silence to bread that’s ovened alive

How to find the name of the fisherman who hooked the first word
of the woman who warmed it in her armpit
or of the one who mistook it for a pebble and threw it at a stray dog?

what do we know of the alphabets of sand buried beneath the feet of caravans
turned into silica
shards of glass
venerated by the camel-drivers as star-debris?

Must we question those who strip the dunes
those winds     lawless and faithless which unearth men’s bones
then throw their chalk     at the moon which bleaches the tender and the dry
must we leaf through the cliffs’ layers in search of the first hunter
who fired the first number at a stone-thrower
shut him up in a cage
and taught him how to sing up to ten

His song lit the first candle
It’s to that flame that we owe the first superstitions:
“Three lit candles mean there’ll be a quarrel”
“Four tapers around a bed call death down”

Hunter and fisherman were rooted at that time
only time walked
those who didn’t like dying shut a sun up in their wells
a man’s fortune was measured by the number of his openings
a tuft of broom grew over the dignitary’s cave
his life was measured by the number of women wrapped in his odor
his dust said so

The prudent man looped his family to his belt
that was the fashion
the moon was only a reflex of the sun which dived into the same well twice
the first time to wash itself
the second time to displace its weight of water and noise
the cold squeezed it to the size of an apple
one could pluck it merely by standing on tiptoe
summer stretched it from one horizon to another
the sky was its hammock turned upside down

Sun was the name of the first rooster
moon that of the first hen
bread within the moon’s reach disappeared     according to the hunter
his rooster gone hoarse
he lost interest in the calendar
then time was written in a rough draft
they drew straws for the years
night     and day tossed a coin heads or tails
the basil decided everything

Language at that time opened fire on every noise
it paced up and down the pastures in search of sound-sprouts on which it
   grazed from right to left in order of their intonations
Never more than one pasture before the great seasonal migration to the
   peaks of the alphabet where speech is rare

The sugared odor of the honeysuckle attracted the young letters and the bees

B came back with its mouth bearded with blackberries
F was staggering from having smoked devils’ weed
its ladder on its back, H pretended to have scaled the sound barrier

In cold countries the male letters were hairy
Water was the earth’s meditation
its intimate thoughts revealed in the light of day
its pebbly dialect
The stream read itself out loud
the sea repeated the same sentence from continent to continent

There were words with horns and feathers
and properly dressed words
those driven from paradise for their lack of modesty were naked
They wandered in search of a mirror they could penetrate with its
   silvering’s approval
their presence was signaled by a trembling of the light
by a jangling of glass when they lined up on the windows’ guardrails
timid children call them the glassy ones
One marries the words of one’s own language
to settle down
traveling is for the others
who borrow lines the way they take a train

What do we know about the alphabets which didn’t survive the rising of
   the waters
letters buried in their silicate vestments     become silenced sounds in
   the silenced silt
what do we know about “’Aïn” which lit its lamp between two waves about the
   womblike concavity of “Nûn”   of the putrescibility of “Ha”   of the legendary
   weight of “Tah”?

It was in a quadruple-knotted shroud     in a net of stone     that Aleph was
   fished up offshore from the old city of Tyr because only the kelp spoke     at
   that time     silence whitened the walls
“Dod” is my mother said the earth
“Sod” is my stepmother
They walked from the beginning of the alphabet in search of the first letter
   which they lifted like a gravestone to find the remains of the first language
   the one mumbled by lips become crumbly from rubbing their voices against
   the flintstone

“Alef” a magician’s wand
a tramp translated into seven languages
a stick to train cats with and give the hummingbird’s cage to the chastest one

“Sine” a slotted ladle
that scoops up stars from the bowl where the devil makes marmalade

“Ra” calls for help to the angels
who cross the Gospels on foot

“Qaf” a gaudy letter which
sows discord among the tribes
its club foot drags along old angers     come from a faraway alphabet

The words which spring up on the borders of lips retain their terrors
children dry them between the pages
head-to-tail like roses trodden by doves
the blood beating in their temples grieves the mothers who dry the walls out
   after the rains

books     the mothers say     become sad for no reason
they want dry words when it’s the rainy season
the dampness shrinks houses and makes the laundry weep

Words, she says, used to be wolves
they lined up on the mountain peaks to tell the moon about the difficulty of
   climbing the slope
the complacency of the flocks
and the chaotic movements of migrating clouds

They placed their anger at the moon’s feet when it turned the black book of night
   went to sleep amidst the ranting of the pages which spoke of a golden country
   where sleep drops into the wells with its load of turbaned stars
But wolves     don’t know the Orient

Words, she says, are like the rain     everyone knows how to make them
you only have to wring a cloud out upside down and Noah will write with
   both hands
It rains to teach the streetlights how to count
to sow disorder among the pigeons
raise the hackles of the laundry hung on clotheslines

It rains to rain
and make the dead think that the sea has moved to a higher place

Unlike the wind which speaks for itself
the rain has a spokesman     the mute fog
if only every man had his own drainpipe to discuss things with God through
   the clouds

It was there and nowhere else
on an earth girdled with winds
that the first words discussed the problems of water and a place in the sun

their mouths filled with blaring
they told of the mute dust and the cries of the rocks

their number was no greater than that of the living
one man one word
a man who died gave up his place to the tree of his choice

Man and oak shared the same bark
the same age inscribed in the sapwood
the same shadow
the tree above
the man below
and sometimes the other way around when the earth felt like turning over

The rain had few followers at that time
the gutterspouts ran only with rumors
and the troughs on the rooftops collected the sweat of the stars

Tired of wringing out dry laundry
women leaned on the air as on a sweetheart’s arm

the houses had lost their doors along with their illusions
anyone who’d rush in     through a gap in the wall     won a pair of wings and a    pair of scissors

they’d sharpen the bride to needle her into the man’s sleep
the child born of their coupling had woolen hands in anticipation of
   the coming snow
a snow which would come up through the ground
a whole people’s toes planted there

Guilty of repeated forgetfulness     words retreated over the cold ground
   to endure the ordeal of silence and chastise themselves for having overflowed
   their meanings in a language which admits no excesses

They lived in a white silence     hunted inaudible sounds     fished in the eddies of
   muddy marshes

Their form changed with the light     The evening which smoothed out angles
   transformed them into timid objects
Crammed together against the foot of the wall they watched for sleep    which would find a place for them in dreams
the herbalist’s sleep was peopled with aloes
hermits made brews of it which they drank with their foreheads pressed to
   the earth

There are words from poor people’s gardens that crossbreed iron and    thorns     Words of obscure origins which is the usual lot of words     Swift suns
   send them yellow kisses     The silent yew chases the bees away from
   them     Colorless words that sleep in the bread- box with the bread’s    consent     wake up with the mirrors     dress up their echoes     venture
   into the cities     cross mouths without looking both ways limp on both
   feet     rot at the touch of lips     finish their journey in the gutter with
   the moons which have used up all their matches

Vénus Khoury-Ghata
© Translated by Marilyn Hacker

Published with the permission of Vénus Khoury-Ghata & Marilyn Hacker