Ali Ahmad Said Esber is better known to the Arabic world as Adonis, though he is only beginning his entrance into the Anglo world. Syrian-born and currently living in Paris, Adonis is, and has been for decades, one of the most popular modern poets writing in Arabic. His twenty volumes of poetry and thirteen books of criticism have earned him a reputation as one of his society’s most important literary figures. This body of work often reacts to major political and social events, and the poet has become a respected political figure as well. Arabic readers consider his commentary valuable, and his articles and op-eds frequently appear in newspapers. Recently, Gulfnews.com interviewed him to ask for insight into Syria’s Arab Spring revolution.
Both an admirer and a fierce critic of Western society, Adonis hopes for democracy and equality in the Arab world but also desires authentically Arabic cultural innovation. In public speeches, he has controversially declared Arabic culture dead, perceiving only imitation of either traditional forms or new Western models in his society’s artistic output. While he believes the Middle East needs to progress politically and scientifically, he argues that Arabic culture needs to evolve before it can produce its own form of democracy. His award-winning collection of work, Adonis: Selected Poems, translated by Khaled Mattawa, expresses many of his social views. For the first time in English, the full span of Adonis’s decades-long career is presented. His poetry breaks from traditional Arabic forms by using free verse and yet does not copy its Western counterparts. The verse exemplifies the revolution he wants to see other Arabic artists attempt.
The poems show a range of the issues, emotions, and events that have concerned Adonis throughout his career. In “The Banished,” originally published in 1957, the speaker worries about displacement, remembers, “On the first day of the year/ our groans said to us/ …‘Your country is no longer here.’/ We who rebelled against the intruder/ who were destroyed and banished.” The work of the poet as a young man is sometimes described as angry. A 1968 poem, “A Mirror for the Twentieth Century,” certainly shows a desperate frustration: “A coffin that wears the face of a child/…a stone/ breathing inside the lungs of a madman/ …This is the twentieth century.” In a poem that begins with September 11, however, he notes both his wide and limited effectiveness as an artist, saying, “You can, poet/ poke your nose in everything/ and shove what concerns you into the nose of your era.” His anger and critiques, though passionate, always stem from a real wish to see change and rejuvenation, making him truly a poet for our era.