Jean el Mouhoub Amrouche

In the valley d’Oueil, high up in the Pyrenees right now (will post a series of photos form the walks soon) with most of the time still spent proofing the Maghreb anthology. Here is an extract from the fourth Diwan: Resistance and Road to Independence:

Jean el Mouhoub Amrouche (Ighil Ali, 1906–Paris, 1962)

 ADORATION OF THE PALM TREES

At night the palm trees shed heavy tears.
Their shadows bend over the sea
Nearly soundless Like the scattered souls that weep
In the serene immobility of the stars.

Palm trees,
For whom the tremor of your lowered hands
And your mute sob in night’s vertigo?

Palm trees, For whom the call of the distant seas,
The warm perfumes,
The anguish,
That rest in the gold of your half-open hearts?
For the cold kiss of the moon?

Will he come, the naked Child, with the enormous eye,
To spread his desire over all your silences,
And in the nameless sky
Will unhoped-for love be born,
And then shoot up into the fullness of the stars?

Oh palm trees,
The shivering coat of your blue’d hair
And the shadow of your swaying bodies
Each day have sung the delirious suns of these dazzled shores.

The hour when the big sleep
Will bend our heavy nakednesses toward earth
Has rung, far away, on the dream’s high plain.

On our forehead we carry the somber diadem
And our hearts made heavy with the impossible love
Adore throughout the night and the music of the stars
The wound that your friends the leaves put to sleep,
And the endless sob of your fallen branches.

Translation from French by P.J.

 * * *

 

I have said nothing that belongs to me
oh tell me the origin
of the words that sing in me!

J.E.M.A.

 

COMMENTARY

Somewhat forgotten in independent Algeria, Jean El Mouhoub Amrouche has begun to arouse the interest of scholars again—witness the numerous recent essays on his work. Born in 1906 in Ighil Ali (Kabylia) to a family converted to Catholicism, he spent his childhood and adolescence in Tunis. After attending the Saint-Cloud Ecole Normale, he taught at different high schools in Tunisia and Algeria. In Tunis during the 1930s he befriended Armand Guibert (poet, translator, and publisher; Tunis, 1906–90), with whom he coedited the maga- zine Cahiers de Barbarie, in which he published his first poems. During World War II he met André Gide in Tunis & joined the Gaullists in Algiers, where he became the director of the magazine l’Arche. He also produced radio pro- grams in Algiers and later in Paris for Radio France. His interviews with Gide, Giuseppe Ungaretti, François Mauriac, & many others remain exemplary. Although dismissed from his radio job by Michel Debré, the French prime minister, Jean Amrouche never ceased to plead the cause of an independent Algeria. He died on April 16, 1962, from cancer, just after the Évian Accords— which led to the independence of Algeria—were signed.

A torn & flayed being, highly cultured & principled, as his Journal (published in 2009) shows, he was the first to shape the French language to the lyricism of “the eternal Jugurtha” (the title of one of his major essays, published in 1946). In the three collections of poems he published, Cendres (1934), Étoile secrète (1937), & Chants berbères de Kabylie (1939), there is no place for a reduction- ist folklore or sterile provincialism; the poems develop with a purity of style rarely achieved by Francophone Algerian poetry. Despite being anchored in the tradition of Stéphane Mallarmé, Amrouche, his modesty hiding his pain, spoke loudly to the questions of the place and the addressee of literary expression.

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