Theophilus Kwek reviews Incomprehensible Lesson by Fawzi Karim, in versions by Anthony Howell, Carcanet, 2019.
What happens to memory after years of exile, untethered from the familiar geographies of home? For the Iraqi poet Fawzi Karim, memory must be ‘restored’ by being ‘fused with the imagination’, before it can ‘transcend history and enter myth, enter the domain of poetry’. Karim’s eloquent introduction frames this collection as an extension of Carcanet’s earlier, acclaimed selection (Plague Lands and Other Poems, 2011), with its focus now on his arrival in London, and his renewed sense of the poet’s responsibility to ‘put humanity in the foreground, rather than an idea’.
It is immediately apparent how these two themes are linked in Karim’s work. His opening sequence, ‘In the Shadow of Gilgamesh’, layers the ancient epic’s dreamscape – one of humanity’s greatest inheritances – over the route by which he and his companions have ‘slunk off into exile’, with them ‘queueing up for an exit visa’ and ‘secretly bleeding at the policed border’. Though he has left much behind, he muses, ‘my writing has followed my footprints | All the way through this banished life’. Arriving in London, that same poetic instinct takes him in search of scenes, from a dancer’s restless abandon (‘Lowfield Road Quartet’) to the cheery greeting of an antiques-shop attendant (‘In Earl’s Court’), that seem to promise a new, ‘clumsy wanderlust’. But his past continues to haunt him: he looks up on the Tube to see ‘the years | [sitting] across from me’, and finds himself, time and again, ‘once more in the role of exile’ (‘Central Line’).
The first two sections of this volume span the initial years of Karim’s exile, when by his own admission, he struggled to align his ‘inner time’ to London’s fast clip. In comparison, the third and most substantial section, which shares the collection’s title, contains pieces that ring with newfound confidence: ‘Free as any stranger ever is […] | I have no kin to get under my skin’ (‘Wall’). Images of exile still surface (he calls himself, in one poem, ‘a scavenger for words beside the Thames’), but the language itself, rendered expertly by Anthony Howell, is frank and fluid: ‘How strange life’s been to me – | One minute full, the next mere dregs, | Eyes a-brim with tears – or glee’ (‘The Goal-Keeper’). Here is a poet who, having painstakingly recorded the trials of ‘escaping a nightmare’ and starting over, wants to leave us with poetry expansive enough to be ‘[our] dwelling for a while’ (‘To the Reader’).
The collection ends with two pieces that draw on exile as a metaphor for life’s final departure. In the first, the mythic figure of the boatman ‘quietly turns his boat | back to the shore of life | where another figure waits to cross’ (‘The Isle of the Dead’), while the second follows a hapless passenger who, rushing for a train, arrives on a battlefield ‘among the slaughtered soldiers’ (‘Over Hastily’). Here at last, Karim’s gravest concerns – unstoppable movement, permanent exile, and the elusiveness of true rest – come full circle.
– Theophilus Kwek
Theophilus Kwek is a writer and researcher based in Singapore. His poems, essays and translations have appeared in The Guardian, Times Literary Supplement, Mekong Review and The Irish Examiner. He was formerly Editor-at-Large at Asymptote, and now serves as Co-editor of Oxford Poetry.