A Flute That Voices the Spirit’s Moan and the Body’s Lament


The Libyan poet Ashur Etwebi had a family obligation on the day that several of his friends were arrested for taking part in a literary festival and sentenced to long prison terms. Three decades later, at a café in Tripoli, in the twilight of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s reign of terror, Ashur told me that he marveled every day at his luck: had he attended the reading, had he been arrested along with his friends, he would not have been able to finish medical school, raise a family, or write the poems that have earned him international renown, including “A Flute That Voices the Spirit’s Moan and the Body’s Lament,” a prophetic work, composed not long before the Arab Spring, which is at once a surrealist fable, a meditation on the departed, and a series of sketches of an escape route from Qaddafi’s nightmarish regime:


                A door and a hawk with fire on its head.

                A door and a hawk with water on its head.


                Ashur’s luck held during the revolution.

“Do you remember what I told you last summer when you came to Libya?” he asked me two days after Tripoli had fallen to the rebels. Internet service has been restored, and over Skype he said that he had spent the last six months evading execution—his village was known for its anti-government sentiment. “Qaddafi hates the Libyan people.”

The poet devoted his professional life to treating cancer, and in his writings he has proved to be no less adept at diagnosing what ails the body politic. “You can see the transformation of the perplexed,” he writes, “from the narrow hole of wisdom.” What luck to have his new work.


                                                                      --  Christopher Merrill


         A Flute That Voices the Spirit’s Moan and the Body’s Lament



By the river, he sat beneath a bower of palm leaves and linen,

behind him are two lean-stomached servant girls with black bands on their eyes.

His crown faces the east and his staff is made of gold.

The two servant girls prevent his cloak bejeweled with fruit and stones he’s dropped

from falling. Underneath his chair

is a tomcat and a scarab in a clay basin.


With oil anointing his hair, with precious stone inlayed in his crown, he lifts his hands high

to pluck a branch of unripe dates from eternity’s tree.

The woman set before his coming two cases: of calf meat, white rice, fresh ghee,

orange blossoms, ripe cobs of corn, rabbits stuffed with pistachios and cinnamon.

She sits in the room of silence until the sun climbs to its house in the sky.


A door and a hawk with fire on its head.

A door and a hawk with water on its head.


The people of the south came carrying:

casks of oil and honey, a fat duck with hennaed wingtips, pumpkins

with the bulk of a priest’s stomach and branches of red unripe dates,

and ripe honeyed dates and sheep white like snow and the feathers of several ostrich.


The people of the north came carrying:

gold plates adorned with indigo blue, flagons of water from a distant river,

rare blue fish,

rare red fish,

fish that speak,

and fish that dance like crystal in water.


The people of the north came with the sea

in a bead the size of an eye.


The people of the east came carrying:

an hourglass and rows of finely etched astrolabes,

a mirror that gleams and a necklace of every color,

a box full of songs,

and a flute played by expert fingers.


The people of the west came carrying:

a tablet of poetry that changes with the changing time.

The tablet, a mature man and woman carry it, the field’s fertility drifting from them.


The departed in the evergreen oak carriage,

carob leaves screen him.

His eyes are closed and his feet

wound with rope of mountain juniper.


Two bulls drag the cart.

Four brave men drag the bulls.

The women of the tribe are behind sobbing and glancing furtively at the royal guard

standing at the hallowed path’s edge.


The deceased took with him:

a wash basin, a water vessel, a young mountain goat, an ancient oil jar, two horned healthy rams, a prayer rug and a wine cup.


In front of the temple with the triangular dome:

the priest dyed his robe with saffron,

his woman raised the mirror high, the sun shining in it,

the women slipped off their clothes and let loose glad cries,

lifted their hands and chanted cryptic speech.


The incense carrier stood silent in the last row.


Those departing squat like the letter lam.

Their heads are the letter meem in the opposite direction of time

and their arms a thousand soft alifs.

Like that, the departing squat when they head out.


Who is carrying on his head a scarab in the skiff of the sun?

This is what the lotus flower asked him bending slowly.

Neither the monkey on the right nor the monkey on the left knew.

That was before the oars stirred and pink fish drifted in the water.

That was when the river banks quivered.


O you who lay in the boat of the sun that set at your coming:

the lotus flower leaned, the forest lion lifted his head high,

and the mistress of the blaze reeled in delight.

O you who sat in the boat of the sun, look there! Now, you have arrived.


The forest gave you the leopard’s fur and stork feathers to decorate your hair.

Listen to their voices pouring down in torrents.

For the man, the wind came and prostrated.

For the woman, the whale shook in the bottom of the sea.

For the second woman, the stalks of wheat trembled in the fields.

For the second man, lust slept without nightmares.


There is no time to raise our hands high in the air.

There is no time to lift our eyes to the gateway of time.

There is no time for pacing or laughing or crying,

said the river bird circling in the air.


The departing spoke to his hawk:

It is as if you eat your prey indifferent to

the shuddering wind and boiling water, the fire’s breath

and the cleaving rocks, the drunken mirage.


Look, I lift up an embellished star wearing the white robe that you love.

Look, I am carrying my staff behind your back

as if you’re before me and I’m not before you

as if you, I see you and you don’t see me.

As if you are a hawk without a king or a master or a friend.


Eternity’s tree opens its heart for two wary hawks. In front of them

are orange blossoms and sticks of incense.


Eternity’s tree does not approach.

The two hawks are not approaching.

The water is just as water is

and the sticks of incense are just as sticks of incense are.


My staff is in my hand and nothing is in the open steppe.

Perhaps I will sleep here tonight standing in a forest of reeds.


O you radiant billy goat, for you the lotus flower bent

and on your horns two doves flutter their wings

and beneath your face a guardian fire burns

and prepares a bed for your night, for the women passing by.


On your left are a million years, so raise the talisman of time.

Approach slowly, lightly as if you see your face in the sacred pond.

Don’t fear the spring’s guard, for he is rolling

there in the mud playing with meanings.


The she-cat bounds from its hiding place,

the shadow cutting off the snake’s head.

Light flows alongside cold blood.

What did the snake do to be pierced with the lance? Winding two coils, he dies!


The stork was lured, by the senile lion’s dance, to enter the garden of forgetfulness.

In the east it is a stork

and in the west a stork.


Those who changed themselves into wild animals didn’t know

that they were slaughtered at the hands of great rulers,

that their blood flowed in the awesome celebration

of the earth’s  splitting and clamping down.

Perhaps they supplied:

thigh and head, heel and shank.

This is his night.

He will hide in a diver bird’s form.


His woman is sleeping, her arms spread out over everything.

Only he is nude.

Only the pond glistens purely.

Only the moon tonight shines from afar.


The diver bird will dive into the pond deeply, deeply

and the moon will disappear from his eyes and things.


Open your mouth.

From the egg you will emerge.

From the hidden earth you will climb.

There is no fire in your house and no darkness before you.

You emerge from a flawed day

into a flawed day.


You will emerge,

a spike in your mouth

and the arms at your sides

will wave to the diver bird

that travels far.


You will emerge,

between your fingers lotus flowers

and in your nose the scent of wet soil.


Open your mouth

as you open your mother’s chest, full

with perfume and cleaning utensils, a cap and a staff with a snake head,

a leopard hide, a water cup and sticks of incense.


Open your mouth.


The iron handles will break on your legs and your heart will beat its ancient melodies.


Open your mouth

to take naked and clean the names of things.


The distances,

on their back are the seasons and wheat and barley and broad beans.

 With their mouth the winds breathe until they are sweet.


The four powers sitting on feathers don’t shake and don’t bend.

They don’t turn their gaze away from a heart

in a clay jar at the river’s mouth.


Two doors,

on the right in the peaks:

a saluki , and the eye of the forest.


On the left in the heights:

three birds

and three suns

and three stringed instruments

in one line.

Two closed doors

until now!


“Leave” said the priest.

Your sun on your head;

your sins on your back,

and in the stretch of your arms

all the lures that the earth can take.




Your boat is not blocked.

In the water it trembles joyously

and your heart, the eagle have grabbed it and your enemies are happy.


I and my woman came to you barefooted

without offerings.

We came to you with nothing but

a flute with which the soul moans

and the body laments.


With a three-headed scepter, you enter your land:

one head for water and the creatures of water,

one head for dirt and the creatures of dirt,

one head for air and for the creatures of air.


Your woman is behind you, her hand on your shoulder





Four steps until you arrive:

one step for ignorance

one step for desires

one step for the victim

and one step to understand hiding.


Perhaps I am slight said the first

but I know the peace of sleep.

Perhaps I am sharp said the second

but I know the inconstancy of the waves.

Perhaps I am old said the third

but I know the dirt’s allure.

Perhaps I am ugly said the fourth

but I know the gateways of the night.


The first judge said:

You didn’t carry the sun’s disk on your head today.

The second judge said:

You didn’t leap into a river naked for one day.

The third judge said:

You didn’t hunt prey from the night of desire even for a day.

The fourth judge said:

You’ve never left yourself an excuse

so leave as if you will return one day. 


A lam with the crown of the river

A lam with the crown of the moon

A lam with the crown of the sun

A lam with the crown of the fish

A lam with the crown of the bird


Numerous lams

for a lone man

and a lone woman

hunched on the ground afraid.


Who made you a wild animal with a lion’s body and an anteater’s head?

You can set down a fox head and raise the scales in the arc of empty space.

You can see the transformation of the perplexed from the narrow hole of wisdom.

You can hear with your heart the whimper of those wandering

to their hermitages at night with their eyes closed.

You can share thirst’s journey with the hopoe.

You can measure the air with two unbalanced raps of a foot.

You can steal a guileless look at the woman bathing in the horseshoe of the evening.

You can dance with the torch bearers in the desert of speech.

You can rise from the ashes or not rise. 



                                       Translated from the Arabic by Rasheeda Plenty

 Christopher Merrill directs the International Writing Program.  He is the author of four books of poetry, several volumes of essays as well as poetry translations, and five books of non-fiction, most recently The Tree of Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War (2011).

Rasheeda Plenty holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan, where she also completed a Zell Fellowship. Her translations have appeared in Two Lines, Banipal, Pleiades, and Washington Square.