Letter to al-Mutanabbi

You were right
Your words are still wings of light
always carrying you to us
sometimes carrying us to you

Your name is a green tattoo
on Baghdad’s tired face
Your street the forehead
of a body beheaded every morning

Just another chapter
in the saga of blood and ink
you knew so well

I cannot lie to you
I’m quite pessimistic
we are still etching
the walls of this cave
thousands of years long

with signs we keep reinterpreting
and myths about a future world
where we don’t devour one another
where the sun is friendly
and the seas cannot inherit our fever

Some are digging
a deeper grave
about to embrace us all
they, too, have their engravings,
maps, philosophers, and books

We can only keep dreaming
of a shore for the wind
and dig wells
in the dark
with fingernails of silence and solitude
we will weave an ocean out of ink
for our myths
and out of words a sail
or a shroud
vast enough for all.

Every book is a well
around which we sit
drinking to your health
trying to live
as you did
with death and after it

Al-Mutanabbi (10th century) was one of the greatest classical Arab poets. Al-Mutanabbi Street, in the heart of old Baghdad, is the cultural center of the city with tens of bookshops and stalls and the famous Shahbandar café where the literati congregated every Friday. On March 5th 2007, a bomb exploded, killing twenty-six civilians and destroying many of the bookshops.

From Postcards from the Underworld (Seagull Books, 2023) by Sinan Antoon. Copyright © 2023 by Sinan Antoon. Used with the permission of the publisher.