The honor and burden of poetry

The honor and burden of poetry: Review of Abdellatif Laâbi’s The Uncertainty Principle

by Khalid Lyamlahy

From one poem to another, Laâbi points to the uncertainty of his position in the world and speaks of his ongoing quest for remnants of human dignity.

The Uncertainty Principle by Abdellatif Laâbi, translated from the French by Annie Jamison, Lithic Press, 140 pages, September 2021, $18.00, ISBN 978-1-946583-22-2

Those familiar with the work of Moroccan poet Abdellatif Laâbi know how much his recent poetry is graced by an increasingly introspective voice and an unwavering determination to continue promoting the transformative energy of poetic creation against all forms of injustice and disillusionment. In The Uncertainty Principle, first published in 2016 with the now-defunct Éditions de la Différence in Paris and recently translated by Annie Jamison, Laâbi gives free rein to his feelings of lassitude and fatigue. Faced with “the world’s chaos and its elusive reality,” he questions his perception of and relationship with language. From the early pages of the collection, the aging poet defines what he calls “the uncertainty principle,” namely the uncertainty that haunts his life and writing:

nothing guarantees
I will still be here
in a few hours
in a few minutes
to continue blackening this page
and if possible
move on to the next one

Writing in what he sees as an increasingly dehumanized world, Laâbi acknowledges his vulnerability and asks whether he was “wrong about humanity.” More than aging anxiety or angst about the future of humankind, Laâbi’s uncertainty is what helps him scrutinize the world, delve further into his own disillusionment, and seek new ways of refreshing and reinvigorating his poetry. The poet is the “universal porter” who carries on his back the “honor” and “burden” of poetry.

Laâbi’s resilience, no doubt, has to do with his background. Born in Fez in 1942, he cofounded at the age of 24 Souffles – Anfas, a highly influential journal of culture and politics that played a major role in cultural decolonization in the Maghreb and beyond, and was brought to English-speaking readers six years ago in an illuminating anthology edited by Olivia C. Harrison and Teresa Villa-Ignacio.[1] Besides his role as the editor-in-chief of the journal, Laâbi was actively involved in the Moroccan far left, and due to his political activities, was sent to prison in 1972 where he suffered torture and spent eight years. In 1985, five years after his release following an international campaign, he chose to leave for France where he now lives and writes. When he wrote this collection at the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014, he was still living between France and Morocco, caught between two spaces and visions: 

Two houses for the soul
and the body trying to adapt
as best as they can
an anonymous refuge
turning its back
on “the city of lights”
Over there,
an irregular building,
carved into rock
rising like a sunflower

This duality has deeply influenced Laâbi’s work and is perhaps best reflected in another poetry collection, Le Spleen de Casablanca (The Spleen of Casablanca),[2] which captures – beyond its Baudelairean title – his overwhelmingly failed reunion with his homeland after a long separation. Throughout an astonishing career shaped by years of activism and exile, Laâbi produced an extensive oeuvre that includes narratives, autobiographies, essays, plays, children’s books, and translations, mostly of Palestinian poets such as Mahmoud Darwish and Samih al-Qasim. Earlier this year, he published his third anthology of Palestinian poetry in French translation, the result of a collaborative work with Moroccan writer and journalist Yassin Adnan.[3] Laâbi extensively wrote about cultural memory, political and religious freedom, democracy, human rights, but also the inspiring language of his mother, his vibrant childhood in the maze-like streets of Fez, and his life-changing experience in prison. 

In “Weariness,” one of the most evocative poems from the collection, Laâbi confronts the things that cause him fatigue and sometimes bitterness, from “the single / and indivisible identity / we’ve had stuck to our backs” to “arrogance among the powerful” and “resignation among the weak.” The poem reads as a long litany against various forms of injustice and barbarism, indifference and disengagement. At some point, even certain poetry becomes a target as Laâbi admits being

of the poetry of misery
and the miseries of poetry
Its gratuitousness
its smug insignificance
its suicidal insularity

Laâbi seems to lament the increasing marginalization of poetry but throughout the collection, he refuses to lose faith in the capacity of the poem to transcend the limitations of both the body and the mind. In response to uncertainty, he clings to his notoriously strong sense of perseverance and celebrates his quest for “the Rare,” driven by desire, meditation, and self-awareness. For Laâbi, the poet is also a relentless traveler who moves “away from the caravan and its mirage,” always seeking new and transformative experiences:

the body adapts and gathers grace
finds himself half-man
To him cohabitation is a step toward
aesthetic elevation
Perhaps moral too?
It’s possible

Laâbi’s poetry has always been attuned to nature and its energizing elements. The concept of “cohabitation” as a form of aesthetic and moral elevation speaks to his conception of the poem as a space of relationality in which natural species and phenomena play a central role in the reinvigoration of the poetic act. A relevant example here is the poem entitled “This Bitter Fruit of Knowledge,” which opens with a harmonious dialogue between the poet and the autumnal season: 

You open your chest and let her
Listen to your heart
check up on your arteries
telling her:
Don’t overdo it
Let Mother Nature
do her work as she sees fit
It is she
who knows best

Another distinctive feature of Laâbi’s work is his ongoing dialogues with fellows and friends, especially poets and visual artists. The book is dedicated to Moroccan artist Mohamed Chebaa (1935-2013), one of the artistic directors of Souffles and the leading figures of the Casablanca School, and Belgian poet Jean-Luc Wauthier (1950-2015) who wrote the preface to the first volume of Laâbi’s complete poetic works. One of Laâbi’s most moving yet little-known poetry collections, Petit musée portatif (Small Portable Museum),[4] featuring drawings by Abdallah Sadouk (1950-), is a series of brief poems about art objects and artwork that simultaneously recreate the poet’s personal memory and pay homage to the work of several artists including Mohamed Kacimi (1942-2003) and Abbès Saladi (1950-1992). More recently, Laâbi started trying his hands at painting, and in 2018, he exhibited some of his visual work at the Matisse Art Gallery in Marrakesh. Unsurprisingly, then, The Uncertainty Principle includes a section entitled “Painting in the Dark,” several poems from which were published in a book about Moroccan artist and novelist Mahi Binebine (1959-) with whom Laâbi previously collaborated. In this section, Binebine’s famously tied-up bodies and gagged heads inspire Laâbi’s reflection on the act of painting – and of creation more broadly – as he praises the struggle against “the absolute reign of silence.” Still haunted by the ghosts of the “Years of Lead,” the post-independence period of repressive and authoritarian rule in Morocco, usually dated back to the 1960s, Laâbi’s resilient poetry imagines and recreates the key that would open “the face’s mask” and “the safe of the soul.” 

The Uncertainty Principle is as much political as it is personal, replete with meditations on the “oddities” of the poet’s aging body and the “dizzying expansion” of his thoughts. From one poem to another, Laâbi points to the uncertainty of his position in the world and speaks of his ongoing quest for remnants of human dignity. This quest leads him to the communal Cemetery where he wants to make sure

normal tombs
still exist these days
where whole bodies lie
bodies that have not been previously
mutilated, raped
eviscerated, beheaded
intentionally burned alive
Dead safe and sound
Without drama and worries

As often in his poetry, Laâbi resorts to the power of irony and derision, two of his favorite weapons to defuse the unspeakable violence of the world. The poems oscillate between the poet’s desire to name and confront the chaos and his firm resolution to find peacefulness. This oscillation comes to consider death as a possible relief: 

if it were up to me
I’d retire for good
I’d set off
on the raft of native light
that will carry me
to the other bank of consciousness,
where I will no longer be quartered
by the never-ending wheel of questions

Laâbi’s poetic “workshop,” to reuse the suggestive title of one of his poems, is now “closed for inventory.” After years of political struggle and abundant activity, now is the time to get “better acquainted” with “nothingness.” The question that seems to haunt Laâbi is: “In what way am I still / who I used to be?” Rather than providing a direct answer, Laâbi takes his reader on an “owner’s tour” and concludes in a strikingly metaphorical statement:

The poet is just a pencil-pusher
who works
in the obscure administration
of The Office of the Soul
Knock before entering!

The closing poem of the collection, “Saying and Doing,” reminds the reader that poetry and action, the two facets of Laâbi’s life, were and will always be intertwined. While saying depends “on the firm belief / in absolute commitment,” doing is “a wager / on reason and faith,” on “suspected / but not always proven / reserves of indignation / in human beings, their sense of justice / and their capacity for giving.” At times, Laâbi seems to confront his double as he did in his former collection Mon cher double (My Dear Double),[5] but the confrontation now serves to explore the future relationship between words and deeds, to draw and share lessons from a life of poetic and political dedication.

Laâbi’s poetry may seem simple on the surface, but it always requires deep reading and meditation. Jamison’s clear and fluid translation successfully renders the energy and depth of the collection and invites the reader to delve into the poet’s preoccupations. In fact, Jamison often maintains the structure of the original verses while paying close attention to the rhythmic patterns and sonic effects in each poem. Not only is Laâbi’s consistent use of metaphors and similes gracefully rendered but the translation also conveys, and sometimes creates, striking sonic resonances. In “Weariness,” for instance, the “p” alliteration adds impact to Laâbi’s feelings: “Weary / of pursed lips / that expel just / a foul whiff of speech / Of hollow / pompous voices.” In “Painting in the Dark,” the phonetic reversal of “safe / “face” emphasizes the quest for security and freedom while the “k” and “s” alliterations convey a sense of urgency: “Quick, give me a key / to open the face’s mask / the safe of the soul”. In so doing, Jamison’s translation closely follows the original, bringing in its wake Laâbi’s questions, aspirations, and disillusionments.

Beyond the poet’s introspective reflections on his art and vulnerability, there is in The Uncertainty Principle a genuine expression of accomplishment and satisfaction. The honor and burden of poetry are two faces of the same coin. When facing “the riddle of the Universe,” even “the most adventurous poetry,” Laâbi writes, “must honourably lay down its arms.” Poetry does not have to defeat the world but only to serve its purpose of awakening minds and defending human values against the resurgence of barbarism and violence. And for those who are still uncertain about the purpose of poetry, Laâbi adds: 

No kind of resurrection
has been witnessed
except that of the conscience


[1] Olivia C. Harrison & Teresa Villa-Ignacio, Souffles-Anfas. A Critical Anthology from the Moroccan Journal of Culture and Politics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016).

[2] Abdellatif Laâbi, Le Spleen de Casablanca (Paris: Éditions de la Différence, 1997).

[3] Abdellatif Laâbi, Anthologie de la poésie palestinienne d’aujourd’hui (Paris: Éditions Points, 2022). An Arabic version of the same anthology came out with Al-Mutawassit in Italy.

[4] Abdellatif Laâbi, Petit musée portatif (Paris: La Différence, 2002).

[5] Abdellatif Laâbi, Mon cher double (Paris: La Différence, 2007).

Khalid Lyamlahy is Assistant Professor of French and Francophone Studies at the University of Chicago where he teaches and works on Francophone North African literature. His scholarly publications have appeared in PMLA, Research in African Literature, The Journal of North African Studies, and other journals. He has published a novel, Un roman étranger (Présence Africaine Éditions, 2017) and translated Felwine Sarr’s Habiter le monde: essai de politique relationnelle into Arabic (Kulte Éditions, 2022).

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, August 9, 2022

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