Issue 12 – Summer 2007 – Brenda Hillman translates Libyan poet Ashur Etwebi

Poems From Above the Hill 

Ashur Etwebi –  translated by Brenda Hillman

Rain falls through the girl’s hands onto the surface of the sea.
The trees, the hunter’s dog waiting under the sand dunes, 
and the gray clouds from the northwest
all watch the scene, breathing the reflection of light through the fingers of the lovely girl.

Footsteps come quietly from behind the sand, 
following the smell of rain,
while simple desires pass to the sea
as the cosmic music packs raindrops into the box of eternity.

His dreams slept in the muddy house;
his life’s hopes rolled on an oak table. 
He was a child practicing the new language;
red and yellow words raced him to the playground,
drawing squares and  circles in the air,
clasping their edges like chairs that could take him to the sky.
It was a time could fit easily into the hand.

Another evening goes to the edge of the valley. 
The hunter will come tonight;
he’ll pass his rough hands over her naked shoulders 
and the robin with a shy voice will sing loudly 
of the mysteries of the body’s ecstasy.

Does the oak tree wail when its leaves fall?
asks the little bird walking behind its mother.
The twigs, crumbling to the ground, are terrifying; 
the silence is terrifying,
and the arch on the horizon is far.

He’ll reach it some dawn soon,
says the mother, flying into the air.

Who is knocking on my door?
Who is playing under my window?
Who has put the scent of peppermint in my backyard?
Who is climbing on my roof?
Who is staring at me with his magnificent eyes and doesn’t speak?
Who has left the lovely, delicate laughter under my pillow, and gone?
I can sleep now.

Footsteps of the lost can be heard close by,
but the heart is an echo of what the eye sees.
The earth touched his feet,
and those in back of him, gripped by cruel illusion
under a sky empty of everything except fear,
are crying but their voices don’t rise.
Footsteps are not followed by footsteps,
but paths that curve towards distant dreams.

The morning 
inside the cloak of wind
is a splendid  morning.

Al-Aemma’s bridge is moaning
from the weight of empty shoes,
from screams at the opening of the tunnel,
from breaths rolled along by the feet of hatred, 
from fire that burns the river grass.

Al-Aemma’s bridge is a large coffin 
as large as


Through her window, she can see 
the remote grain elevator, white as snow.
Her thoughts go to the forest
where birds spread flickering passion and pure desire. 
Electrical wires divide the gray space,
t.v. screens, dancing boys and girls,
old-time songs, newscasts, sadistic presidents,
soldiers waving their rifles before the masses, 
and the scent of delicious cake.                            

The sea and I are silent
listening to the cosmos playing
its favorite piece in B major.
The sea smiles at me;
I can’t move or I would wound the music.

Time is so short– rapid footsteps on the wide asphalt–
where can I start my descent?
Here is a ladder offering itself
truckling before the National Judiciary Society;
from a high, colored signboard as wide as the street,
7-up’s bubbles sparkle,
and black cars traverse the plaza.
Beside a colonnade of palm trees with dry empty fronds,  
a traffic sign strictly follows the system.

Where can I start my descent to the abyss?

The scene repeats itself:
the café’s glass door is open,
three wooden tables on the pavement,
a man wearing a khaki coat sits cross-legged, 
leaning with his unshaven chin on his hand,
his eyes gazing at the fat waitress who smells like cinnamon 
while the morning walks quietly behind her..

The scene repeats itself…

The policeman, laughing, checking   
the café’s open glass door.

tales hide in the tall grass, from the sleeper’s eyes;
I’ll stand on guard,
the clock strokes will cover your laughter
and the warm rain will take the policeman away.

tales hide;
My fingers can’t hold you,
the night can’t prolong your dancing
and my pocket, unable to carry your children,
is full of runaway stories.

A river between solid iron bars, 
behind white, yellow and orange houses
near roaring trucks and magnificent cars,
and parallel to men and women, 
passes by;
some lean on their shoulders, laughing; 
some tremble with ecstasy;
some cry;
some piss;
and some die.

The same scene—
no need to stop;
a river sees everything;
the sources hold to the mouth of the river 
where there’s nobody.

In the early morning,
Café Al-Forsan 
receives the sun with stately serenity;
the stairs are ready for innocent seduction 
and a simple thought about life sits in the orange corner.

You alone cradle your coffee cup with an old men’s wisdom.

With an autumn evening’s tenderness,
the country girl leans on the city cornice;
from its house in the old seaport comes the sea,
holding the tranquility of the years in its palms.

Together, they dance in the martyrs’ square.

I have to understand 
the volcano’s outrage  
the devil’s sibilance
the dance of fish in the water
the fire’s hiss and the acrid smell of smoke
the trembling hands at the moment of touching
the laughter broken on cold beds

I have to understand 
why eyes that didn’t see life were closed

At the slope of the horizon, five lamps shine
and between the cement columns, one lamp by itself.
It doesn’t concern the birds asleep in their nests
nor the man sitting at the computer 
searching for words to use in a poem;
it doesn’t concern Beethoven who wrote this sonata between 1796 and 1798
nor Wilhelm Kempff who played it on December 12, 1951.
Nobody cares;
no one can know the depth of this eternal moment.

He leaves the bottle of milk looking elegant in front of the door;
he doesn’t feel thirsty
and has no desire to splash himself with cold water,
or to bring his nose so close to the white carnation, 
to smell its fragrance with his eyes closed.
All he wants is to see sleep
sneaking quietly from the bedroom window.

There is a grand silence in this night’s voices.
The last of the morning clouds look back as they approach;
the disk of the sun from behind the Moorish arch,
scans the place sadly
and the mosque’s Muezzin reach Shahada with a broken voice.
The pigeons that landed on my roof all day
spread their wings and leave for the sky.
The moon lying on its orange bed watches from a distance.

Maybe it’s the wind 
Maybe it’s the laughter of the guard in front of the t.v.
Maybe it’s the coldness of midnight
Maybe it’s the smell of the lonely gladiolus 
Maybe it’s the sparkling of her eyes at hour of their meeting 
Maybe it’s the life that we do not know

Here I am crossing the street without fear,
I don’t know how and why.
I feel proud that I crossed the street without fear.
Maybe it was not a real street.

In front of the house my brother stood
as he was lifted into the clouds that day.
The old shepherd waved his hand in the air,
following his sheep climbing the mountain. 
We heard only a weak cry
as it lay on the doorstep.
He was cold in his gray robes,
like the winter that passed Qorina.

The wheat fields that witnessed our childhood
were smashed by crazy gibli wind.
Rats, gerbils and turtles went to the mountaintop,
while birds went to the sea.

Here comes the moon from behind the cedar tree with a pungent shadow,
as if searching for something.

Yesterday, coming from the high stone village,
I remembered the time we spent near here in spring,
under the black stone,
where we met up with an armadillo.
We didn’t know how it let us pass along the path of the snail’s bourn.
I saw its eyes filled with fear
subtle as water.
I still carry a piece of that fear in my heart.

This morning, I was at the harbor
when the ships from Alexandria came;
Andronicus and his gang were there
counting slaves and wine barrels.
There was no mail in the ships,
and nobody knew anything about Hypatia.

why are you sitting on the tormented porch?                                          
The sun has arrived from behind the pomegranate tree
and the happy voices of young students 
jump with the drops of water.
You are silently sitting in front of sleeping cat under the sun;  
the sky hasn’t left
nor is it in the grip of your small hand.
Do you understand the wind’s words?
Or are you the morning itself, sitting on a tormented porch?.

The streets of Alexandria are the gateway for strangers, 
with their iron bars, their smoke like exhausted breath lashed by the gibli 
and by their incomparable greed.
Those who came from the east were fascinated and buried in the labyrinth;
those who came from the western desert 
hid their eyes behind the veil of eternal solitude.

do you hear the echo of morning’s footsteps filled with the sea breeze? 
do you hear the  girl as she puts a rose on your doorstep?

That morning, the cardinal didn’t get up so early,
it didn’t care about prayer, 
it had lost the desire to inspect the wide fields.
it was holding its heart,
listening to the crowds shouting in the streets of Alexandria.
Your mutilated body was approaching the sea. 

The evening is full of wind,
of cars entering the roads, children coming from school 
swaying their little bodies 
while pushing the short words and laughter to the side of the road.
It doesn’t matter what the wind will do;
it doesn’t matter even if it runs away while we’re sleeping before the dawn.
Really, it doesn’t matter.
What matters is that I wake up in the morning 
listening to the whisper of the grass under my window.

The road is so steep,
but it ends at a small plaza and three walls.
The café waitress looks at the people sitting contently,
while the gray cat licks a doll’s finger under the chair.
A door in a form of an arch and a hand of oxidized iron.
The road is steep but it leads to the strangers’ plaza.

From far away, the ship’s horn sounds feeble.
It’s said that it belongs to tourists from France, came to the virgin land.
Pieces of history were never theirs.
With open eyes behind digital cameras:
‘…oh, how wonderful’
‘…homemade bread’
‘…eating with their hands’
‘…the tall red hat is really sexy’
‘…full of beauty’
‘…what a magnificent creature’
‘…why did the Romans leave?’

From far away comes a feeble voice of a weeping woman. 
From a desert 
a desert where nothing grows,
except fear.

I will be satisfied with just looking,
I won’t open my mouth,
and I won’t allow words, no matter how noble they are, to enter my ear.
The city is in deep darkness
and heavy dreams escape from the sleepers.

I will be satisfied with just looking,
I won’t concentrate on the details of the city,
the city that embraced the frightened dawn in silence.

The smell of peppermint wafts up the stairs;
from above her dress looks like a piece of the sky.
The wind softly moves from the edge of the stairs.
The grape leaves hang over the entrance in grand surrender.

The dancing gypsy’s café
quietly welcomes its customers.

Little ants run away from my hands.
I have no desire to them;
I have no desire to kill them.
How do they manage to seep quietly into the earth?
I lie on my back under the cedar tree
and follow a flutter of a bird’s wing in the sky. 

The raindrops shyly approach the beech tree.
The summer came and the winter left in a hurry, 
didn’t leave anything except raindrops
the beech tree.

As I was coming back to my home in the evening
I didn’t think of the thick clouds near the plaza
I didn’t think of my Moroccan neighbor’s dinner table.
I was just trying to remember a musical piece by Sami Alshawa,
an improvisation for a mandolin.

I try to write a poem with my son Khalil
as we listen to James Taylor.
I asked him to start:
He smiles and says to me:
Let my brother Ali begin.
Don’t write everything, I say,
Give it some thought,
poetry needs ideas. Don’t you think before you write?

He leans at the edge of the door
his hat in his hand, and gazes off, searching for words for a poem.

The train has come exactly on time,
looking proud of its gray engine,
the large lamp and the sparkling wide orange line.
The street lamp bows with magnificent softness.
The two railway lines stretch out serenely.
The black leather bag stands behind the woman
who is beside the man who puts his hands in his pockets.
The train has come exactly on time,
proud of its engine.

Maybe I tend to be quiet because I’m a poet and so on,
but I didn’t write for quite some time.
I tried,
but the words were like rotten fruit.
The images crumbled like moving objects in a forgotten alley.
It is no doubt quite hard 
to write a new poem.

Tonight a meteor has fallen near the North Altwebia School.
Nobody was there;
the Moroccan had closed his shop 
and the neighbors were watching : 

People’s voices melt like butter on the arch of forgetfulness. 
The heart’s curtain is wide open to the cloud’s plaza. 
A woman’s arm rests on the café table that the sun can’t reach,
and her appointments are thrown on the pavement of wishes.

The bird can fly in the air as high as it desires
watching the trees covered by  white snow,
the chickens running away to their muddy houses,
the children, their eyes illuminated behind closed windows.
The bird can listen to Charlie Parker playing,
the bird can dance with the raindrops without damaging a single tune,
can dream about a place near the fireplace,
near the woman with the red dress
holding her soft hand and counting the beads of her necklace.

Who gave this dirt
the smell of the fungus?
Who gave the volcano’s heart the old women’s voices?

Who hid such eloquence in this stony wall?

Sad drum beats come from a mountain empty of silence.
Quiver of dewdrops on the empty paths
and fingers rising high in the blankness 
line up with heavy rain and canals of Iranian crystal;
flowers bow to the stranger passing by. 
Trees carry the night spaces in silence.

The traveler who raised his voice with the forbidden song
took my words and gave me his feet
to travel across the prairie of Candofan,
to hear the horses at the crossroads of desire.
The traveler who raised his voice with the forbidden song
took my food and gave me his hands,
to hold the sacred flame.

Look straight out here;
the land shakes
with horses and thick dust.
Those who came with the evening and deceived the guards
laughed at the face of the sun resting on the horizon’s arch.
They asked about birds that left their city one day
and asked about a millrace that had witnessed their weddings.
You held your hands to music at the side of the road
as the solitary dancer finished her dance,
and from his window, the child was counting fallen grapes with his fingers.
What do you hear in the book of voices but your heartbeat.

Look straight out here:
the pale land blanketed with serenity.

This how the sea breeze comes:
laughing with happiness, it walks on the water
like a satisfied woman.
The sand bows to itself with a huge passion
and when immense breezes come, the voices
surrender to them with the great sea’s silence.

Alone, an old man out on the sea,
with fish swimming at the sides of the old boat.
No fishing today;
is it the sky’s blue— or is it the blue of the water?
You will be satisfied with a melody to give the master of the sea;
he knows you are tired
and that the fallen leaves cry without a sound.

In the night, when the hidden secrets emerge
and the neighbors’ voices are hardly heard
and the bird sings its last song
nothing worries you
except the sounds of age, raining in the cold room.

Van Gogh enters the lobby a little worried;
he scans the place with tired eyes
but sees only shadows
and the glass of water talking to sunlight near the small window,
the chair offering its back to the sleeping cat near fireplace,
and the pale yellow flowers clinging to the edge of the glass 
as if they don’t want to go.
Van Gogh exits the lobby, leaving his troubles on the high walls.

From his eastern window, Marcus Aurelius,
watches Leda entering her oil bath.
She goes there early;
the servants massage her fragrant body, 
their eyes sparkle as a winter’s lightning dawn, 
and the rosemary smell fills Sabratha beach. 
Aurelius is happy, he stretches his feet 
on an Iranian silk with pictures of fighting buffalo;
he touches them gently so not to bother Leda in her oil bath, 
the sea yawns with a sound close to his joyful heart.

Wait for me at the crossroad,
says the girl waving her hand.
She doesn’t say what day or time—
just Wait for me, waving her hand.
In the old café beside the tall oak tree
she sits, her large bag between her legs 
facing the rising sun, 
her jacket on the chair,
and between her fingers a flower she has kept from before.
Will he come? she wonders, following the march of ants on the oak tree.
He might have a date.
She takes her bag, looks at the head of the road, and leaves.

Creatures, you will go back to your homes, 
I know it’s time to listen;
the place doesn’t worry itself with secrets,
and here the spring rises from the breast of the stone,
here the grass waves from afar to the women coming back from the fields, 
here the Shepherd sings his favorite song into the gray space.

Sitting alone, watching cars of many colors pass the gray street—
the plain white, the metallic white, and the red.
You spot the neighbor’s child behind the tree wearing his diaper; 
his smell doesn’t reach you.
Fifty cars have passed your square;
the child doesn’t stop nor the old women who smile at you.
You can’t bear the midday heat
but going back is a struggle.
The braids of Monet’s girl have lost their color,
she smiles as if she were going to weep;
even the  wine has left the glasses behind.  

You will go back anyway,
you will open your ugly refrigerator, 
you may find a bottle of Coca-Cola and insult America, 
you may sleep on a bed with a smell of oxidized copper.
You are nothing but a lonely retired old man
with nothing but few years of insomnia and confused dreams
about an old cheap life.

The place can take this form in brown and gray,
can start writing about copper.
We can say “…” 
which ears can’t hear. 
A sound when it disappears 
lingers as mere vibration on the wall,
on the roof, on the windows,
on the floor, on passersby as they look up.

Nothing is important there,
because the sky is high above us.
We can see only its blue dome,
hiding its stars in the light of a strong sun.
The wind doesn’t concede to the domination of the sky,
it has what it wants,
between its own words and nobody’s. 
Today’s wind is huge.
What else is there?
Yes, I see it, that dune behind the dry olive tree
You ask me, What does it do?
It grows.
Don’t you know most things grow through their failures?
I do that.
You say you don’t see the sea;
it is there between the folds of the land, laughing.

—Translated by the author and by Brenda Hillman
Sept 2006-Jan2007                    



Ashur ETWEBI (poet, translator, novelist; b. 1952 Libyais a physician and senior lecturer at Zawia Teaching Hospital. In his literary career, he has translated the poems of W.B. Yeats, as well as collections of American, Lithuanian, and Canadian modern poetry.  Since 1993, he has published four collections of poems, most recently A Box of the Old Laughs (2005).  His work is widely anthologized in the Arab-speaking world and Europe, including the Anthology of Modern Arabic Poetry (France).  In 2001, he ventured into prose with his first novel, Dardaneen.

Brenda Hillman is author of many books and chapbooks, the most recent of which are Cascadia and Pieces of Air in the Epic published by Wesleyan University Press. she is the Olivia Filippi Professor of Poetry at St. Mary’s.