The Rising of the Ashes

We continue our celebration of National Poetry Month with three excerpts from the long poem "The Rising of the Ashes," by Tahar Ben Jelloun from The Rising of the Ashes, published by City Lights in February of this year. Translation is by Cullen Goldblatt.




a long time ago

I lived in a tree, then in a cemetery.

My tomb was under an oak. Dogs and men pissed on my head. I said nothing. Little mauve flowers, scentless, grew there.

I had nothing to say.

Today shovels picked me up and threw me in this well.

I pace the abyss.

I descend. I am suspended.

The ashes still smolder. They rise, surround me, then fall again,

grey dust that makes my body a sand-filled hourglass.

I crumble. I am old abandoned rock.

I am sand and time.

I am faceless.

I nourish the land and pour my words into the land's blood.

I irrigate the tree roots in late spring.

I count the days and the deaths while 

men carry their households on their backs.






This body which was once a word will no longer look at the sea and think of Homer.

It did not pass away. It was touched by a flash from the sky crushing speech and breath.

These crystals mixed in the sand are the last words pronounced by these unarmed men.






In this country the dead travel

as statues and flames

They wear eyeglasses

and stretch out their scorched arms for flight.

We say they became invisible

Left to offer the living the years that remained of their lives.

Thus only years litter the desert: a century, more.

Lives for the taking, as jackals gorged on lives tremble to say:

"Death is not fatal just as night is the sun's shadow."




Tahar Ben Jelloun, "The Rising of the Ashes" from The Rising of the Ashes © 2010 by City Lights Books. Reprinted with the permission of City Lights Books, San Francisco, California.

July 24: On this day in 1725 John Newton, the slave trader-preacher who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace," was born.

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