Darren Jackson

Mythology of Words:

A Review of Vénus Khoury-Ghata’s Alphabets of Sand

Alphabets of Sand, by Vénus Khoury-Ghata, Translated by Marilyn
Hacker, Carcanet Press, 2009, 88 pages. ISBN: 978-1-85754-977-5
($21.35 paper)

I was very fortunate to grow up in New Mexico, a place still learning
to navigate its cultural and political heritage as a former
Spanish colony, where Spanish remains a dominant language and
the imposition of English as lingua franca marks the latest incursion
into the cultural landscape. Growing up as the child of outsiders
(my parents had migrated from Kansas), I was fortunate in
many ways, but the most significant lay in my parents’ willingness
to embrace a new culture. When my siblings and I began to pick up
Spanish as small children, they sent us to special classes to help us
with our new language. I grew up believing that life in two languages
was normal, that everyone divided themselves into two different
tongues. Many years later, when I decided to follow a
woman over the ocean to another language, I assumed the transition
would occur as simply as the assimilation to Spanish had in
my childhood.

A few months after moving to Montpellier, France, a few months
into learning to live in French, I began having nightmares. Three
manifestations of myself stood like a triumvirate, each speaking its
own language. At first, the English and Spanish selves spoke the
loudest, most comfortable in their tongues while the French self
stood quietly, muttering catch-phrases, common expressions, the
meaningless platitudes I had managed to pick up, and then only
occasionally. Over time, the Spanish self became quieter, and as the
French self grew more confident, the Spanish self became silent, a
flickering ghost in the circle of my selves. It felt like a terrible loss, as
if my childhood were disintegrating in my hands. During my waking
hours, I often tried thinking to myself in Spanish, trying to reclaim
that part of myself, but the demands of life in a new language consistently
pushed that part of my life to the margins. I never expected to
revisit any nightmare with pleasure, especially one representing a loss
I still feel, but Marilyn Hacker’s selection of poems for Vénus
Khoury-Ghata’s Alphabets of Sand allowed me to do just that.

Khoury-Ghata’s poems function much in the same way as dreams
or nightmares, an unfolding of image and music that encapsulates
the reader. She utilizes Surrealist strategies of image and syntax,
within the communal narrative structure of Arabic poetry, to present
experience rather than to provide a decipherable text. The
poems are not meant to be explicated line by line, but taken as a
whole. By emphasizing Khoury-Ghata’s longer poems, Hacker’s
selection makes this approach available to the English reader and
facilitates an engagement with one of Khoury-Ghata’s major
themes, her mythology of language.

“The Darkened Ones” is a good example of her holistic poetic. It
defies literal exegesis, and in so doing, it demands, as these poems
often do, that we engage the piece as a whole, as an experience that
cannot be summed up in a few pat phrases:

           In the tight space of our cages
           without moving our hands, we write
           the words we lack, taken from disused books

                                 (9: 12. 1–3)

Despite the difficulty of deciphering the literal situation, the poem
draws us in. Like a nightmare, we experience the flow of emotion,
of image, and abandon the demand of the rational mind to make
sense of what we experience. Yet she grants us a thread of rationality
to tie up the loose images, to place them within the context of
her mythology, her interest in language. While we cannot say where
or when or even how “The Darkened Ones” takes place, it pulls us
along, fascinating by its focus on language’s loss. Its loss is felt as a
“lack,” so the poem asks whether we can convey experience under
these circumstances:

           how to express ourselves when we forbid ourselves to give objects a name
           and                       mistake a cartwheel for the sun

But it does not provide an answer. It suggests only that the attempt
is necessary, and Khoury-Ghata’s compelling images and syntax,
skillfully translated by Hacker, make the attempt admirable for its
own sake. Yet she does not rest within the safety of an unanswerable
riddle. Her poems push further, recreating the world of experience
within her mythology.

“Words” presents her mythology of language more directly. It
accounts for the different alphabets and language’s loss of power.
While she explores this loss, her language never suffers similar difficulties.
“Words” begins in a mythical past:

           In those days            I know now            words declaimed the wind (15: 1)

In the beginning language had the power to address the world, but
it becomes divided and the nature of that power changes:

           blind flight in the darkness
           fireflies wheeling in on themselves
           pebbles in the pocket of an absent-minded dead man
           projectiles against the cemetery wall
           they broke up into alphabets
           ate a different earth               on each continent

                                 (16: 1–7)

Words become empty gestures against mortality and heartache and
then they split into different alphabets and the power of language
shifts away from the metaphysical. Unlike my nightmare, her languages
remain a part of a community, not just a personal psyche.
Thus the power of language, both her use of language and the idea
of language, remains rooted in the social:

           There are country alphabets and town alphabets
           Tell me what words you use and I’ll tell you the number of your cattle

                                 (16: 20–21)

Yet “Words” is not done with the metaphysical power of words. It
remains, vestigial, ghostlike, particularly at the edges of political
borders, cultural boundaries, the tip of the tongue:

           The words which spring up on the borders of lips retain their terrors

                                 (22: 1)

Much like my nightmare, one’s own words have the power to terrify,
but they have lost the power to share and so they withdraw
into silence:

           Guilty of repeated forgetfulness words retreated over the cold ground
           to                endure the ordeal of silence and chastise themselves for
           having overflowed            their meanings in a language which admits no

                                 (27: 1)

These words are left waiting for dreams to admit them back into
the human realm, which is where, at the end of “Words,” they find
access to the world at large and the means to share experience, at
least a little.

Continuing to explore the communal nature of language, “The
Seven Honeysuckle Sprigs of Wisdom” develops Khoury-Ghata’s
mythology to address the role of language in colonization. She
presents “her” village as a place that follows its own dreamlike
rules where people and animals interact directly with alphabets:

           The mayor forbids the goats to graze on the French alphabet (40: 1)

The choice of alphabet as fodder introduces the political significance
of language choice in colonization. It serves as a source of
contention, as representative of foreign power. But even one’s own
alphabet conveys political power:

           The schoolmaster Farhoud is so conscientious that he tries the alphabet
           out on                          himself before using it on the children

                                 (42: 5)

The alphabet, including one’s own alphabet, is a force, something a
“conscientious” schoolmaster tests on himself before subjecting the
children to. The political implications of language and its power to
name resurfaces frequently in “The Seven Honeysuckle Sprigs of

           The fate of Wahiba’s plum tree is linked to the country’s independence
           Will it be the same translated into French
           and will it answer to a name that perhaps won’t suit its branches
           used to                                         conversing with the Arab wind which
           postpones autumn for a month so it                 can inventory its leaves

                                 (46: 11–13)

All language, whether native or foreign, maintains an odd power in
her mythology. It is changeable and it changes what it touches. At
one instant it creates the world, and in the next, it fails even to
express one’s feelings about that world. It is both divine presence
and absence.

The excerpt from “Early Childhood” incorporates the nature of
divinity into her meditation on communal language. Her use of
Surrealism’s dreamlike quality allows her to make the physical spiritual,
presenting language as immanent. From the beginning, the
poem establishes the connection between word and thing as divine:

           A star
           is the invention of a flame
           The whim of a spark
           the opinion of a lamp longing for eternity
           a clandestine movement of God revealed by dictionaries

                                 (53: 1–5)

The relationship between physical and spiritual is manifested in
language. Words serve to connect the physical to the divine in such
a way that the persona’s mother is able to talk to God:

           Your voice, mother, addressing God through the skylight
           made the soil bite the pomegranate tree

                                 (61: 5–6)

But the result seems less than desirable. Here again language proves
unreliable, nightmarish in its capacity to alter the world in both its
physical and spiritual manifestations. Her father’s attempts at
expression outside language interact more directly, and more violently,
with the divine:

           my father slapped the sand
           slapped God
           when the clouds bled
           on the bent back of the sky

                                 (67: 6–9)

The autobiographical nature of the poem allows Khoury-Ghata to
incorporate the mythology of the previous poems into this one
piece, where all the strands of her meditations on language as experience
and as power intertwine in family stories. At one point she
brings back the image of the plum tree translated into French from
“The Seven Honeysuckle Sprigs of Wisdom” almost verbatim, but
in this incarnation the tree is a poplar and belongs to the village
instead of the prostitute. Thus the autobiography, and the experience,
belongs not to the persona of the poem, but to the community,
and by extension to the reader, so that we become part of the
story and share in the loss of language.

This quality of a simultaneous absence and presence makes this collection
compelling. Hacker’s translations render Khoury-Ghata’s
use of language beautifully, and her arrangement for this selected
volume highlights Khoury-Ghata’s mythology of language as a
communal experience of loss and reclamation. The arrangement
also emphasizes the dreamlike quality of these poems in such a way
that the demand for contextual certainty vanishes in favor of the
holistic construction of sound and image. Like dreams, it is an
experience that defies explication, and yet satisfies the reader’s
expectation of cohesion.