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On the waterfront in Genoa

Helen Koukoutsis and Jennifer Compton |  25 January 2011

Teaching Mahmoud Darwish's Memory for Forgetfulness
(For Samar Habib)
 
They're all anxious about Darwish;
none have understood his lyrical rant.
'His coffee is too Arabic,' they say,
'his water, too dry.'
 
'Beirut is thirsty,' he tells them;
but Beirut is too far and too long ago
for them to care. What they really want,
is to be done with him.
The tutorial too.
 
How can I make them understand?
 
How can I tell them
that his book isn't about coffee or water,
or even about the bombing of Beirut?
That Darwish writes about history
from inside the red ink-bottle
of atomic bodies; the vacuum-
sealed mind of Feiruz's love song:
I love you, O Lebanon.
 
When two lovers unite  
in the summer noon,
they know the sound
the birds make
at winter twilight.
 
How do I explain
the union of an Arab
and his Jewish lover?
 
How can I teach
what I have not experienced,
except through some artificial
world of war and book knowledge?
 
– Helen Koukoutsis


 
On The Waterfront In Genoa, Just Before Dawn, At Chucking Out Time 

I asked the kids from Piazza delle Erbe who had led me here what the club 
was called because it had no sign. Si chiama Pussycats – they said.

It was two rooms in a warehouse up a flight of stairs. The music was loud.
They had run out of white wine. 

The kids took off and I sat myself down on a step made of stone. I didn't
know where I was and had to figure out how to get home. 

A young man, made of ebony, from Senegal or Somalia or the Côte d'Ivoire, 
sat down beside me gracefully.

Here you might think – Well well. But it wasn't like that. He sat next to me 
as if I was his mother, or his grandmother. I'm old. He was young. 

I told him where I was from. He bent his head. Australia. Oh fortunate one.
When I asked him about his country he leapt to his feet and sang. 

Oh Mama ... Mama Africa. Oh Mama ... Mama Africa. He danced and sang. 
Then the tears came. A boy the age of my son. 

I had a chocolate in my purse and I gave it to him. I don't think I know what 
hungry is. A stuttering and blind urgent cramming thing.

And yes, but don't tell anyone, I gave him the twenty euro that I had to hand. 
Stammering, ill at ease, he asked me what I had in mind.

It disgraced us both that he had to ask what the traffic between us was. But 
we strolled on. I bought him a stand up coffee at an early bar.

I had to order it because the girl wouldn't serve him. Her look of disdain.
And then I said – Goodbye, my friend. And I went home.
 
– Jennifer Compton


Helen KoukoutsisHelen Koukoutsis teaches literature in the School of Humanities and Languages at the University of Western Sydney. Last year, three of her poems were published online in the journal Nebulab.


Jennifer ComptonMelbourne poet Jennifer Compton's next book of poetry – This City – won the Kathleen Grattan Prize in New Zealand and will be published by Otago University Press in July.

 


Helen Koukoutsis and Jennifer Compton


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