800Pages; Print, $20.00
The career retrospective is, by virtue of its concept, doomed to fail. No such anthology can live up to the promise of comprehensiveness on which it is built. But if it is assembled thoughtfully, its gaps and elisions can be instructive—by leaving out the connective tissues and detours of minor works—or rather by drawing our attention to the touchstones and major movements of a writing life—it asks its readers to think harder about the way that life takes shape over time, and about the formal, tonal, and argumentative shifts that inspire this development. The rich complementary pleasure to this exercise, of course, comes in taking note of what remains consistence across a poet’s oeuvre. In Praise of Defeat, which collects writings produced by the Moroccan poet, editor, and activist Abdellatif Laâbi over the better part of a century, is not immune to the structural pitfalls of the career anthology (it omits, for instance, the critical anticolonial writings Laâbi published in Souffles, the Arabic and English journal of political prose and poetry that he helped to launch in 1966). But it is a prodigious document, and one which allows us the rare privilege of following a revolutionary mind as it works to develop a poetry that is adequate to its historical inheritances as well as its contemporary challenges.
Laâbi’s oeuvre, however expansive, is unified by its unflinching attention to this political-aesthetic problem; it is constantly turning over the question of how to reconcile the demands of historical consciousness—specifically, an awareness of the social, political, and cultural aftershocks of the Arabization of Berber lands and the French conquest of Arab Morocco—with the urgent task of pioneering an avant-garde language, one that is capable of inspiring anti-colonial, anti-capitalist, and anti-authoritarian solidarity among the people of the Maghreb and the larger Arab world. “I seek a language / for my tribe / that is not a hybrid,” Laâbi writes in “Talisman’s Eye,” the poem which opens In Praise of Defeat. It is a search that involves both purgation—“I need to vomit up / layers of narcotics / and steaming manure / words of reason pale as herb tea / and throw away the books that taught me pride”—and preservation: “I know what power inhabits me / peoples run through my language.” Laâbi is not after a proper synthesis here—conflict and contrast are important to him. He asks us to “hear the clash of languages / in my mouth / the thirst for new births,” which, in concert, animate an “indestructible voice” that is “Arab / Berber / above all human.”
Negotiating this clash of languages, as well as the complex histories of domination and syncretism behind them, proves to be messy, grueling, and visceral work. Laâbi demands that we listen in on the process, that we “hear the swish of sweat / at my underarms,” feel “the ripple of my biceps / driven by my inner fauna” and “breath at the gallop / spewing planets / in its eruptions.” As is typical of his early work—the work that will ultimately find him imprisoned by the regime of King Hassan II—this poem takes a vatic and revolutionary turn:
but at my call break jars of honey slit the throats of black bulls at mosque doors feed beggars by the thousands then I shall come to spit in your mouth destroy your tumors rid you of your ancient ills
Laâbi’s prison writings display a similarly muscular and fierce commitment to resistance, and more specifically, to poetry-as-resistance. “Chronicle of the Citadel of Exile,” composed in 1976 in Kenitra prison, is perhaps his most forceful articulation of that commitment. The poem seems to command itself into existence: “Write, write, never stop. Tonight and all the nights to come.” This imperative animates a sequence of prose meditations on writing life and prison life; writing becomes a means of establishing contact not only with the outside world, but with one that has yet to arrive. “The reality that is...