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The Suspended Ode - By Imru Al-Qays

Updated: Nov 29, 2023




Stop Remember Weep

for the one I loved and the place we would meet

where the sands thin between al-Dakhool and Hawmal


Traces are still there at Toodih and Miqraa

woven by the north wind and the south wind


The morning she left

everyone saddled up by the acacia stand

while I cut bitter colocynth


My companions reined in their mounts

don’t be a baby they said to me

take it like a man etcetera


But tears are my medicine

so where in these ruins is a place I can cry


Weeping is what I do

before this it was Umm Huwayrith

before that it was Rabab her neighbor at Ma’sal


When they stood up musk breathed out

like an eastern breeze carrying the scent of cloves


So many fine days you had with them

but especially that day at Juljul


That was the day I butchered my camel for the virgins

they were very merry

loading shares into their saddles


They tossed the meat back and forth

and the fat was like unraveling strands of  Damascene silk


Another day I went in to the howdah

it was Unizah’s howdah

Damn you she shrieked

Get down or I’m walking


Then she simpered as the swaying howdah

swayed us into each other’s arms

poet you’re chaffing my mount

please go down please


Keep riding I said

let go of the reins

don’t push me away from your musky fruit


You’re not the first one I’ve visited at dusk

while she was big bellied and nursing

whom I helped to forget the newborn hung with amulets


When he cried behind her she turned one half to suckle

but the other half

the one beneath me

stayed where it was


Another day in back of the dunes she refused me

and swore an oath she could not break


Enough my darling

if you’re going to cut the cords then do it

but do it gently


Were you wrong about me

my love for you is killing me

whatever you say is what my heart does


When your eyes well up arrows hit my heart

I am like a camel submitting to slaughter


One night I crept past her brothers’ tents

they would like to boast of killing me

and arrived at her chamber


The Pleiades flashed in the sky

like gemstones in a whirling kilt


I went in

she had taken off all her clothes

except her nightgown


So I took her out for a walk

and she dragged a heavy skirt behind us

erasing our prints


We left her people’s camp

and headed for the open desert

dim hollows and twisting sands


I pulled her down by her sidelocks

she bent over me

slim hips and big ankles


She is lean and blazingly white

taut-bellied

her breasts shine like a mirror


She turns and shows a smooth cheek

a wary eye

this mother gazelle at Wajra


A shock of hair black as burnt wood

thick and clustered

like a date palm heavy with fruit


She puts it up but it is still a wilderness

some in braids some combed straight


A thin waist like the nose halter I put on my camel

plump thighs like stalks of watered papyrus


She stretches out her fingers

trimmed of meat like sandworms

or tamarisk toothpicks


At dusk she lights up the darkness

radiant as a lone monk’s lantern


Love’s enemies spoke against you

but I turned away from their counsels


Men put away the passions of youth

but my heart still rages for you


When the night stretched out

raising its rump and pushing forth its chest

I spoke to it


O you long  long night

I want more light

a dawn without love is darkness on darkness


What a night

as if its stars were anchored by ropes to Mount Yadhbul


As if the constellations

suspended

were harnessed to hard stones


In the early mornings

with the birds still in their aeries

I leapt on my short-haired thoroughbred

faster than any beast in the desert


Revving up

rushing down

reversing and racing

speed in the form of an avalanche


A red charger

saddle slipping from his back

running like smooth stones loosed in a downpour


He is feverishly thin

and his neigh is the snorting of a kettle about to blow


He has the flanks of a gazelle

the legs of an ostrich

the easy lope of a wolf

a fox’s pounce


On any hunt the blood of the fastest prey

stains his white chest like henna


We approached a herd of  wild oxen

the ewes were like virgins

circling the idol of Dawaar in long trailing robes


He ran down a bull

he ran down a ewe

he did not

break a sweat


While he stood still in his saddle and reins

my admiring eye would not stand still


Look at him

your glance is never at rest

passing from perfection to perfection


My friend look at the lightning

a pair of hands flickering

among the banked-up clouds


Its flash lights up

like a hermit’s lamp when the oil tilts toward the wick


I watched it coming from Daarij and al-Udhayb

I gauged its distance

it was still far far away


There was so much rain

it fell to the right over Qatan

it fell to the left over al-Sitaar

it even fell over Yadhbul


The water began running over Kutayfa

slamming the Kanahbul trees’ faces to the ground


It passed over Mount Qanan

sluicing the mountain goats from their mountain


It passed over Tayma’

uprooting the date palms and smashing roofed houses

leaving only those built with stone


It was as if  Mount Thabeer

under the storm’s first showers

was an old man wrapped in a woolen cloak


In the early mornings the summits of  Mujaymir

wreathed with flood-scum

were like the whirl of a spindle


The great rains made the dead earth

a Yemeni trader’s rainbow display


It was as if the songbirds singing in their hollows

had drunk the first pressings of spiced wine


Or as if the legs of desert fauna

drowned at the furthest flood-reaches

sticking up straight toward the sky

were the waving green tops of wild onions








Background


According to the Library of Congress, long, traditional Arabic poetry known as the Muallaqaat (The Suspended Ode) were written during the time before Islam. They received this moniker because it was said that Arab critics of the time hung them on the Kaaba in Mecca, a sacred site for Arabian tribes before Islam, as a mark of respect for their grandeur and to establish the bar for all subsequent Arabic poetry. They often begin with a moment of silence observed by the lover and his companions to remember the remains of his lady's former tent. The poet then continues to depict other facets of Bedouin culture, such as camels, the scenery, and animals, as well as honor, bravery, conflict, and peace. It is generally accepted that there are between seven and ten of these poems, while the precise number and which ones are genuine muallaqaat are still up for debate.



Author

Imru al-Qays, an Arab poet who passed away around 500, was hailed as the greatest pre-Islamic poet by the Prophet Muhammad, Al, the fourth caliph, and Arab critics from the illustrious Basra school. One of the seven odes in the renowned book of pre-Islamic poetry known as Al-Mu'allaqat is written by him.

Although there is disagreement on his ancestry, the most popular legend names Imru al-Qays as the youngest child of Ujr, the final king of Kindah. Due to his love of penning sensual poetry, he was twice exiled from his father's court and took on the life of a wanderer.


Unsatisfied after successfully attacking and defeating the Ban Asad, he futilely sought assistance from other tribes. Imru al-Qays met the Byzantine emperor Justinian I through King al-rith of Ghassn in northern Arabia, who agreed to provide him with the forces he required to retake his kingdom. According to legend, the emperor gave him a poisoned cloak upon his return to Arabia, which resulted in his demise at Ancyra (modern Ankara). (Source from britannica.com)



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