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This review is taken from PN Review 269, Volume 49 Number 3, January - February 2023.

Cover of Agitated Air: Poems After Ibn Arabi
Reem AbbasYasmine Seale and Robin Moger, Agitated Air: Poems After Ibn Arabi (Tenement Press) £15.50
Desiring Languages

Yasmine Seale and Robin Moger translate from classical Arabic the mystical love poems of philosopher-poet Ibn Arabi’s Tarjuman al-Ashwaq, or ‘Interpreter of Desires’. These nasibs – a pre-Islamic form of erotic poetry that commemorates the beloved – were written by the twelfth-century polymath following his pilgrimage to Mecca. During his time there two major things happened: he began writing one of his major works, Al-Futûhât al-Makkiyya (‘The Meccan Openings’), and met one Lady Nizam, whose epithet was notably the ‘Eye of the Sun and Beauty’. The writing of the spiritual and erotic nasibs of Tarjuman al-Ashwaq shortly followed. These poems grapple with the dizzying experience of divine love through a corporeal beloved; an experience which turns out to be as delicate as it is complex and asymptotic.

Hopelessly grasping as the interpretation of one’s own desires may sound, Seale and Moger to manage to translate Ibn Arabi’s own spiritual translations into English in language that is equally sheer with desire and torment (شوق). Each poet, having produced their own translation of the same poem, would exchange it with the other, after which each would attempt a second translation inspired by or through the other’s translation. The translator-poets then repeat the process until ‘exhaustion’, resulting in first, second and third iterations of a single poem. This back-and-forth process reveals interpretation’s foundational place in translation: the poems can be read like palimpsests in which voices interweave and entangle. If reading the first iteration allows us to appreciate each poet’s style and ethos, then reading ...

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