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The Poem of the Bow


Translated from the Arabic by David Larsen

Sulaymā’s trace is gone from the vale of Qaww, and from ʿĀliz.
The scrublands and rebuffing heights stand vacant [of her tribe].
For there to be friendship, some wrongs must be suffered.
    To brook no wrong is to be oppressive, or be alone.
Then there are slips with no reprieve, as on the high precarity
    where my forethought prevented rashness, and lives were saved.
I also recall a decisive matter in which the second guess
    that inhibits action did not stay my hand! And I remember the camel
that strove beneath my saddle like a he-ass of the wild with the pale belly
     sought by hunters. Harried by she-asses in a herd,
their udders pinched at the dry zenith of the season
     ruled by Sirius, he frustrates their thirst, and the stone shimmers.
They wait a day at Yamʾūd. Like dry wells, their eyes
     look up at the sun as they wonder. Is it even going down?
Their bodies groan with thirst. They wait on why
     he’s led them to this sunny slope. But the he-ass holds silent.
When they see the path to water he intends,
     they run ahead to find a track between the sands,
where he races them against the darkness he sees falling,
     like rivals in a race pitted by a dogged rival.
Away from the dell of Dharwa he points them toward Rumma,
     across the arid marches of Raḥraḥān.
But hunters’ blinds sprout over Rumma’s waters
     looking like domed litters with dyed tassels hung.
[So they run on,] shying from his temper and shrinking from him
     like pregnant pack mares shrinking from a stallion.
Night falls, and they traverse Dhu ’l-Arāk at its highest point.
    Then before they pass by Sharj they make a turn,
pining for the pools of al-Qunnatān, but repelled
    by rocky ground and tracts of stone impassable.
Obstacles abound. The camels of ʿAthlab the hunter
     and the Ibn Ghimār brothers fill their breasts with disquiet,
lest the herd fall into their hands and wear their blood
    like dyed curtains trailing from a camel litter.
No stopping at Dhu ’l-Arāka, where ʿĀmir, the archer of al-Khuḍr,
    shoots to hit the spot where camels’ necks are cautered.
Possessor of little more than his bow and some arrows,
    ʿĀmir fires at the live beast as if it were a dummy.
There are no survivors of the blue [tips of his arrows] and the yellow
     [bow] of aromatic wood and sinew when he takes aim.
Its maker hacked through bush and bramble to select
     a bole of jujube to be a bow.
It grew in a sheltered place and grew up straight.
     The thicket that concealed it was intertwined.
Through green and brown the bowyer chopped without ceasing
     until he and it were all that stood, and it was his,
and he put it to the bladed [ax], whose cutting edge
     is inimical to tree trunks and is called its crow.
When it rested in his hands, he saw he held a fortune.
     He gripped it tight and shunned the company of his fellows.
Two years he left its bark unstripped while it absorbed
     the sap, and he examined it and squeezed its bulges
and shaped it with the iron brace and the cane with notches
     the way a bronco’s temper is corrected by the spur.
Then he took it to the seasonal market, where it drew a buyer
    with a practiced eye that recognized its value.
To this man the bowyer said, “What you’d pay
     for a prized possession is its price. Are you buying?”
The buyer said, “I’ll give you one wrapper of Sharʿabī make,
     and four of Siyarāʾī. Or ingots [of gold]
weighed and measured from the forge—eight of them,
     red as embers glowing in a baker’s fire.
Plus two mantles striped in the Khālī fashion, and ninety dirhams,
     and a rugged leather blanket tanned with acacia.”
The bowyer demurred. In secret council with his soul and its ruler
     [which is the heart] he wondered. Might another buyer offer more?
“Sell to your brother,” the people of the market said. “Let there be
     no obstacle to your profit from a sale today!”
The bowyer’s eyes ran with tears when he gave it over,
     and painful passion shook his chest.
The bow draws easily when tested, far enough
     but not so far the arrow “drowns.”
When the archer lets it go, it sings the keening song
     of a mother’s anguish at the funeral procession
as the arrow merges with the dodging gazelle
     whose feet fail it when ʿĀmir aims and fires.
[In sheen and hue] it is as if perfume keepers
     of Yemen had coated it with oil of saffron.
The bow is kept apart when dews descend,
     dressed in clean cloth, never wrapped in rags.
So when the death-dealer lurks beside the path
     at al-Aḥsāʾ where water lies in view,
the asses turn tail, running in a column
     [uniformly spaced] like perforations on a bridle.
Their eyes, turned outward by fear, go before them. And when
    they arrive at rescue, they still hang back
out of foreboding. They strain to find out who
     is at the water but the hopping, flopping ones, [the frogs].
They touch it with their front feet and then submerge their chests,
     angled to the archer’s disadvantage.
And then at last the asses drink. It is midnight.
     With twitching flanks they bunch together in the water.
Morning finds them at it still, their cheeks stretching
     like leather pails at Yamʾūd’s wells,
gargling at times and barking air
     at others through windpipe and nostril.
And when from far-off Wāsiṭ yet unbuilt on
     the pebbled pools start calling,
rocky ground is once again the asses’ shoe,
     holding up their hard and massy hooves.
The he-ass guides their steps toward high Qawwān
     on tracks that are no more than threadlike traces.
His bray resounds from snout to belly as he drives them on,
     cantillating like a camel driver.
In all paces of the asses his step is practiced.
     He brings the herd to lap Ḥamāma’s source
by putting them through long, convoluted
     distances down twisting paths to water.
In spots where they are tender, he defends them
     from ambush of hunters and imagined threats.
High above Ḥamāma juts a rebuffing height
     with a level top where the ass can plant his feet,
and the asses rub necks with one another, no more
     budging now than spears jammed windward into the ground.

David Larsen is a poet and a scholar of premodern Arabic literature. His translation of Names of the Lion by Ibn Khalawayh (Wave) received the 2018 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets. He would like to acknowledge the present translation’s debt to the German translation of the Poem of the Bow by Thomas Bauer.


About the author

Al-Shammākh (The High and Mighty) is the title adopted by the Arab poet Ma‘qil ibn Dirār (d. mid-seventh century CE). He fought and lost his life in the Islamic conquest of the East, but martial themes are not prominent in his verse. He was above all a poet of the natural world and the hunt. His two brothers were also poets, and the eldest has his own long poem on arms and bow-hunting. The supernal Poem of the Bow is by al-Shammākh.

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