Poems for the Millennium, Volume Four
The University of California Book of North African Literature
Edited by Pierre Joris and Habib Tengour
University of California Press, 2013
Poetry, $39.95, 792 pp.
Reviewed by Amish Trivedi


In an interview with Leonard Schwartz for Cross-Cultural Poetics [1], Pierre Joris discusses how he was introduced to North African poetry, first by proximity to writers and then by moving to Algeria himself. In the fourth volume of University of California’s Poems for the Millennium series, Joris and collaborator Habib Tengour attempt to give us the same experience by throwing us into the middle of North Africa’s vibrant cultural, historical and literary scene. They introduce us to poets whose names we may well have never discovered if it were not for this volume.

When Americans ask why literature is important, especially literature outside of the United States, this volume of Poems for the Millennium gives us the answer: literature is the remnant of everything that has happened. Wars, cultural shifts like the introduction of Islam to formerly tribal cultures and the redrawing of lines by foreign powers who invaded with the goal of expansion in mind– these things come into the poetics of an area and become part of the consciousness of the people there.

Here is where Joris and Tengour truly succeed with this anthology: they not only give us the poems which have remained part of the culture of the area but they also give us the historical context in which the work exists. While we learn that we should look at the page and nothing else, we cannot overlook the role of poetry in history and that of history in poetry. While the role of poetry in pop culture is greatly diminished (if it was ever there to begin with), these poems function as a way to remember the experience of the moments created by event.

In the prologue, we read “The First Human Beings,” a retelling to us of the first interaction between humans and their growth as a species. In our minds, this is what Africa is all about: the birth of us, where we began and where we came from. We all trace our origin to the African continent, which is to say the origin of all of humankind’s activities upon the earth. In the pages beyond the prologue, however, we learn how we’ve treated our collective homeland, left to sit like neglected parents, wondering when their children might care to call or come help them. We left Africa behind and began to roam geographically, but we’ve also left Africa behind in a more abstract sense, using it endlessly only as it fits our selfish needs.

But this is not the history of Maghreb necessarily. In the “Third Diwan” of the anthology, we come to poems from a period in which literature has stagnated in the Maghreb, a rather long period from the fourteenth to nineteenth centuries. This is due to a number of factors, particularly the constant marching through of various groups, from the Spanish and Portuguese to the Turks and to “Christian aggressors.” This period, despite stagnation, saw the rise of melhun, a sort of “pop-poetics,” if you will, that comes from the need to get away from the legal, theological and mystical issues that arose from the Arabization of the area. Sidi Abderrahman el Mejdub’s quatrains, which are still part of pop culture in the Maghreb despite being written in the sixteenth century, read like life lessons, like proverbs to be remembered and repeated:


neither think nor search too much       don’t always be despondent

the planets are not fixed         and life’s not eternal [2]


This reads nearly like passages from the Bhagavad Gita, assuring the reader that there are no permanent consequences and that we must do what we are duty-bound to do. The use of caesura here in the translation gives us the moment of pause we desire in our poems, a moment to consider the phrase before. “The planets are not fixed,” a phrase that, knowing what we now know of astronomy, gives us the feeling that not only are the paths we see not set, but one day, they will cease to be paths. From a Persian Sufi, we learn “this too shall pass.”

It’s easy to see in this case why these quatrains are remembered: they play into our nature of understanding and the world around us. In the “Fifth Diwan,” we come to contemporary poems which show an understanding of history and the literature that came with it, but also an understanding of how those poems played into the events happening around the newer generation of poets. The poet Mbarka Mint al-Barra’ gives us a moment of this understanding in her poem “Poetry and I”:


The sin is that I wasn’t a stone

And the troubles of the world make me sleepless

And I shield myself with poetry

And it keeps me company when I’m far from home [3]


Here, we see how poetry not only acts as a buffer between reality and a dream life, but engages with the history and literature of an area. al-Barra is, in short, already aware of what has come before her and how it has affected her life and the lives of those around her, because of the act of writing. “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” James Joyce tells us, and contemporary poets from North Africa seem to be tasked with not only providing the proverbs of the future but also acknowledging the history that has placed them in this moment.

Like any good anthology, this volume is only the beginning for the reader. It is from here that the avid reader can go on, knowledgeable of history and culture and criticism and move into new works that will continue to engage them. The Poems for the Millennium volumes as a whole lead readers beyond the pages of the set and into new poets and new eras that are worthy of engagement. Any good anthology should do this. Why more do not remains a mystery.



[1] Episode 272, http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/XCP.php

[2] p. 215.

[3] p. 450