This week in the PEN Poetry Series, PEN America features two poems by Abdellatif Laâbi, translated from the French by André Naffis-Sahely.

       My mother’s language

      It’s been twenty years since I last saw my mother
      She starved herself to death
      They say that each morning
      she would pull her headscarf off
      and strike the floor seven times
      cursing the heavens and the Tyrant
      I was in the cave
      where convicts read in the dark
      and painted the bestiary of the future on the walls
      It’s been twenty years since I last saw my mother
      She left me a china coffee set
      and though the cups have broken one by one
      they were so ugly I didn’t regret their loss
      even though coffee’s the only drink I like
      These days, when I’m alone
      I start to sound like my mother
      or rather, it’s as if she were using my mouth
      to voice her profanities, curses and gibberish
      the invisible litany of her nicknames
      all the endangered species of her sayings
      It’s been twenty years since I last saw my mother
      but I am the last man
      who still speaks her language

        Burn the midnight oil

       You must stay up all night at least four times a year.
      There aren’t enough crazy people around me to go further than that. A single sleepless night isn’t worth much when you’re on your own. It needs to be shared. Only then does the city open up to you without thoughts of death. Gargoyles carry out their work as exorcists. Muezzins get drunk on street corners. There is always a couple who get married at dawn by drawing lots. The Partisans’ Chant becomes a drinking song. Satan starts to wax lyrical and hands out unbaited, red apples to the worshippers. Feet trample on a treasure-hoard of stars. The taste of sex rises in the mouth like lemon on oysters.
       Only vagabonds can be poets.

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