top of page

Khaled Mattawa






They sleep on their shadows,

long for no one,

their speech drifts weightless

through their lanes.


Gold thread, fistfuls of barley,

a jar of Arteus’s gold,

an old woman's needle

her pearly lace lining the harbor road.


Taxis for Darnis awaiting passengers,

Sudanese farmhands milling about,

and into the bay the sponge pickers go on

flirting with death.


You and I are two,

I write my life on the salty light of your stage.





You are the sun caught in the needle's eye,

a universe I can lose,

a child's version of infinity.


You are the sky at my feet;

I toy with you because I know

there is no end to your provocations.

And vengeful, you always respond.


You change as I dream you:

my beloved as I kiss her shoulders

as I lose myself in the flames of her thoughts.


Must I render all I know to be blown

into the gales of your alphabet?



Androgynous heart, fathering, mothering

restlessness within me.

If I say “sadness” would you understand the word?


The lentisc sprig spreads a forest of attenuation,

tissues of light thinning, solar dust

coating the leaves.


A motion, not my heart’s, ripples

in the fragile mesh in my wrist bones.


Whose flame warms her hands now?

Is that Kronos’ breath—

the salty dust under my nails?


I speak a word for every cell in my body.

I write as if you were ink.



Sky where the dead pantomime, their ghosts

rendered in the light of eclipsed suns,

memory’s fine sand coats everything.


Coral accumulate their unforgiving silence,

cliffs tower frozen in vertigo,

tragedies resume steadily like drip feeders

in the greenhouses above.


Orchards of russet, sheets of rippling magenta,

calico flowers, rosy-eyed temptations

and the light blue of shunning.


I am a burn, an evanescent rapture:

I walk the lanes lit with the glassy violence

guiding the jellyfish.



The cages of submariners hold

an apocalypse in their lungs.


Albatrosses above, nests made of broken spears,

eggs burbling with lavic yokes.


Steel islands, like dead flies, speckle the horizon.

Threcian longshoremen astonished


by a love that makes them reel,

fills their bodies with sand.


Waves of shaping, waves of deferment:

the bleached heads of pearl divers,


the wet shoulders of frontiers.


Refugees crowd the cabins,

ferries piled with the loot of indenture,


pilgrims to Al-lat and Tammuz,

zones of oblivion rumbling on.


Talk to me

through your heart’s impenetrable din.





With calloused fingers

you weave the frail dialects of the breeze.


Palms chafed,

look at what you have done!


How can time buy time?


Even Penelope knew the undoing of harm

breeds a double good.


Won’t you let me be

one of your thoughts?



Your scent revived by raindrops,

a muffled juice of grasses and algae,

the potency of saliva, the decay of sweat.


A heartbeat of rubber thuds on glass,

the wipers’ bass line,

the rain’s barely audible pitch.


This fear of love is not an elegy,

no tears for a lost cause.


The smell pungent

as if the swells crashing the boulders

churned your desire into swaths of foam,


seething puddles of cum.

KNOT Magazine Fall 2014 Issue

Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation


Bio from Banipal


Khaled Mattawa was born in Benghazi, Libya in 1964 and emigrated to the USA in his teens in 1979. He is the author of four books of poetry, Tocqueville(New Issues Press, 2010), Amorisco (Ausable Press, 2008), Zodiac of Echoes(2003), and Ismailia Eclipse (Sheep Meadow Press,1996). 


In September 2014 he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, one of 21 "genius grants" awarded to outstanding figures by the MacArthur Foundation. He is "a cultural ambassador and poet-translator of Arabic poetry giving voice to a vast literature largely unknown in the Western hemisphere. In masterful translations that evoke the rhythm and cadence of Arabic, he renders the beauty and meaning of the poems accessible to an English reader", announced the Foundation. 


Mattawa has translated eight volumes of contemporary Arabic poetry, Adonis: Selected Poems (2010), which won the 2011 Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation and was shortlisted for the 2011 International Griffin Prize for Poetry; Shepherd of Solitude by Amjad Nasser (2009); These Are Not Oranges, My Love by Iman Mersal (2008); A Red Cherry on A White-Tiled Floor by Maram Al-Massri (2004, 2007); Miracle Maker (2003)  and In Every Well A Joseph Is Weeping (1997) by Fadhil al-Azzawil; Without An Alphabet Without A Face by Saadi Youssef (2002); Questions and Their Retinue by Hatif Janabi (1996).


Mattawa also co-edited Dinarzad’s Children: Anthology of Contemporary Arab American Fiction (2004, 2009) and Post Gibran: New Arab American Writing (1999).


He has received a Guggenheim fellowship, an NEA translation grant, the Alfred Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University, the PEN American Center Poetry Translation Prize, and three Pushcart Prizes.


He teaches creative writing in the English faculty at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and served as President of RAWI, (Radius of Arab American Authors) 2005-2010. He is a founding contributing editor of Banipal.


His translation of Adonis: Selected Poems is the winner of the 2011 Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation, awarded on 6 February in London.


Adonis: Selected Poems was shortlisted for the 2011 International Griffin Prize for Poetry.  



How long will this assumption go on,

your vast flopping debt?


Starlight filters through shivering eaves,

dissolving into the dark domain of touch,


a womb of vast treacheries,

a message scripted in unreadable codes.


Not a word from Crete.


Is this how the dead turn into the living?

the ceaseless beginning,

the endless funeral of loss?



You rise darkening the asphalt with mist.


Stretches of iris, turquoise-ripped,

flashes of flesh-red brine,

puffed violet, gold flecks

and the lead gray undertow.


I know the sea’s colors and they don’t console me.


Aren’t you tired of the sound of your laughter?


You’ll only need to falter once.


And I’ll be gone.



Eyes roam, their fevers weaving webs.

Lives trudge on unlit.


Your seed scattered, you fathering it

with storms,

grinding it with copper dust and ash.


Embryos returning to your womb.


Queen bee, worker bee, Arteus’s names.


You’d bribe the oracle if you have to,

let alone the priests.


Will you rend me like Sisyphus?

Meghaduta, your cirrcumulus message?


When will I feed

on the honey of your salt?



bottom of page