A Bird is Not a Stone calls itself the UK’s first major “bi-lingual, made-in-Scotland anthology of contemporary Palestinian poetry in English, Scots, Scots-English, Gaelic and Shetlandic”.OK. So, what’s it all about?
Poetry writing and translation are two, quite distinct, skills. The process of forming this collection required, firstly, ‘bridge’ translations - literal, faithful and footnoted - from the original contemporary Palestinian Arabic; then a further transformation of these into poetry by 25 Scottish poets. Tonight editor Sarah Irving, poet Ellen McAteer and local Oxford student Rawan Yaghi read these aloud in English and Arabic, and there were recordings of what was described as ‘Shakespearean court’ Scots.
When I think of poetry – its metaphors and musicality, its flights of fancy – I think of an imagination that is allowed to roam. It may not be happy, or comfortable, but at least it is uncaged. However, this anthology has reminded me that when you cannot speak openly, figurative speech is essential. It becomes the spine of your poetry, each vertebra a metaphor; a political tool for the oppressed.
Today’s question, in an age of media omnipotence and image overload, is whether there is any room for such metaphors. This is what Maya Abu Al-Hayyat asks in her foreword to this unique collection.
I had bought the book some time ago, and was looking forward to hearing its words brought to life. And what better place than here, the Story museum, in the building that was once Oxford’s first automated telephone exchange, to listen to an exchange of another kind. As I was listening, able to understand neither the Arabic nor the Scots, I realised two things. Firstly, the balance of dominant-language speakers in the audience was subtly shifted, echoing the power struggles in which this compilation is rooted. Secondly, without the burden of meaning, I was free to lose myself in the dreamy cadences of speech. Which was no bad thing, because the content was far from cheery. Take this:
‘Whenever I see an image of a child’s hand
sticking out of the rubble of a collapsed building
I check the hands of my three children’
Yet the book itself contains works that are humorous, bawdy, and celebratory, too. Some are just about daily life. Tonight it seems we were offered the particularly haunting ones, in a close setting. The only thing to mar the intimacy of the evening was some over-zealous photography and filming of the audience by one person, which I found intrusive.
The title of the anthology refers to George Wyllie’s statue ‘Berlin Burd’, built in 1988, overlooking the Berlin Wall. With authorities reluctant to allow him to install the sculpture Wyllie reminded them that "a bird is not a stone" - that students would not be throwing it in demonstrations. The authors thought that the additional references this generated – stone intifada, birds of freedom, transcending walls – made it particularly fitting for their context. It seems, then, that metaphors are very much alive and kicking.
You hear the word ‘unique’ bandied about a lot, but this really was something I’ve never seen before. It accompanied the book well. It is part of the Palestine Unlocked festival, taking place across Oxford from 4th-21st June. Some of the events look great. Find out more at: www.palestineunlocked.com