Gilgamesh redux

Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said Esber), a Syrian poet, is to contemporary Arabic-language poetry what the giants of modernism (T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens) were to English-language poetry. This new selection and translation of his work by Khaled Mattawa makes him accessible to non-Arabic speakers in the United States, where this liberal and literary work from the Islamic literary tradition is certainly needed. While there is a sweeping and rapturous quality (reminiscent of the Latin American poets of the last century), Adonis’ recent work is firmly grounded. His “Concerto for 11th September/2001 B.C.,” which braids the ancient Sumerian tale of Gilgamesh with the attacks on the United States, is nothing short of brilliant. It roams all of literary history, citing the great philosophers and poets of East and West, to return with this refrain: “Rest your backs against the cedars of God / or surrender to the wheels of the machine.”