Olivia Elias

Translated from the French by Kareem James Abu-Zeid


18 years old the sea for horizon
for so long dreaming of unfurling his foliage
taking stock of his steps
and just as the earth cannot contain
the sap each spring the call keeps growing
18 years old the sea for horizon
finally to obey the command
roll the dice
and cross the liquid wall


Why should I have to pay
the price of sacrifice? asks
the child of the people of peasants
fedayeen & merchants
who never dreamed of sleeping
away from his home 
impervious to the call 
of the open sea

a life in its own shadow
held at gunpoint by
snipers & twenty-year-old kids
harnessed to death while the men 
in sidelocks & the believers
in the return of God-the-Son-
keep on chanting

Such Slow Birth

Two cycles intersect
cycle of twilight deepening
toward the black moon
cycle of transformations ripening

I opened The Book of the Way and its Virtue
“To attain complete emptiness is to settle firmly in rest”

as a child I had this knowledge
& didn’t know how precious it was
handed down by village elders

sitting on their doorsteps
surrounded by beauty they offered
their faces like old cats in the sun 

time now to drag my chair out
in front of the door

Not End

It’s not Endgame
just the end of the act
that saw pirates sitting
on the world’s thrones playing
with our lives like pawns
on chessboards & derricks

it’s not Endgame
just the end of the act
that saw men
from across the sea playing out
right here on this side 
of the Mediterranean their saga 
of conquistadors & gold 
diggers   Bible in hand but
of a more ancient God

Nothing to Do

Hooligans & pirates tighten
the circle of hell around us

God has nothing to do with it

Ah to escape to the realm of myths
& legends	Haifa won’t be
Granada & we won’t give you
this gift of jumping off
the cliff into a sea of fire
our crystal cry in the face of the sun

so much pain	the heart contains
so long	 	        this night of long knives
& so slow		this dawn to rise

Olivia Elias, born in Haifa in 1944, is a poet of the Palestinian diaspora who writes in French. In 1948 her family was exiled to Lebanon, where she lived until she was 16 years old. She then lived in Montreal, before finally settling in France. She published her first collection of poetry in 2015. Her third and most recent collection, Chaos, Traversée (“Chaos, Crossing”), appeared in 2019. Olivia Elias’ poetry is characterized by terse, laconic language, strong rhythms, and a deep sensitivity to the Palestinian cause, the plight of refugees, and human suffering in general. Her work has been published in numerous journals and in anthologies, and has been translated into English, Arabic, Spanish, and Italian. She holds Lebanese, Canadian, and French citizenship, and divides her time between Paris, Arles, and India. Her first book in English, Chaos, Crossing, will be published by World Poetry Books on Nov. 15, 2022, in Kareem James Abu-Zeid’s translation.

Kareem James Abu-Zeid, PhD, is an award-winning translator of poets and novelists from across the Arab world who translates from Arabic, French, and German. His work has earned him an NEA translation grant, PEN Center USA’s Translation Award, Poetry magazine’s translation prize, residencies from the Lannan Foundation and the Banff Centre, a Fulbright Fellowship (Germany), and a CASA Fellowship (Egypt), among other honors. His most recent translation is Najwan Darwish’s Exhausted on the Cross (NYRB Poets, 2021). He is also the author of The Poetics of Adonis and Yves Bonnefoy: Poetry as Spiritual Practice (Lockwood, 2021).

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