Al-Owais Pize in Poetry

Mohammed Bennis:
The Free-Floating Anxiety of Existence

By Subhi Hadidi

Mohammed BennisWhenever modern Moroccan poetry is examined, four names are sure to be cited, though for different historical or aesthetic reasons: Mohammad al-Khammar al-Gannouny (1938-1991), Ahmad al-Majjaty (1936-1995), Mohammad al-Sarghiny (1930-), and Mohammad Bennis (1948-). In retrospect, it may strike us that  a "pattern of coherence" seemed to have combined them together, regardless of the fact that a certain, somehow considerable, degree of radical nuances still separates their poetic styles, their intellectual and rhetorical features, as well as the way each one of them recognized the various preoccupations of the age.

Of all these four poets, however, it is Bennis's poetry which is widely seen as the best "settlement" between two, often uncompromising, periods in modern Moroccan poetry: 1) the neo-classic and modernist pioneer poets of the 1950s and the 1960s; and 2) the later  generations of the 1970s (the likes of 'Abdullah Raj'i, Mohammad al-Ash'ary, Mahammad bin Talha), the1980s (Wassat Mubarak, Hassan Najmy, 'Abd-Allah Zriqa, Mohammad al-Tuby, al-Mahdy Akhreef), and the 1990s (Salah Busrif, Mohammad Bujbeery, 'Abdul-Hameed Ajmaheery, Idris 'Issa). No less modernist, this vastly complex scene contained voices which are multifarious in topics as well as forms, ranging from moderate confessional poetics to highly experimental avant-gardism, or even some sort of postmodernism.

Bennis's poetry is also seen as the one best fitted to bridge the aesthetic gap between two modes of poetry composition: the free verse (al-sh'ir al-hurr) which abandons the traditional metrical two-hemistich couplet (bayt) but still uses the prosodic unit of the foot (taf'ila), and the prose poem (qasidat al-nathr) which abandons both the bayt  and the taf'ila. As a matter of fact, Bennis's last five collections are based on this delicate manoeuvering balance between the metric taf'ila and the prose poem.
In the wider context of contemporary Arab poetry, Bennis belongs to the so-called "second wave" of modernity, the first being that of major "pioneer poets" such as Nazik al-Mala'ika, Badr Shaker al-Sayyab, 'Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati, Nizar Qabbani, Adunis, Mohammad al-Maghut, Salah 'Abd al-Sabur, as well as the later major poets such as Sa'di Yusuf, Mahmoud Darwish, and Amal Dunqul. The second wave included such poets as Fadhil 'Azzawi, Saleem Barakat, Abbas Baydoun, Sargon Boulus, Qassim Haddad, Wadi' Sa'adeh, Sadiq al-Sayegh, etc.

Bennis published nine collections of poems, the first of which was Before Speech (1969), where he reflected the early strains  of a poet caught in the middle of a precarious position, "not half-in and/ half-out of the universe, but unmendably integral," to use the famous phrase of the American poet A. R. Ammons. In the later three collections, he endeavoured to relate time and space, mind and nature, speech and silence integrally to one another, without sacrificing the balanced existence of each. Bennis achieved a conversational hierarchy which began most forceful, continued most suggestive, and still remains most problematic.

His fifth collection, Seasons of the East (1986) was a turning point; in the sense that the poems shifted radically towards a conciliatory form of expression, at times visionary because perceptions are produced in the mind by means other than ordinary sight, at others visual because the printed page is dissected, the stanzas cut geometrically, the lines differentiated in length and size, the punctuation marks are designed to dismantle the spontaneous grammatical and syntactic fluidity of the text. The nine poems (actually nine 'seasons' of mystic illuminations on the sufi path, ecstasy, divine love, death, unitive state of mind, etc.) are extensively variable in form, tone, voice, shape, and size.

Bennis made the great leap of using the lyric in his ninth collection, The Book of Love (1995), in collaboration with the Iraqi painter Dhia' al-'Azzawi. Besides those of the body and mind, a third ingredient of his love poems was the trust in dreams as indices of those unleashed primitive emotions, coming straight out of the Arab love-tradition, yet distinctively characterized by a perpetual free-floating anxiety of existence. Here again the poet is caught in the middle of a precarious position, not half-in nor half-out of the experience of love, but unmendably lyrically integral in the universe.

The poems of The Pagan Place (1996), reveal an extraordinary attentiveness to nature, a vivid response to the human kinship with the higher order of body/earth relationships, and a generic composite of visual, semantic, and imagistic memories. What we properly call "imaginary" is here transformed into a progression from estrangement to reintegration, enacting a circuit of reveries, hypnagogic sceneries, dreams, and the less quotidian metamorphoses of pure nature.

Bennis's metaphoric place is less an episodic memory than a profound experience in imagery production and image reading; it is less a passive site of reception than an active motor for the construction of meanings. By thus inverting the image of the place, Bennis projects us out beyond ourselves, while what we store deep in our memeory of the place takes us back behind ourselves. This is also one way of fusing the physical and the mental perception of the body in the place, the pagan infinity of a dream of the human mind temporalizing space.

Mohammad Bennis is notably original in those themes, which is far from stating that those very themes fall easily under easy labels. Perhaps this is the basic reason why his poetry still enjoys the rare position of being a bridge between different gaps.

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