Henri Matisse, The Moroccans, 1915-16,The Museum of Modern Art, New York,

A biography of defiance by Hassan El Ouazzani

It was better for the world not to have existed. It was better
for the dynasty to have kept its desire for another evening party.
It was better for the master to have been tired that night, for the earth
to have been dismal. It was better for something to have happened so that
the very semen be assassinated,
the semen whose descendant
is this one resident
in the home
of anguish.

That one
to whom the sky did offer but the robe of fire
now consuming his limbs.

In vain
does he suspend nostalgia’s hostilities unto
its own shadow which no wine clears away, nor any
speech flames extinguish. In vain
does he engage longing in battle unto
its own origin which trusted it to the river. In vain does he curse the guardians of the earth
and heaven who assaulted the Acropolis individually
and in groups with steps preceded by fire.

Old
did he grow, with steps slowed down by age
which took hold of his cheek. Old, he asks the seven skies
and a deaf night: Should he spend his life as a wise man? Should he sum it up?
Should he catch up with a snake-charmer? Should he burn his names.
or gouge out his eyes and become the river’s
friend?

Gently
does he drink his last cup. No country captures
his dejection. Amazement alone is his home. Gently does he raise
his voice and shout: O God. Give me a longer life
so that
I drink
the toast
to the end.

Piously
does he sometimes affirm that
wisdom is his own provision and madness a weary cloud. Madness
sometimes becomes his horseback,
so that he slaughters wisdom at the threshold of the deserted bar.

Stubbornly
does he wage the last war on his own booty, open
another battle-front so that death comes closer,
enter the battlefield, preceded by the beats of drums, crowds,
tragic histories, nations collapsed while others
are in celebrations, processions of the dead, lords
of Rome, guardians of the earth, its wretched ones.

He enters the battlefield.
Weakness shows in his eyes, and on his shoulders kneel
the clouds of dejection and the years wrapped up in grey hair,

So
is he. Pious to the point of humiliation,
mean to the point of purity,
meek to the point of villainy, mystical in his own way,
lord of the wind and rain, friend of wine and dusk,
resident in the soul’s asylum, martyr of wars of language.

So
is he. Between him and his name is a covenant,
between him and the waves are limits weaved by
the heart’s pulsation, and graves inhabited by
the passion
of the defiant
boy.

So
is he.
The world
would have been more beautiful
without him.

For the Arabic of this poem, click here.