The poet Marius Kociejowski calls his prose portraits of fourteen foreign-born London artists collected in God’s Zoo: Artists, Exiles, Londoners (Carcanet, 2014) “constructions.” The word ought to remind us of Tatlin’s assemblages or, at a further remove and rather more whimsically, Joseph Cornell’s boxes. Though composed largely of conversation, each piece is a quilt of stories and words, not a verbatim transcript. The closest literary cognate I know are the artfully edited profiles of jazz musicians assembled by Whitney Balliett – long stretches of talk, trimmed and stitched together with threads of explication. To his enduring credit, Kociejowski stays out of his subjects’ way and keeps his themes inconspicuous. The profiles, like their subjects, speak for themselves.
In “Swimming in the Tigris, Greenford: The Poetical Journey of Fawzi Karim,” Kociejowski asks the Iraqi-born poet what impact English has had on his Arabic. His answer is unexpected, at least to this reader who knows little about the language and its literary traditions:
“Yes, the English language has greatly benefited me, not just with the logical structure of its sentences but also, most importantly, with its sense of justice. In Arabic, there are many words which I’d call `unjust.’ For example, often when we speak about something or someone we’ll automatically add `ala al-itlaq, which means `absolutely.’ We use this word all the time and yet it doesn’t allow space for either the speaker or the listener to understand his limitations.”
In English, Karim says, “you don’t employ more words than you require.” What a fine compliment to us, English speakers, and to the splendid gift we are born into, as the heirs of Chaucer and Shakespeare: concision, precision and unending music. Almost four-hundred pages later in God’s Zoo, in an autobiographical coda, Kociejowski picks up the thread again:
“An Iraqi poet tells me how for him the English language contains a sense of justice, which in turn has directed, morally, his writing of Arabic. There’s something to ponder: justice, not accuracy, because Arabic has so many more words with which to describe things than we do, but . . . justice. What happens, though, when the language becomes all tottery with euphemism? When it becomes debased with all manner of friendly fire? What I believe he refers to is good literature. Shakespeare’s is a language of infinite justice.”
Kociejowski, who was born in Canada of a Polish father and English mother, and has lived in England for more than forty years, reminds us that like any heirs we can be disinherited. We risk compromising and losing the gift of our just and almost infinitely deep and elastic English. He continues:
“Although the circumstances of which the Iraqi speaks are vastly different from mine, fistfuls of terror as opposed to puffballs of peace, it was here, in London, that I came to appreciate for the first time the moral ascendancy of the long sentence as opposed to the staccato bursts that comprise the language of everyday North American experience. This is not to say the other is without value. American English has got its jive. Also, it can be sinewy, as beautifully wrought as the best English written here. What I’m saying is the language as ordinarily used, when reduced to the monosyllabic or else to a spluttering of arrested similes – like, like – only serves to abbreviate experience.”