Poetry Parnassus is a project of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, hosted at the Southbank Centre in London. It ran from June 26 to July 1, and featured 145 poets from around the world. Here is the Guardian’s interactive map, where you can click on a country and read its poem. I will be posting one a day until they’re done.
The Phases of the Moon in London, by Amjad Nasser (Jordan)
She and I were talking about the weather, the rusty key that opens
conversations here in London. Mrs Morrison, our old neighbour, is
the last English woman on our street, where the English have dropped
off one by one since the population balance tipped toward the Asian
immigrants. She said, ‘the London sky was not like this in the past,
but must have resembled your sky in India.’
I said, ‘I am from Jordan,’ but she did not stop at my correction, which
she may not have seen as a correction in the first place. In that English
manner whose emotional resonances are hard to read, she continued
that they too used to see the stars and detect the phases of the moon.
I was not convinced, but I played on in this game of English politeness.
I said, ‘What caused the stars and moon to disappear and the sky to
turn into a blotted sheet even on these nights clear as a rooster’s eye?’
‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘Maybe the change in the weather, or our
insatiable consumption of electricity, this excessive urbanisation. We
light the earth and the sky disappears. You’re probably better off in
‘In Jordan,’ I said.
Again, she did not pause at my correction. She smiled and directed
her small shopping trolley toward her house, announcing the end of a
conversation that politeness had imposed on two neighbours who
otherwise try all they can to avoid each other when they meet at the
I wanted to tell her that the skies of eastern cities, bent under military
rule and corruption, are also blotted out, and that the stars that freckled
our childhood with comets have also disappeared, but I feared to lose
the only gift for which she envied me.
• Translated from the Arabic by Khaled Mattawa.
• ‘The Phases of the Moon in London’ from Shepherd of Solitude: Selected Poems
(Banipal Books, 2009) © Amjad Nasser.
A prose poem to match the conversation at its heart. Mrs Morrison embodies the entrenched Orientalism often found in the West. She is blind to the subtleties of nationalism or ethnicity, tuning out his correction that he is Jordanian rather than Indian. And he finds it difficult to read English “emotional resonance.”
But where Mrs Morrison correctly ascribes the darkness of the night skies to light pollution, Nasser is also painfully aware of the political, military, and religious pollution in the Middle East. If the light of the stars and moon evoke awe and wonder at the vastness and diversity of the universe, then this sort of pollution blots out imagination and hope for a better world.
As a parting gift, the poem leaves open the possibility that these forces are gathering here, and we are too blind to see.