Friday, August 2, 2013

On "Revenge" by Taha Muhammad Ali

Taha Muhammad Ali.
A couple of years ago, I introduced my son Terry to one of my favorite poems, “Revenge” by Taha Muhammad Ali (translated by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi, and Gabriel Levin).  This winter, Terry wrote an excellent essay on the poem for one of his college classes and I asked him if I could share it here:

Guest contributor:  Terry Price

Taha Muhammad Ali (1931-2011) wrote the poem “Revenge” in an unrhymed form mostly consisting of short lines, punching hard with each word.  The tone and structure of the poem’s opening constitute a psychological trick, leading the reader to expect a very different outcome than the ultimate one.  There is an undercurrent of anger through much of the poem, certainly. However, the tricky pathway leads instead to a discussion on the nature of violence that is challenging and unexpectedly deep.

The poem begins by stating that sometimes the speaker wishes he could retaliate against the one who harmed his family by striking back in violence—by either killing his foe or being killed by him in the attempt.  He suggests that either result would bring some sort of peace, leading the reader to expect a poem about the need for catharsis through redemptive violence, a central myth of our time.  Yet even his opening line, though it contains only four words, opens the potential for a different approach through a deliberate mid-line pause.

But in the second stanza the poem takes an unexpected turn.  This subtle maneuver by Ali creates a new pathway to the end, where the full meaning and power of the power of the poem finally becomes clear.  Ali begins to dismantle the line of thought that the first stanza may have tricked us into accepting, an approach to life built around the angry depersonalization of others.  In the second stanza, Ali grants the possibility that maybe the one he hates is also loved.

This admission triggers a long list, beginning with the parents who would be harmed by the death of their son.  Then it widens out to include siblings, a spouse, children, and even friends.  The poem increasingly restricts our ability to dehumanize, as the speaker recognizes that his foe also possesses the ability to love and form meaningful relationships.

Ali’s final stanza offers a parting twist.  He breaks off from his contemplative widening of the net to describe what he would do under a very different circumstance—if his foe had no other meaningful connections.  He takes the opportunity to mirror previous parts of the poem, offering a short list that negates all the people previously imagined, stating them now as non-existences.

And he reaches a conclusion that is an unexpected subversion of how society usually views the nature of revenge.  The speaker decides that violence could not add any more suffering to the life of one so cut off from others.  As the act of killing would only ease the pain of loneliness, the speaker’s inaction is justified.  He declines to offer the escape of death to a man living without love.  While the desire for revenge still exists, his revenge is to let the man live.  This movement ingeniously reaffirms the validity of the passionate anger of the first verse while not forgetting the humanity that the poem’s speaker shares with his foe.

Enjoy “Revenge”…
Read “Revenge” at Common Ground News Service

© 2013 Lee Price

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