BRYNHILD’S HEL RIDE: An Excerpt from The Poetic Edda as Translated by Jeramy Dodds

       Helreið Brynhildar

When Brynhild died, they piled two pyres. The first was stoked for Sigurd; on the second, Brynhild burned. Wound in cloth, she was cremated in her wagon. Some say she drove that wagon all the way to Hel. But on her way, she was stopped by a Jotuness perched atop a grave mound.

          The Jotuness said:
  1. ‘Don’t saunter through my rock-hewn
    houselands; you’d be better bound
    to your weaving, not driving to evening
    with another lady’s man.

  2. ‘You know full well you’ve waded to the wrists
    in that man’s blood. Why are you here in my
    pebbled paradise, a gilded southern girl rambling
    with half a rock rolling round her rattlebrain?’

    Brynhild replies:

  3. ‘Don’t bother berating me, crag-hag.
    I’ve sacked whole coasts with the longboats –
    I guarantee that anyone who probes
    our pedigree will find me the better born.’

    The Jotuness said:

  4. ‘Yes, you are Budli’s daughter,
    Brynhild, born luckless into this world,
    but you conned Gjuki’s kin, doused their dazzling
    hearth-seats with your false fare-thee-wells.’

    Brynhild said:

  5. ‘Stupid sow, you must know the old news
    by now: Gjuki’s kin duped me, violated
    their vow, starved me of love. Me,
    the witty lady of this ironwood wagon!

  6. ‘If you’d like a nip of truth, we were eight sisters  
    reclining under an oak when that clever king stole
    our swan-robes; I was twelve when I promised
    myself to a prepubescent prince.

  7. [‘That king kindly raised me in his regal court
    with all the lavish pomp a girl should want.]
    But in Hlymdales, those who really knew me
    named me iron-helmed war-wraith.

  8. ‘So, with a swift downthrust I dispatched that old
    Goth king, Helmet-Gunnar, all the way to Hel –
    I gave Auda bragging rights for that bloodbath.
    And for this, Odin was livid with me.

  9. ‘In Skatalund he caught me in a cage of shields,
    their red-and-white rims domed over me;
    daring a man during night to shatter my sleep,
    a man who has never known  fear.

  10. ‘Fafnir’s gold-hoard had been won by this one man,
    the one who’s never felt fear. He sprung his steed over
    the blaze Odin lit in the brush, then stood, with sacks
    of gold, stock-still at the gates of my south hall.

  11. ‘That prince of Danes cantered his piebald mount,
    Grani, through my foster father’s endless halls,
    dishing out his gold hoard – a crown-opal of a man,
    a real Viking among a procession of shams.

  12. ‘Like chaste siblings, we shared a thin cot.
    For eight nights we shut eyes beside each other,
    never going at one another, never tapping
    our crush with an offhand brush or touch.

  13. ‘Then  I heard what I needn’t hear: I’d won
    fearless Sigurd through another’s conniving.
    His wife, Gudrun, acted the cuckold and accused
    me, Gjuki’s golden girl, of writhing with him.

  14. ‘Most couples live too long in catatonic lament,
    but not Sigurd and I. No fissure shall be struck
    between us. I’ll not be kept from him a moment
    more. Stand down, witch, sink into your mound!’


Jeramy Dodds's first collection of poems, Crabwise to the Hounds, won the Trillium Book Award for Poetry and was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize. His poems have won the CBC Literary Prize and the Bronwen Wallace Memorial Award. He holds an MA in Medieval Icelandic Studies.

In addition to appearing in Dodds's translation of The Poetic Edda, this poem originally appeared in Riddle Fence

Three Poems from Montreal Before Spring by Robert Melançon

One of the books we're most excited to be publishing this coming spring is Montreal Before Spring, a book of poems by Quebec francophone poet Robert Melançon translated by Donald McGrath. Melançon's verse is painterly, metaphysical, restrained and elegiac, qualities captured wonderfully in McGrath's translation. In fact, a poem from the forthcoming collection, "Elegy Written in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce Park," just recently won The Malahat Review's first-ever Francophone Poetry Translation Contest. Judge Donald Winkler had this to say:
Donald McGrath has admirably rendered the cadence and tone of Robert Melançon’s limpid elegy. The poem’s muted music with its judicious internal rhyme links the poem not only with its French original, but with a venerable English tradition of elegiac verse.
The Fall 2014 issue of The Malahat Review (issue 188) is unique among Canadian periodicals in that it is exclusively devoted to literature in translation, both from Canada and abroad. In addition to running a thoughtful review of Dance With Snakes by Horacio Castellanos Moya (a violent, absurdist romp we like to say "reads as if  William T. Vollmann wrote a script for a film version of Grand Theft Auto directed by Quentin Tarantino)  they also ran an appreciative review of Robert Melançon's previous collection For As Far As The Eye Can See, which reviewer Marie Vautier calls "original and allusive" and which offers "a new view on ordinary sights in an unnamed city which can be recognized as Montreal." 

In an online interview for The Malahat with stephen e. leckie, McGrath talks about what drew him to the award-winning poem:
I liked the poem’s evocation of dark winter evenings in the city and the emotional darkness in it as well. When the speaker dismisses the dire conclusions he has come to as "hackneyed tropes," it is not to replace them with something more uplifting. He seems rather to have reached such a degree of disillusionment that the only thing left to do is something prosaic, "sensible," namely, return home so as not to catch cold. It’s a dispiriting perception but an emotionally honest one.
McGrath goes on to say that he chose to translate the book "because of its intimiste depictions of personal life and Montreal in their many respective and overlapping moods."

So without further ado, here are three poems from Montreal Before Spring, forthcoming in March 2015. 



I sense, close by and all around, the city
fused wholly with this darkness,
in this mass full of unknown things
called night. The bed is an island
or a boat. At the open window
a light breeze stirs, the wind flows
into the bedroom, outside it flows
through the leaves like a dry river.
You sleep, abandoned to the July heat
that the night does nothing to relieve;
your breath blends with the murmurs
of a gloom composed, it seems,
of swells of silence, indistinct noises,
whispers that lurk nearby. Far away,
the sound of a car engine builds
and fades. A call is heard,
draws near and flees, returns
and is lost in the air it sculpts.
Its the cry of the nighthawk
hunting above the low buildings. Sleep
rolls you into that Styx
called night. I watch you,
I envy you your peace. I adopt
the recumbent pose of a tomb effigy.
Soon, when I too will be asleep,

I hope I do not dream.



Evening approaches under a drawn
sky like a bed canopy.
I linger at days end to watch
the world dissolve in rain.

All I hear is its obstinate pitter-patter.
Its as if the gods were lurking, famished,
nearby, as if theyd come to stuff
everything into their nothing bags.

At my feet, a patch of grass glistens.
Youd think it alone had escaped
all that commotion. I pluck a few blades
as a viaticum, I inhale their chill perfume.



Your days will pass, one by one,
words in a breathless sentence strung
together without punctuation, your actions,
those thoughts that come at such a cost,
wont follow you, but if they do
it will be as perpetually vain regrets, little
will it matter, very little, whether you
betray or remain faithful, because each will
come to you in turn, everything will
be lost as if youd been dreaming, its like
a dream, the disorder of an old mans life
that comes back at the end, youll descend
into lower depths you dont suspect are there,
youll be seized, at times, by an unfathomable joy
before the expanse that evening will open up
where the streets run out; impassive, the world
will continue on its course, flowers
that will fade in autumn will come, snow
thatll melt like snow in the sun, each day
will bring with it the History youll throw out
with the newspaper, with your boredom, youll
have friendships that youll lose, love youll see
falling away from you, that youll try
in vain to hold onto, everything will be
given to you, everything taken away,
everything will come, everything pass away
like this night Ive pulled you from, now go.



Robert Melançon is one of Quebec’s most original poets. He won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry for his collection Blind Painting and shared the Governor General’s Award for Translation with Charlotte Melançon for their French version of A.M. Klein’s The Second Scroll. A long-time translator of Canadian poet Earle Birney, Melançon has been the poetry columnist for the Montreal newspaper Le Devoir and the Radio-Canada program En Toutes Lettres. In 2013 Biblioasis published his collection For as Far as the Eye Can See in English. He lives in North Hatley, in Quebec’s Eastern Townships.


 Donald McGrath has published two poetry collections, most recently The Port Inventory (Cormorant Books, 2012). His poem “Biarritz” was selected for the Web anthology of the 2012 Montreal International Poetry Prize. He was awarded the 2014 Malahat Review Poetry Translation Prize for his translation of Robert Melançon’s “Elegy Written in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce Park.”He lives in Montreal. 

What Africa Does the African Writer Write About? by Mia Couto

Editor's Note: This essay was originally delivered as an address given at the award ceremony for the International Prize for the Twelve Best African Novels, Cape Town, South Africa, July 2002.

The theme of this event is the relationship of the writer with the struggle for a world that is more humane and more democratic. One could begin with this question: what is the writer's responsibility towards democracy and human rights? It is total. For the writer's greatest commitment is towards truth and freedom. To fight the cause of truth, the writer uses an untruth: literature. But it is a lie that doesn't lie.

However, the writer has other commitments. One of the duties of an African writer is to be willing, in certain circumstances, to stop being a writer and to not think of himself as “African”.

Let me explain: the writer is someone who should be open to travelling through other experiences, other cultures, other lives. He should be willing to deny his own self. For only by doing this will he journey between identities. And that is what a writer is – a traveller of identities, a smuggler of souls. There isn't a writer who doesn't share this condition: a creature of the frontier, someone who lives by a window, the window that looks out over innermost territories.

Our role is to create the guiding principles for a line of thinking that belongs more to us, so that the assessment of our place and our time may cease to be made on the basis of categories created by others. And so that we may go on to tackle that which seems to us to be most natural and beyond question: concepts of human rights, democracy, Africanness. It is precisely our relationship with Africa that I would like to question here. Why this  “Africanness,” raised to the level of identity, has been the object of continual mystification.

Some people hurriedly seek some sort of essential quality for what they call “Africanness”. On the surface, they are busy seeking the roots for their pride in being African. But, in the end, they show a similarity to colonial ideology. Africa cannot be reduced to a simple entity, easy to understand and to be accommodated in the compendia of Africanists. Our continent is the result of diversities and hybridities.

When we talk of hybridities, we have to be careful, as if a hybrid product were somehow less “pure.” But there's no such thing as purity when one is talking of the human species. And if we enter into hybrid relationships, it means that someone else, on the other side, has received something that was ours.

2014 Neustadt Prize winner Mia Couto's
 first book of non-fiction in English,
forthcoming from Biblioasis in April 2015
The defenders of African purity redouble their efforts to find its essence. Some set off to prospect in the deep past. Others seek to situate African authenticity in the rural tradition. As if the modernity that Africans are inventing in the urban areas weren't itself similarly African. This restricted and restrictive vision of what is genuine may well be one of the main reasons why literature in Africa is viewed with suspicion. Literature goes hand in hand with modernity. And we lose our “identity” if we cross the frontier of traditionalism: that's what the prejudices of the hunters of ethnic and racial virginity tell us.

The opposition between the traditional – seen as the pure, uncontaminated side of African culture – and the modern is a false contradiction. For the rural cosmovision is equally the product of exchanges between different cultural worlds. The vast majority of young people from the rural culture of my country dream of being Michael Jackson or Eddy Murphy. In a word, they dream of being Black Americans.

“Here I am,” wrote Léopold Senghor, “trying to forget Europe in the heart of Senegal.” The Senegalese poet and statesman never managed to forget. He was himself a bridge between two continents. Nor could he have been otherwise. To forget Europe cannot be to eliminate the internal conflicts that have shaped our very identities. Europe was inside the African poet and it could not be forgotten by imposition.

Between the invitation to forget Europe and the dream of being American, the solution can only be seen as a step forward. African intellectuals shouldn't be ashamed of their predilection for hybridity. They don't need to correspond to the image of European myths concerning them. They don't need artifices or fetishes in order to be African. They are Africans just as they are, urban dwellers with a mixed and tangled up soul, because Africa has every right to modernity, it has every right to assume its hybridities, which it initiated itself and which make it more diverse and therefore richer.

We need to escape from this trap, and this can only be done by those Africans prepared to accept, without fear, their membership of a culturally mixed world. Some self-styled Africanists, no matter how much they may resist so-called European concepts, nevertheless remain prisoners of these same concepts. Nor is it that they attach importance to them, but that importance is accorded for negative reasons. It's not a question of finding identity by retreating into some ancestral purity. The most ferocious defenders of African cultural nationalism are designing houses that are contrary to, but still within the overall framework of the architecture of the Other, of that which we call Western. A fetishistic attitude, turned towards customs, folklore, tradition, is of little value. Colonial domination invented a considerable proportion of Africa's past and tradition. Some African intellectuals, ironically, in order to negate Europe, ended up embracing European colonial concepts.

In fact, the obsession with classifying what is and is not “African” began in Europe. Ethnography and anthropology, disciplines that, until recently, sought to identify essence rather than process, also trod that path. The discoverers of identities were like those navigators of the sixteenth century: anxious, some of them, to baptize territories that had, in fact, long been baptized; others, in a hurry to label population groups whose characteristics they didn't even know: tribes, ethnic groups, clans.

Think, for instance, of the culture produced by Africans. Instead of valuing the diversity of such production and seeing the book as a cultural product, literary appreciation is often substituted by a more or less ethnographic set of values. The question posed is the extent to which the author  is “authentically African.” No one knows exactly what it is to be “authentically African.” But the book and its author still need to undergo this test of identity. Or a certain idea of identity.

Demands are made of an African writer that are not made of a European or American writer.  Insistence is made on proof of authenticity. Questions are asked about the degree to which it is ethnically genuine. No one questions whether José Saramago represents Portuguese culture. It's irrelevant to know whether James Joyce corresponds to the cultural standards of this or that European ethnic group. Why should African writers have to show such cultural passports? This happens  because people persist in thinking of the production of these African writers as belonging to the domain of anthropology or ethnography. What they are producing isn't literature but a transgression of what is accepted as traditionally African.

The writer isn't just someone who writes. He’s someone who produces thought, someone capable of pollinating others with feeling and delight.

More than this, the writer challenges the basis of thought itself. He goes further than challenging the limits of political correctness. He subverts the very criteria that define what is correct, he questions the boundaries of reason.

Mozambican writers nowadays fulfil a commitment of an ethical type: to reflect on this Mozambique but to dream of another Mozambique. They run the risk, like all artists in every other country, of being devoured by the same nation they helped to liberate.

We have passed from a period in which our heroes always ended up by being killed – Eduardo Mondlane, Samora Machel, Carlos Cardoso – into a time when heroes are not even born. We await the renewal of a state of passion that we have already experienced once, while hoping for the re-kindling of love between writing and the nation as a home we can dream of. What we want and dream of is a nation and a continent that no longer need heroes.



MIA COUTO was born in Beira, Mozambique in 1955. In the years after his country gained independence from Portugal, he was director of the Mozambican state news agency, and worked as a newspaper editor and journalist. Since the 1980s, he has combined the profession of environmental biologist with that of writer.
            Couto is the author of more than 25 books of fiction, essays and poems that have been translated into more than 20 languages. He has won major literary prizes in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Portugal, Brazil and Italy. African critics chose his novel Sleepwalking Land as one of the twelve best African books of the 20th century.
In 2013 Couto was awarded the Camões Prize, given to a Portuguese-language writer for his life’s work. In 2014 he received the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, sometimes dubbed “the American Nobel.”   Couto’s books have been bestsellers in Africa, Europe and South America.
            Mia Couto lives with his family in Maputo, Mozambique, where he works as an environmental consultant.


DAVID BROOKSHAW has translated eight other books by Mia Couto, including The Tuner of Silences, Sleepwalking Land, Under the Frangipani and The Last Flight of the Flamingo. He is Professor Emeritus in Lusophone Studies at the University of Bristol, with a special interest in postcolonial literatures and literary translation. 

Mia Couto awarded the 2014 Neustadt Prize

Everyone here at Biblioasis was thrilled to hear the news that Mia Couto was awarded the 2014 Neustadt Prize for Literature last Friday. The prize, which carries a $50,000 purse, is sponsored by the University of Oklahoma, and was made possible in perpetuity by a generous endowment from the Neustadt family of Oklahoma and Texas.

The Neustadt is colloquially referred to as the "American Nobel" for a good reason: a tremendous percentage of its recipients have gone on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, including Czesław Miłosz, Gabriel García Márquez, and Octavio Paz. Couto, an environmental biologist and the author of 25 books of fiction, essays, and poems, is the first writer from Mozambique to be awarded the Prize.

This isn't the first important literary honour that Couto has been presented. He received Portugal's most prestigious literary award, the Camões Prize, in 2013, and the Latin Union Prize in 2007.

The Tuner of Silences, which Biblioasis published in the fall of 2012, was Couto's debut with a North American publisher. It was received as his most mature work to date. The striking language that has established him as the most original prose stylist writing in Portuguese today is as evident as ever in David Brookshaw's masterful translation. A jury assembled by Radio France-Culture and the Paris magazine Télérama named The Tuner of Silences as one of the 20 best works of fiction published in France in 2011 (alongside  books by Jonathan Franzen, Haruki Murakami, and David Grossmann).

This coming spring, we will be publishing Couto's Pensativities: Selected Essays, the debut English translation of his timely and important non-fiction. Needless to say, it's one of the most anticipated books on our outstanding spring list - we will also be presenting an excerpt on this blog in the coming days.

If the Neustadt Prize's past is any indication of even higher international acclaim—and we believe it is—there's no doubt that Mia Couto is an author destined for global renown.

A Singer From Ferghana by Marius Kociejowski

Monâjât Yultchieva has duende. She has more of it than any singer I have seen or heard in recent times. She sings into being whole landscapes. She is Uzbekistan incarnate, or, rather, Uzbekistan’s sweeter side, an Uzbekistan without its Tamerlane. One day, perhaps, I will be wafted there upon a woman’s voice. The songs Monâjât performs come out of a centuries-old tradition that is at once courtly in substance and mystical in essence. The aesthetic core of this music is the Shash maqâm, the repertory of Central Asian classical music, much of which builds upon the works of the great poets such as Nawâ’i, Fuzuli, Hafez and Jami. The relationship, in the Orient, between poetry and song is absolute. A Naqshbandi Sufi, Monâjât lives up to her first name, which may be translated as “prayer” or “supplication” or “ascent towards God,” although, in truth, I have been given to understand, usually with an approving hum in the voice of whoever is telling me this, that it describes a state of grace close to untranslatable. She herself has spoken of how its meaning has made her attentive to every plea there is, and also of how it infuses her songs and the manner in which she performs them.

Almost as hard to render in prose is what her music does to me. I may have found a key, however, and appropriately it is situated at a meeting point between European and Oriental cultural traditions. Occasional Daliesque flourishes, overblown metaphors and molten similes aside, Federico García Lorca’s “Play and Theory of the Duende” remains the finest approach to any discussion of a subject that may be said to hinge on the inexpressible. When speaking of duende Lorca comes at it from various angles, not defining but alluding rather to its properties. Manuel Torre, after hearing Manuel de Falla play his own Nocturno del Generalife, remarked, “All that has black sounds has duende,” and Lorca goes on to say, “These black sounds are the mystery, the roots fastened in the mire that we all know and all ignore, the mire that gives us the very substance of art.” I am hesitant to add to what is already a poetic synthesis, but another property of duende is that it penetrates us so that it becomes part of our inner, wordless language. Or, rather, it reaches through to what is already there, fully prepared to receive, the soul as receptacle. Our junk culture has been responsible for producing a great deal of static interference. The channels are blocked with cheap surrogates, and, if one looks at popular culture in particular, the tendency now is to emote, to pull deeply from surfaces, which, for a second or two, are provided with an illusion of depth—an idiotic shriek masquerades as profundity. The danger here is that too much static may spoil forever our appetite for the pure.

Lorca names some of the great artists of his time, all of whom had duende, many of them voices we can scarcely imagine, while others have been preserved on vinyl, although even here we are dealing with aural facsimiles. Duende depends to a great degree upon physical presence, and although it is to be found in every culture, in every genre, nowhere is it more readily discernible than in musical performance. One knows it is there, not with one’s mind but with one’s whole being. Certainly duende cannot be willed, and even the most technically skilful musician may lack it. With commercial pressures brought to bear, a great number of performers have not been allowed to ripen naturally and have therefore been robbed of the possibilities of duende. They are forced to become their own aural facsimiles. Also, duende is the one term by which it is possible to encompass quite different, sometimes opposing, musical genres. Dinu Lipatti, when playing the third movement of Chopin’s Sonata in B minor, demonstrates duende. Maria Callas, when she leans over the body of the man she has just stabbed to death, most tellingly with a single stroke, and sings, “E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma” (“And all Rome trembled before him”), demonstrates duende to a degree that has not been repeated in that particular opera since. The great blues singers have duende. Bob Dylan, when not mugging his own silences, has duende. Billie Holiday, whose voice, a friend of mine tells me, “scrapes heaven, scrapes hell,” has duende. So from where does it all come? Again, Lorca, citing an old maestro of the guitar, writes: “The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.”

I first learned of Monâjât Yultchieva in Theodore Levin’s The Hundred Thousand Fools of God (Indiana University Press, 1996), which is not only an invaluable record of his musical researches in Transoxiana but also a superb travel narrative. Tucked in, at the back of the book, is a CD of recordings he made of the singers and musicians he met on his travels. It was a single track, “Bayât-i Shirâz Talqinchasi,” a classical rendering of a poem by the sixteenth-century poet Fuzûlî, which led me to Monâjât’s two major recordings. At first the music was difficult to listen to, seemingly spasmodic in its architecture, but there was something in the alto voice that haunted me. Certainly there was nothing that smacked of “world music”—a doubtful category at the best of times. There was virtually no concession to Western taste. Several hearings later, the apparent discontinuities were either gone or had entered, and enlarged, my musical vocabulary, making this a sound I would henceforth need. I am reminded here of my first hearing of a very different music, Arnold Schoenberg’s setting of Stefan George’s poem beginning “Ich fühle luft von anderem planeten” (“I feel an air from other planets blowing”). If Schoenberg’s String Quartet no. 2 in F-Sharp minor opened onto a rather chilly universe, the door itself was lovely to pass through. The thrill of the new is an experience that becomes, with age, increasingly scarce. I consider Monâjât’s concert at the Purcell Room, on June 13, 2004, and my subsequent meeting with her, one of the great aesthetic experiences of my life.

The musician and specialist in Central Asian music, Razia Sultanova, who lives and teaches in London, arranged for me to interview her compatriot. Monâjât suggested we meet at 8.30 a.m., which startled me, and, quite frankly, I expected, at best, an audience of twenty or thirty minutes. What I got instead, and in the most cheerless of London guesthouses, was three hours of uninterrupted talk. At forty-four, Monâjât is a woman of profound beauty, of a kind I have observed in many Sufis, particularly in Damascus, a spiritually informed beauty added to which both body and mind seem to be in a state of constant alertness. There is no slouch whatsoever. Monâjât is from the farm, a kolkhoz in the eastern province of Ferghana. A humble woman, she has travelled many thousands of miles, but with respect to her universal fame and where her true art lies, not so much as an inch from her native region, which she considers the most beautiful place on earth.

Also present was Monâjât’s spiritual and musical mentor, and head of the ensemble that backs her, Shavkat Mirzaev, a virtuoso player of the rabâb, a small five-stringed form of lute, which his father is credited with having introduced to Uzbek music. The story of his and Monâjât’s musical relationship has been described by Levin and others, and is a demonstration of the Sufi doctrine of silsila, the chain of learning or transference of knowledge from master to student. I shall summarise the beginnings of her rise to fame. Monâjât had auditioned for a place in the Vocal Department of Tashkent Conservatory. She was rejected by the Western-trained examiners for singing out of tune. Mirzaev, an instructor in the Department of Oriental Music, found her in the hallway sobbing. It just so happened that he had passed the door of the examination room a few minutes earlier and recognised from the timbre of her voice a quality uniquely suited to the music that he had made it his mission to preserve. It was then that he invited her to become his student, but only on condition that she submit absolutely to his teaching. This she did, gradually perfecting her technique, and now Mirzaev is happy to be in a supportive role. When speaking of her own musical development Monâjât likens it to a baby taking its first steps, and in the same way one’s parents are the first teachers so Mirzaev was hers, taking her from the mere surface of a song deeply into its inner structure. She describes the fateful meeting at the conservatoire as something God had written for her. “If that hadn’t happened I wouldn’t be here today and I wouldn’t be performing and I wouldn’t be giving this interview now.”

I began by raising with her the issue of duende, saying that it was through my re-reading of Lorca that I was at all able to speak of her art, and that although duende was universal I wanted to connect it to her “Sufi voice,” which she describes to Levin as being like a prayer to God. “When you sing quietly, it’s more powerful than singing loudly,” she told him. “People who are praying don’t pay attention to anything else.” I asked her whether her ability to reach such heights was due to religious experience, in which case I wondered if one could always count on being in God’s presence, or whether it was purely a matter of discipline.

“When I perform the songs, when I go into the meaning of the words, I feel something rising up from within. I am halfway between heaven and earth. The musical training helped me to realise the spiritual state, which in turn helps to convey the songs to the audience. Shavkat Mirzaev taught me how to pronounce each letter of each word in the song, and how to breathe properly in order to give them the most impact. It was during this period of training that I arrived at this stage, and then, of course, the spirituality, the power from within, and the training, both of them are mixed and cannot be separated. So I consider them as one, as coming from the same place.”

Mirzaev added, “The state of losing oneself, or ecstasy, is like getting drunk, but it is not like the drunkenness that comes of drinking alcohol. A person drinking alcohol forces himself to get drunk, but this is different because it comes naturally during performance. In earlier times, it was achieved by performing zikr. People would connect to God and lose themselves. For the singer, the challenge is to get everything inside and to convey it from there to the people. If the singer feels it, then the audience will feel it as well. We have an Uzbek saying, ‘The flour doesn’t matter; what really matters is the wheat from which the flour is made.’ For the singer, that wheat, that root, is physically situated in the stomach, which helps one to breathe, and also it is in the throat. There are different styles you can sing from your stomach, from your throat and from your nose, but most important is the soul of the singing itself.”

A woman who has entered a predominantly male culture, Monâjât is revered by her countrymen, who are fully aware that during the period of Soviet rule, when its apparatchiks sought to destroy or neutralise local cultures, it was, to a great extent, the women who helped preserve musical traditions. There have already been a number of great female Uzbek singers, such as Zaynab Pâlvânova, who drove their stakes into ground previously forbidden to them, namely the great classical repertoire. I wondered, however, whether, with even these distinguished predecessors, Monâjât had found immediate acceptance.

“When I came along there wasn’t really that much division between male and female singers. The division was of a more local nature, within the family. My father, because we did not have any performers in our family background, at first did not want me to become a singer. It is not a job for a woman, he said, so he wanted to stop me from entering the conservatoire. My uncle, hearing my voice, saw immediately it was unique and he told my father that my voice didn’t belong to him but to the Uzbek people, and that neither he nor anyone else had any right to put a stop to it. After hearing that, and because my father respected my uncle, he let me go and prayed for my success. When I first came before the audience it wasn’t too hard because I was already used to performing at school concerts. I had some background as to how to act on stage, so people did not have any problem in accepting me.”

“When you were growing up in Ferghana, were you aware of the classical tradition? The Soviet regime was suppressing it, right?”

“The tradition wasn’t completely suppressed. It was still permissible to perform the works of great poets like Navâ‘i and Fuzûlî, but any passages containing the words mai or sharob, both of which mean ‘wine,’ or any mention of God, these had to be removed. After all, God belonged to the beliefs of an ancient and backward people. The wine in Sufi literature is obviously not the alcoholic drink—it is the love of God, and the people are considered to be the receptacle for that wine. The Soviets didn’t understand it that way, of course, and also, it was not allowed to propagate the idea of drunkenness, even if it were a part of normal life. We had to replace those phrases with words from other parts of the song. Still, we were allowed to perform those songs. Each period has its own pluses and minuses, its own positive and negative sides. Again, going back to the Soviet era, the removal of the words ‘God’ and ‘wine’ may have been a strong form of censorship, but strangely it also helped the music. The performers were few, but all of them were of far better quality than today. It was as if by putting boundaries on the traditional songs or the types of songs that could be performed, the performers, in order to preserve their quality, were forced to choose only the best ones. That’s why poor singers weren’t allowed on stage. So the struggle against censorship forced the performers to improve themselves. It wasn’t enough just to be able to perform on radio or television. As for myself, Mirzaev didn’t let me perform for two years, not until I had mastered my technique. At the time, it upset me to think that people with less powerful voices than mine were singing everywhere, but now I realise that without his control, the self-motivation and the constant training, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”

“Sometimes a dictatorship preserves the very thing it tries to destroy, but when we talk about freedom, or, rather, an excess of it, the boundaries are removed and the tradition suffers from exposure.”

“We have another saying in Uzbek,” said Mirzaev. “‘Gold remains gold—even when it is in the dirt it preserves its qualities.’ The real art of maqâm or traditional music cannot be destroyed or controlled by any force or movement because whatever people try, whatever liberation there is, whatever happens, there are people who will listen to those new songs and other people who will listen to traditional songs. It is the same as when looking at a drawing by Raphael or Michelangelo. An ignorant person will see an ordinary picture, but in order to understand the difference between it and rubbish you need a trained eye. It is the same with music. In order to understand its qualities you have to have a trained ear, which is why, many years ago, the children of kings and shahs were educated in music and the other arts, not because they were supposed to become artists themselves, but in order to be able to distinguish between pure and fake art. Everything depends on the training people receive.”

I remarked on the fact that Uzbek pop music was now absorbing aspects of the classical tradition.

“Pop music has it own completely different route,” Mirzaev continued. “It has different rules, especially as regards rhythm. Nowadays, people think that if they perform maqâm in their own style they will become famous, and so they try to mix pop and classical music. This is totally unacceptable. Maqâm is the art of performing from the throat. You have to be able to produce different types of sounds. Consider it as being like a diamond or ruby, which has many edges—the voice too must have many different edges. When you look at the stone from one side and slowly turn it, you will see the colour change. If you like the previous colour and try to find it again, you won’t be able to. The more you turn this stone, the greater its variety. It is the same with maqâm. You never hear the same thing twice, which is what makes it sweet. You don’t get this with pop music, which concentrates on rhythm. The most important thing in music is not to destroy its tenderness.”

“Are we not speaking, then, of a war against silence? If you consider the silence at the centre of all great art, which must always be there, then surely there can be no art without this silence.”

“The idea of a war,” Monâjât replied, “as you describe it, is really a force, a necessary flaw in our lives. It needs to be that way because without it, if you had only the one side, if you didn’t have any problems, economic or whatever, you wouldn’t feel the need to listen to music. A person would turn into a robot if everything were fine. So all these ups and downs are actually helping people live for something.”

“You are an optimist!”

“While for ordinary people silence is just plain silence, for philosophical or poetical people it goes a lot deeper, of course. As for my own personal feelings about silence, to be able to live within it, to develop within it, and to make people enjoy getting something out of that silence, is to give joy to the artist himself.”

Mirzaev added, “Silence is a music itself. So when I listen to silence and someone performs bad music, I am taken away from listening to and enjoying silence.”

“And to make a link to the previous subject,” Monâjât added, “the fact that pop music is now entering traditional music or maqâm is an attempt to destroy that silence.”

I had been struck by a powerful element of the erotic in Monâjât’s performance, which is not to say she undulates, ululates or oozes. On the contrary, she performs with considerable restraint. Such movement as there is, is mainly in the hands, which, as any flamenco master will substantiate, is the focus of a certain kind of dance. There is not a wasted gesture. When Monâjât sings she builds upon what she calls her “Sufi voice,” taking it from a position of near silence, caressing each sound as it is made, so that gradually it builds in volume, and although the sound becomes more powerful, more intense, it never loses its original softness. As I said, the effect is erotic. One has to move delicately here, but once again a Spaniard comes to the rescue. I have been looking at the poems of the mediaeval mystic, Juan de la Cruz, which, in their likening the union with God to that of bridegroom and bride, startle even modern sensitivities. Certainly one feels in his verses the presence of an Oriental breeze.

“So much of your music is mystical, a reaching towards God. I think in all mysticism, both Islamic and Christian, there is something erotic in the expression of the meeting with God. It is expressed in the language of eroticism, and certainly you get this in the poetry of Hafez and Rumi. Do you find it difficult or awkward to express this eroticism in music?”

A touch solicitous of Monâjât’s virtue, perhaps, Mirzaev cut in, suggesting that the erotic, or at least the Western understanding of it, had little place in our discussion.

“Our way of understanding music is as a more intimate, spiritual feeling towards God,” he said. “It is like the Ave Maria, which brings one to intimate terms with God rather than with the physical world, whereas to speak of eroticism is to begin on the lowest step. So we should forget about that term altogether because, even in its purest form, eroticism wouldn’t match the soul of the music. Music stays high above such things and is a kind of direct connection to God.”

I was quite prepared to accept Mirzaev’s strictures, but I wanted to put the question directly to Monâjât, who seemed happy enough to deal with the topic.

“First of all, I am a woman,” she replied. “Secondly, my goal is to convey the music in the most beautiful way possible, so that if the listener gets into a spiritual condition, it should be not only from hearing my voice but also from seeing me perform, which is why, when I’m on stage, I try to control my emotions and my spiritual state. In Uzbekistan, we have two mystical, more or less philosophical, schools, Yasavi and Naqshbandi, both of which are branches of Sufism. The first group think it is preferable to die, aged sixty-three, and to be united with God, whereas with the Naqshbandi the main idea there is for your hands to be at work and your heart with God, remaining both in this world and close to God. This idea grows into a philosophical rather than mystical concept, so when you speak of your beloved or your lover, actually what you are speaking of is a love of God, a God so beautiful that were one to look at something different, one would poke out one’s own eyes. If I were to look at a flower and say ‘how pretty,’ I’d be jealous, on God’s behalf, of anything that has a claim to beauty. Likewise, this whole notion of eroticism is one that is meant for God alone. In performance, the music, the voice and the words, all three of them should complete each other, should come together, and, when doing so, they bring about that eroticism which you describe. It is spiritual, though, not physical. When I sing I feel pleasure in hearing my own voice and in feeling the relaxation of the environment. Also, when my teacher plays his instrument and the sound coming from it is in harmony with everything else, this, too, brings me joy and pleasure. And how the public accepts the music is important as well. So the voice, the music, the words and the audience—when in harmony, they induce that spiritual, erotic feeling.”

Monâjât sings sometimes with a small ceramic plate, especially when performing the katta ashula, which translates as “the great song,” a description that will be clear enough to anyone hearing it for the first time. Its performance demands the physical well-being of whoever has to perform it, for such is its power and sheer vocal range. It requires the performer’s all, which is where the plate comes in, the positioning of it in front of the mouth acting as a kind of sound projection technique. Monâjât is the first woman to perform in this particular genre.

“Your plate, did you bring it from Uzbekistan? Is this a special plate?”

“Yes, it has a special meaning. Every artist or performer or painter, even an engineer, has his own style and image, and for me it is important to wear traditional clothes, to have my hair down as it is now, and so, to have that plate, always the same plate, contributes to the whole image. I don’t use that plate in the kitchen, and I would never ask for a different plate. I do not give it to other people to use. It is part of an image I am attached to.”

Mirzaev added, “For me, too, when a performer starts with something, it is important that he keep it, and get used to it, because it will become a part of the whole performance. I don’t give my rabâb, my instrument, to anybody. I won’t even let him touch it, especially before a concert, because then I’d feel it wouldn’t obey me. And the clothes I wear are especially for performance, and even the shoes I wear are the same ones I have worn since my very first performance with Monâjât. If they get rubbed down, I replace the heels.”

Monâjât nodded in agreement.

“The sense of image I was talking about earlier applies to actual performance as well. Coming back to the concept of silence again, some people advise me to dress in a more western way or to come up with a different hairstyle and to be, if you like, more attractive to the public, but what they do not realise is that if I were to listen to them, I would actually destroy that silence. If I were to succumb to popular demand and adopt a different image and style, then I will have destroyed the quality of the performance.”

“Okay, I promise not to steal your plate.”

“Thank you!” she said in English.

At the beginning of this piece I said one day, perhaps, I would be wafted to Uzbekistan on a woman’s voice, while failing to note, foolish me, that, in a sense, I have already been so. But why by this strange music in a language utterly incomprehensible to me? Which contains not a single word I could latch onto, not even the Arabic habibi, habibi denoting either love or love’s absence. Surely my hunger had already more than enough to feed upon, enough great music to see it through eternity and a bit more. A Bach cantata might be just the ticket, or a splash of Scarlatti, preferably with Mikhail Pletnev steering it brilliantly off course. I think what I hungered for was the purity of somewhere else. It may also have had something to do with the contaminates in our own culture, which, falsely perhaps, make one imagine the air is cleaner elsewhere. What clinched it for me, however, was duende, which is other than religion and which certainly is above language. And which is what makes the hairs at the back of one’s neck rise. All this is proof that the best art, always a powerful transformer, even before being understood, reaches into, and colonises, new spaces. After visiting with Monâjât I went for a walk in a nearby woods, and, most unusually for me, I put on a Walkman, and I listened to her music; and there, in that most English of spots, wild enough for a nineteenth-century poet to want to tame into verse, all of a sudden the trees became foreign to me, and the flora, for which, because I am horticulturally illiterate, I never had the English words in any case, seemed to demand fresh syllables; and, just then, for those few precious minutes, Monâjât Yultchieva’s radiance still upon me, two very different parts of the world began to merge. A couple of walkers, with their once-white cotton hats, walking sticks and thermoses, said hello to me, and, my brain full of the Orient, I wished I could have had for them, right there and then, the polite Uzbek response. 


Marius Kociejowski, poet, essayist and travel writer, lives in London. He has published four collections of poetry, Coast (Greville Press), Doctor Honoris Causa, and Music's Bride (both Anvil Press); So Dance the Lords of Language: Poems 1975-2001 was published in Canada by Porcupine's Quill in 2003. Most recently, he published The Street Philosopher and the Holy Fool: A Syrian Journey (Sutton Publishing), The Pigeon Wars of Damascus (Biblioasis), God's Zoo (Carcanet), Syria: Through Writers's Eyes (Eland), and The Pebble Chance: Feuilletons & Other Prose (Biblioasis, 2014) from which this essay is an excerpt.