Birth Certificate


Translated from the Arabic by Sinan Antoon
(English follows the Arabic, below.)

Some violences are regenerative: a sprout pressing up through the dirt, a colonized people overthrowing a colonizing regime, farmers burning the straw from fields so plants might grow again. Other violences—prisons, detention centers, and other contrivances of human cruelty—constrict futures. One of global capitalism’s terrible havocs is the confusion of corrosive violences for sustaining ones; imperial nations wage war and call that “freedom.” Sinan Antoon’s “Birth Certificate,” which first appeared in Arabic in Antoon’s collection Kama fi’Sama’ (Beirut/Baghdad: Manshurat al-Jamal, 2019), hauntingly mobilizes this conflation. The tentative uncertainty that opens the poem—“Is it a wounded bird?”—unfurls into a much more unsettling scene, before the second stanza rebukes the first: “No, it isn’t a bird.” The truth is worse. When the poem arrives at two acts of violence—the necessary severing of an umbilical cord and the extraneous clipping of wings—I am made to understand the distance between birth and its official certification, how the state splits at the root. I leave this poem thinking of the vital difference between a document and life, charged with making that difference matter.

– Claire Schwartz

Listen to Sinan Antoon read “Birth Certificate.”


شهادة ولادة

أهو طائر جريح؟ هذا الذي يحتضر بين ساقي امرأة، تتّكئ جثّتها على جذع شجرة توت”        
عملاقة؟ كلما رفرف جناحيه الصغيرين يرشان بقعاً صغيرة من الدم على وجهها. يحوم الذباب
.حول فمها الفاغر بينما تبحلق عيناها في الجحيم. . . لكنّه يئنّ ويبكي مثل بني البشر
كلا، ليس طائراً، بل ملاكاً صغيراً بجناحين. لكنّه ملطّخ بالدم! جفل حين رآني وحاول أن يخبّئ
وجهه. لمحت سكيناً ملوثة بالتراب والدم قرب قدمها اليمنى. اقتربت والتقطتها. أمسكت بالملاك
من جناحيه ورفعته. كان يرتعش مثل الأغصان فوقه. قطعت الحبل السرّي الذي يربطه بأمّه. طار
صراخه إلى السماء. قرّرت أن أخلّصه من جناحيه. فقصصتهما وهمستُ «السماء ليست آمن
«.من الأرض
.حين وضعته على الأرض أخذ يزحف. . بعيداً، باحثاً عن فريسته الأولى

Birth Certificate

Is it a wounded bird? This thing that lies dying in the lap of a woman, whose corpse is propped against the trunk of a giant mulberry? When its tiny wings flutter they splash her face with blood. Flies circle her gaping mouth. Her eyes are staring at hell. But it wails like humans.

No, it isn’t a bird. It’s a cherub covered with blood. It was startled and tried to hide when it saw me. I saw a knife covered with dirt and blood. I picked it up. I held the cherub by its wings. It shivered like the branches above. I severed its umbilical cord. A cry soared. I decided to rid it of its wings. I whispered: “The heavens are no more safe than the earth.”

When I placed it on the ground it crawled away in search of its first prey.

Sinan Antoon is an Iraqi-born poet, novelist, scholar, and translator. He has published two collections of poetry and four novels. His most recent work is The Book of Collateral Damage. He is an associate professor at New York University.

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