Pale green cover with orangey-red lettering running vertically up the middleConsolatio, Habib Tengour (translated by Will Harris and Delaina Haslam)

Poetry Translation Centre, 2022   £9.00


This pamphlet has the original text on the left-hand pages and English translation on the right, so those readers who know French have the opportunity to compare the two. One word that is the same in both languages, with a slight spelling variation, is ‘exile’.

This theme runs through Habib Tengour’s pamphlet and is closely linked to issues of identity. In the first (prose) poem we read ‘And exile is like a hammer mill’. The image is hard-hitting.

The poet is Algerian by birth but has lived in both France and Algeria. In the poem ‘Exodus’, there’s a sense of haunting: ‘Exile keeps time / Finds a route back in song.’ The poet goes on to ask about the nature of exile: ‘Is emigrating for lack of bread exile?’ This raised some interesting thoughts in my mind about how choices can be both experienced and judged. Tengour dismisses the question and then states ‘Exile is anchored in the colony’, implying that the person exiled cannot escape their political and historical context.

The idea of song expressing exile returns in ‘Refrain’ with the line ‘Songs of exile deplore a waste’. While, ‘In Heaney’s Line of Sight’, section 3, ‘As we set off’ captures the weariness of negotiating journeys into exile:

Exile aims its machine gun
Emptiness exhausts you at customs
The form to fill out confuses you

The poem ‘Banishment’ evokes loneliness. It starts with the words ‘Exile is no longer / biting    on bitter gourd’, then becomes increasingly philosophical mid-poem:

Neither pity nor regret     bad blood
We each steer our boat,   goes the saying
As best we can

The English text of the pamphlet may not have the full musicality of the French, but it honours its meaning. I found the poems both puzzling and revelatory at times, but that seems appropriate for the complexities of a life in exile.

Sue Wallace-Shaddad