Renegade Documents:
Tlemcen or Places of Writing & Opera Omnia

Patrick James Dunagan

…literature and history are in the hands of those who write it, no matter how cryptic, subterranean, or fugitive the origins of that literature might seem to the promoters and enforcers of official culture. This invisible history, what [Mohammed] Dib called the “cryptostasis” or “history’s shadow,” habitually coexists with, and may often outlive, however subversively, the history or literature he deemed “imperial-classical”.

-        Paul Vangelisti, "Assassins in Love: Poets as Translators"

Both of the latest publications to arrive from Otis Books/Seismicity Editions are literary texts which have—to borrow terms from the above quote, taken from a lecture by poet-professor Paul Vangelisti—emerged from the gulf dividing their “subterranean or fugitive” origins and those usually favored by “enforcers of official culture.” These are renegade documents which have in one way or another been written or else survived against the odds to be made available for today’s readers. Vangelisti himself, along with Guy Bennett, oversee Otis Books/Seismicity Editions, published on behalf of the Graduate Writing program of Otis College of Art and Design down in L.A. and deserve credit for ensuring the press pays attention to writers who exist outside typical Academic comfort zones.

While the individual writing of these books is separated by a historical span of over a thousand years, the physical place in terms of communities, “or places of writing”, as Mohammed Dib’s title suggests, are geographically separated by less than a thousand miles in Mediterranean North Africa. The recently deceased Mohammed Dib was born and raised in mid-Twentieth century French-occupied Algeria, in the town of Tlemcen. While Luxorius, as his translator the poet Art Beck tells us, was “writing at the dawn of the dark ages, around 525 A.D., in Roman North Africa” otherwise known as Carthage (just outside of what is now Tunis): “A place that had been occupied by the German Vandals and cut off from Italy for a hundred years” as the Dark Ages loomed.

Throughout recorded history the Mediterranean basin has played an elemental role as the spawning ground of historically significant religious, cultural, and artistic growth. Given recent political shifts occurring within the last couple of years, North African countries such as Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya have become only more recognizable to Westernized, American ears. Yet the peoples of these lands have long contributed (and no doubt will continue to) a large historical influence upon the cultures of Europe and the rest of the world. Both Dib’s book, translated from the French, along with these new translations from the Latin of Luxorius, offer testimonial from opposing historical ends of World Civilization as we recognize it to the mingling of the Occident and Orient from the ground up. These writings are concerned with locales caught between two cultures at the cusp of major transition, a circumstance which unavoidably shows throughout each work.

. . .

Luxorius lived in a time of upheaval that has only been echoed by the historical reception his work has received. Art Beck’s informative introduction tells how Luxorius would be all but lost to us accept for the appearance of 91 of his poems in the “Anthologia Latina: A compilation of fifteen contemporary North African poets laced with a broad sampling of Classical Latin authors.” The history of these poems is one of loss and recovery: “Only one copy of the Anthologia Latina is known, and that copy remained unknown until it surfaced in France in 1615.” And while Monks copied Luxorius poems from this only available manuscript they “not only copied the poems, but catalogued them with titles written in later, medieval Latin that in some cases had little to do with the entitled poem.”

Beck discovered Luxorius himself 30 years ago in scholar Morris Rosenblum’s 1961 publication Luxorius: Latin poet among the Vandals which remains the only other edition of Luxorious translated into English. Reading Beck’s recounting of how he was from the first drawn into working off Rosenblum’s more academic assessing of Luxorius is one of the delights of the book. His subtitle “Duet for Sitar and Trombone” gives a flavor for the balance Beck goes for between Latin and a modernized verse line. These poems are anything but dead in his hands.



A certain person lay down to dinner with
and ended up fucking boiling Marina.
Now the adultery is making some salty waves.
Not only should this affair not be
condemned. If possible, it should,
in fact, be commemorated.
Because it reminds us that Venus,
the daughter of the sea, somehow, still lives.

Beck updates these poems without intrusive removal of either content or context. He fills in necessary information when appropriate and still manages keep intact a lively display of virtuoso poetics rich in cultural as well as historical means.


The venator in the painting has eyes on his hands

and because the artist was extraordinary, the light
in the extra pair still radiates with life.
The way he twirled and feinted his flashing spear,
whatever he attacked was already marked for death.
His daring achievements outshone nature, now
his painted hands are beginning to develop
their own supernatural vision.

A narrative of a sort moves throughout the poems of Luxorious, linking them together, offering glimpses of scenes of life from the times in which he lived and wrote. For instance, the note to the preceding poem #48 “the Eyes Painted on the Venator’s Hands” tells how “A ‘venator’ fought wild animals in the arena” and the poem itself explains “And so the painting even places / eyes on his fingers” and “his right hand saw more quickly/than the eye can see.” References such as these are carried over between poems. These poems by Luxorius are only as if a series of snapshots giving but a fragmentary reflection of the poet’s life and times; yet it remains nonetheless a rich pageant full of striking instances of immediacy. And the added service of having the poems in original Latin on facing pages is a bonus for any possible would-be translators following Beck’s lead.

. . .

Dib’s Tlemcen translated by Guy Bennett is a memoir/photo-essay of reflections upon childhood, family, and most importantly the town itself of Dib’s childhood. How his experiences shaped and continued through time to literally inform his development as an exiled writer. His native town comes alive in his remembrances of the streets, the bakery, his home, the sights and sounds of the open air market he journeyed through with his grandmother, and the many other varied images he freshly recalls. Dib’s description of the communal oven used for baking bread is exceptionally vivid:

…within a deep, dark vault lies a second vault even deeper and darker than the first, and when a certain little door opens, you think you might just see hell on the other side, such is the fiery glow that issues from it. And against this dazzling light you glimpse the dark and moving silhouette of a demon standing waist high in the pit, continuously feeding its bright red mouth the bread brought here by an entire neighborhood…

A series of meditative explorations of memory more than anything else, Dib’s book is the active recalling of a past he knows is well beyond his reach and yet it is a past he’s unable not to pursue. For him the writing serves as a probing of possibilities of what his memory of the past may hold and which informs him of his place in the present. Events have so transpired in his lifetime that the place and time in which he was a child has been irreparably altered. He has photographs he took at the time—which are included here and prove essential to complimenting Dib’s text—and whatever else memory brings to his mind, but at the center of his book is his knowledge of the inevitable transformation of the Tlemcen he knew which inextricably accompanies the foundations of his identity as a writer. And his writing is in effect, as he states, but a re-casting of the place as memory.

Some parts of the city are unquestionably gone, some of its attested components have vanished, but something less palpable has also disappeared: the city had a certain way of being that is now finished. In saying this I am not trying to deny the effect that time can have on a city, or refusing to acknowledge its right to change. At the very most I wish to suggest that we inhabit places no less than we do memories. In fact, a place is but memory.

The writing of place becomes a creation itself all its own. Dib’s tactile engagement with memory and his practice of writing-as-event envelop the reader in the author’s own complexity of experience. This is not a casual reflection upon personal history but an engaging embrace of meeting the immediacy of the writing’s own momentary occasion. Dib’s immersion is total. He would not have any sentimental priority replace the writing’s presumptive central preoccupation, i.e. itself: “The author himself no longer has a hold upon his work once it has left his hands. It no longer knows him and leads a life of its own.” The book is but physical fact of this transformation.

Tlemcen or Places of Writing
Mohammed Dib
Translated by Guy Bennett
Otis Books/Seismicity Editions, 2012
$12.95 Isbn: 978-0-9845289-7-4

Opera Omnia or, a Duet for Sitar and Trombone
Translated by Art Beck
Otis Books/Seismicity Editions, 2012
$12.95 Isbn: 978-0-9845289-6-7



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