‘The Book of Petitions,’ A Poem by Vénus Khoury-Ghata

From A Public Space

March 29, 2019  By Vénus Khoury-Ghata

Whether it’s true or false

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We said to ourselves that you would continue to play dead by omission or out of laziness to distinguish you from those who walk with their backs to the city’s noise that you’d offer us a bottle of sherry to celebrate the coming of a winter clad in Afghan goat’s wool and boots gathered in the tombs of the rich.

Whether it’s true or false

We also said to ourselves that your walled-up voice would be able to decide among us when it came to the distribution of winds in the plane-tree on the square and to train the fireflies escaped from the sleeves of darkness to light up God’s road when he came alone to check the content of his snow, and to see if passersby slipped on his tears when he suddenly felt like weeping.


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Must you be reminded that you are only what is said and forgotten

brother of shadows calling out in the chestnut tree

sketched thought

silence chipped away by use

that the wind pushing you toward the pond is not the pond’s friend, nor the friend of the washerwomen who wring you out with the red linens of women in childbirth, who complain of pebbles in their chests as their arms fall when night does

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when their arms drop with darkness


Let’s admit that your disappearance was a pretense

staged in complicity with the eclipse of a comic sun

that you never went far from the doorstep where you made holes in the sky with your slingshot killing angels and bluejays with one blow

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only imaginary the feathers that bloodied the gray woman’s hair

how to know who plucked the angel’s feathers and ate the bluejay

and that what happened, happened


Let’s admit that you made a bad decision

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Having chosen walls with a view of other walls is no reason to speak ill of the snails in the garden and the grass that doesn’t remember your name

Not the slightest echo of your consultations with the blackbird who had a crush on himself becoming two blackbirds in the bay window

No sign either of an eventual sketch of your face the steam rising from the soup is the image of no known soul

The woman standing facing the sink makes the faucet cry


The shovels peeling away the world’s underside make no distinction

between broken glass    pebbles    bones

you trust the arms that wield them

the mouths that gulp down the planet’s most intimate waters

tear it asunder to bury hands and tools

Seen from afar

those men camped on two lands at once

spread their legs like a compass so as not to be snatched up by the great all

that is nothing


Who will find lost time

who will tie it to the foot of the bed

who will hoist it up on the horse that gallops in four directions at once

You ask the most ignorant wind your questions

the one who mistakes a bulrush in your garden for a tardy visitor,

the sound of the storm on the roof for a quarrel between pigeons

Cantankerous wind

that refuses to sit down at the table with you for a frank discussion

to share your soup

or go back to the turbulent road that dropped it on your threshold

How to make it understand that the drainpipe is better than the cat door for coming into your house?


The woman who wasn’t in the photo taps her thigh

and the wind bends its neck for the leash

curls up under the table next to the dog who becomes a wolf when night stripes the panes

the wolf, she says

is only a wolf by hearsay and gossip

he doesn’t trample the young grass

doesn’t mock widows in their dresses of grief

An angel before

and a beast behind

the wolf was a bell ringer in the age of cathedrals

a pilgrim with hairy knees

who stole weather vanes

His disappearance from books leaves her inconsolable


It’s winter in her photographs

The silence is cold enough to split a rock

She rubs her hands on the walls to create a little heat

counts them in both directions to have the impression of being rich

leafs through her garden like a book, adding words of her own invention

and a pair of pruning shears for the dead man to trim the laurel-tree that

grew askew


How can you weep in a language no longer your own

what can you call walls not imbued with your sweat

With your back against the closed door, you invoke the spirit of the place to keep away souls whose suffering is pending and coyotes

The key is under a stone analogous to all stones

you grope for the riverbed, to sleep there, and the sheets stretched between the banks

what stone to lift without panicking the lizards and scattering the fearful populace of ants

you know the wind can be no help to you

angry with the water

the well it has been digging for centuries is filled with your voice

–Translated from the French by Marilyn Hacker


First appeared in A Public Space No. 23. Used with permission of A Public Space. Copyright by Marilyn Hacker.

Venus Khoury-Ghata
Vénus Khoury-Ghata
Vénus Khoury-Ghata received the Prix Goncourt de poésies in 2011 for the totality of her work. She is the author of twenty novels and eighteen collections of poems, including Le livre des suppliques, published by Mercure de France. The Book of Petitions was first published in A Public Space. She lives in France.

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