Ahmed Morsi : Poems – Photos from the New York Album translated by Raphael Cohen

Poet and Artist Ahmed Morsi by Samuel Shimon

294 E. 48th St., NY 10017

My advice to those wishing to live in Manhattan
if they fear the pursuit of Death,
crouching in corners, in abandoned apartments,
in the dark labyrinths of washing machines,
in the elevator:
Don’t look for a house built before the war.

Death lives there among the tenants,
moves about under a mask
that looks like the masks of others
waiting at subway stations.

One of the neighbours said,
while I was trying to throw out last week’s newspapers
for recycling:
“Would you believe it?
Larry’s dead.”
It seems my face did not reflect
the expected expressions of grief
and she started talking about Larry
and his wife Linda:
“They were on the West Coast
escaping the perishing cold of New York.
On the way back,
before reaching the gate
he dropped dead on the terminal floor
holding the boarding cards.”

You usually hear someone – a neighbour – has died
but you never hear a widow weeping
or even know where they’ve been buried,
if it really mattered to you that is,
and over time I forgot about Larry.

I usually get up with the dawn.
After taking a shower, I walk like an automaton
to the locked and bolted door
and fetch the daily newspapers.
Every day I saw him waiting for the elevator
to go for his regular daily jog
before the streets of Manhattan woke up.

Larry drank, every evening,
a bottle of French wine.
He wasn’t a drunkard
but he loved life.
He frequented the cinema
he frequented restaurants with Linda
like two young lovers, despite the bent back,
the hoarse and cracked voice,
the blonde hair dye.
Did it disguise Linda’s real age?

The bottles are no longer lined up at midnight
empty as in one of Morandi’s still lifes.
No longer does that good man, our neighbour, rise
in the half-light of dawn
to run alone in a city that never sleeps –
a pregnant woman screaming orgasmically
during contractions, morning and night.

His wife returned in mourning, without makeup,
though she kept
the dyed-blonde colour of her hair,
determined to defy
the snares of Death
who did not know her address in New York.


The days of mourning did not last long.
It seems Larry had bequeathed his wife Death.
Six months later
she died on another airport floor.

My advice to those wishing to live in Manhattan,
if they fear the pursuit of Death,
crouching in corners,
in abandoned apartments,
in the dark labyrinths of washing machines,
in the elevator:
Don’t look for a house built before the war.

New York, 1996


The elevator was crowded one evening
with elderly women,
all dressed up to the nines
their fur coats moth-eaten from poor storage
and the passing of years.
The stooped bodies were slender
but wrinkles on hands and faces
under powder and makeup
sagged under the weight of the years
sagged under the burden of loneliness
and the crushing fear of the unknown.

One in a black cloak said:
“Tonight’s performance was wonderful.
But Pavarotti, isn’t he nearing sixty?”
“He’s more than that.
The opera critics who adored his voice
crucified him as soon as he turned sixty.”
“Do any of you remember
something she lost once she turned sixty?
Didn’t he have a velvety voice
just a few days ago?
Really the New York Times critics are so unfair.”

That rough gravelly voice
is familiar.
Whose is it?
That short, stooped frame
and love of opera?
I recall the nasal twang
I recall the intense gaze of the eyes.

Now, though, in the flurry of personal criticism
which laments for the self as much as for others,
I realised
the one in the black cloak
was my mysterious, timid neighbour.

Rachel lived on her own
in a studio apartment next to ours.
She was scared to speak to
or even greet those she chanced upon
in the hallway or by the elevator.
Even Victoria
her cheerful neighbour next door
did not chat with her.
Yet she must have heard
Il Trovatore or Rigoletto
through the wall
or perhaps listened
to the same PBS programs
“Brought to you by Texaco”
many times a year.
Now I wonder in amazement
if that was why
she did not stint in saying hello.

One morning
the house shook momentarily
and I heard packing cases.
The question came to mind:
Has someone died?
It was the din of new tenants.

I opened the door abruptly
and worked it out.
Apartment 12E was empty,
no more would the arias of Madame Butterfly
and Nights from the Metropolitan
“Brought to you by Texaco”
be played.
Over time I got used to seeing my young neighbour saying hello
but I was curious to know
where the old woman Rachel
had disappeared to and how she had silently gone?

18 May 1997


From the car that morning Manhattan
loomed in the distance
like tall Giacometti figurines
plucking the fins of fish
submerged in the clouds.
A crazy idea possessed me:
the image had fallen
from my mind onto the ice.
Manhattan was shackled in ice.

The picture wasn’t bright in any case.
The highway from Queens
crossed neighbourhoods besieged by cities of the dead
strip joints
and brothels advertising Paradise in neon,
admission not by good deeds
but by dollar bills.

Here and there a crumbling church
bears a sign: For sale or to rent.

Manhattan slithers forward
stretching dragon hands, smashing drawers
out of which the secrets of poets fall,
like eyeballs in urns of sand and water
and on the threshold of the horizon, skyscrapers
procreate in boredom,
Manhattan approaches naked,
without dyes or masks
to hide her sallow face
in the middle of the day.

Long Island City was a shock,
a poke in the eye to a new immigrant.

It was not the gateway to Manhattan,
the Lady of the Atlantic Ocean
the repository of twentieth-century art
exile for Guernica
exile for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Max Beckmann
where Marcel Duchamp adopted
a urinal that entered history.

I witnessed for the first time
how neighbourhoods die
and years later
how they come back to life.
The streets, the housing projects,
and hospitals
are the signs of a city of ghosts
abandoned by its inhabitants.
The car slowed down near Queens Bridge.
“Isn’t it Sunday?” I wondered.

The bridge was jammed
with cars, and with cyclists
even though they had their own little lane,
but the heralds of Fall
and the brightness of September turned
the rumble of engines
into a choir of singers –
as if all the people
were marching on Manhattan
each in search of something lost.

Was I too
searching for something lost?

5 April 1997

cover: Banipal 63 – Painting by Ahmed Morsi

First Published in Banipal 63 Autumn/Winter 2018


Republished here with Agreement