Olivia Elias

Sign Language I & II translated by Kareem Abu-Zeid
October 26, 2022 Elias Olivia

Two poems by Olivia Elias Translated from the French by Kareem James Abu-Zeid


Sign Language I  

It’s not that I
don’t believe
in words anymore


I’m looking for a form
that speaks
as immediately
as Klein’s International Blue


he’d dreamed as a child
of signing
the back of the sky


I’m looking for something
that screams refusal
as loudly as James B
I am not your Negro


Langue des signes I

Ce n’est pas
je ne crois
aux mots


je cherche une forme
parle aussi
bleu IKB de Klein*


enfant il avait rêvé
de signer
au dos du ciel    
je cherche quelque chose
crie aussi fort
James B. le Refus
I am not your Negro


*International Klein Blue, procédé par l’artiste plasticien Yves Klein qui associe le bleu outremer synthétique à un liant choisi avec l’aide du marchand de couleurs Edouard Adam.




Sign Language II  


These worn-out words
too precious for
a farewell with no return
you consign them to the desert


at all hours
on all pages
you invent a language
of signs


yet no one ever
taught you science
forms on which to build
the Ideal City


what part do you play
on the black-and-white chessboard
and what front lines are you moving
on the newsprint?


as for lack
and loss
they’ve been such intimate
parts of you
that when you wearied
of yourself
they fell
like corpses at your feet


Langue des signes II

Ces mots usés
trop précieux pour
un adieu sans retour
tu les confies au désert


à longueur de temps
à longueur de pages
tu inventes une langue
des signes


personne pourtant
ne t’a appris la science
des formes sur lesquelles
édifier la Cité parfaite


quelle partie joues-tu
sur l’échiquier noir et blanc
et quelles lignes de front
déplaces-tu sur le
papier journal


quant au manque
à la perte
ils ont si intimement
fait partie de toi que
lorsque tu t’es lassée
de toi
ils sont tombés
comme dépouilles
à tes pieds


Olivia Elias, born in Haifa in 1944, is a poet of the Palestinian diaspora who writes in French. In 1948 her family was exiled to Lebanon, where she lived until she was 16 years old. She then lived in Montreal, before finally settling in France. She published her first collection of poetry in 2015. Her third and most recent collection, Chaos, Traversée (Chaos, Crossing), appeared in 2019. Olivia Elias’ poetry is characterized by terse, laconic language, strong rhythms, and a deep sensitivity to the Palestinian cause, the plight of refugees, and human suffering in general. Her work has been published in numerous journals and in anthologies, and has been translated into English, Arabic, Spanish, and Italian. She holds Lebanese, Canadian, and French citizenship, and divides her time between Paris, Arles, and India. Her first book in English, Chaos, Crossing, will be published by World Poetry Books in fall 2022, in Kareem James Abu-Zeid’s translation.