Friday, August 14, 2009

Lost Soul

Cafe Griensteidl in Vienna

(not my photo)


A hundred times a day, he says,
“I’ll have to return. Here, there is no mercy.
There, there is kindness and warmth and …”
Then he falls silent.

I ask him, “There?
Where is that?”
He points somewhere.
His face is expressionless,
and he does not say anything anymore.

I take his hand.
We go to a café
and sit down at a quiet corner table.
I order coffee for him
and water for me.

I speak to him in Arabic
and mix water into the coffee.
He is annoyed, “Are you crazy?”

He tries to remove the water
from the coffee.

He tries to.

He tries to get the water back
into the water.

Vienna, Café Griensteidl, June 27th, 1997
by Tarek Eltayeb

(translated from the German by Wolfgang Astelbauer;
from “Ein mit Tauben und Gurren gefüllter Koffer,” edition selene, Vienna 1999)

Tarek Eltayeb was born in Cairo in 1959, the son of Sudanese parents. He studied Business Administration at Ain Shams University in Cairo and at Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration. He has been living in Vienna since 1984, and is currently teaches at the International Management Center / University of Applied Sciences in Krems, Austria and at the University of Graz.

Found this poem on the poets against war website of all places, and it drew me immediately. I don't know why I pictured that the dreamer was an old fellow, but I did and still do. Perhaps he is thinking of the old world of his past in another country where he grew up and was happy but it is no more --- all are gone; but just because he speaks Arabic doesn't mean that he couldn't be thinking of another life, another time where there was mercy, kindness and warmth and . . .
It is sad that he cannot return, cannot get the water out of the coffee and back to its proper place. But sadder still is that he cannot be in that coffee shop looking around and realizing that this is where he is, and how great it is to be alive.
But I probably change the intent of the words?

Maybe it's that you just shouldn't fool with an old guy's coffee!

Some kinds of poetry have always baffled me: seems as if the old uncertainty principle may apply, as the closer you get to the subject the more it is influenced by your being there. Differing meanings appear as you change perspective based on your experiences rather than those of the writer. Then I think that maybe that is the whole idea!

(not mine either!)


  1. i liked the cafe..both the interiors and the exteriors...
    poetry..hmm...i never seem to understand much of it.....

  2. Hmmm...I thought I had the poem pegged, until I read your bit at the bottom of the post. Then I read it again, again and again and now I'm totally lost...much like the fellow in the poem.

    It's a sad poem, and I feel the dreamer's age as elderly as well. It also jolts one a little...sometimes that water just will not go back into the water, yet I keep trying!

  3. I like your take 'maybe you just shouldn't mess with the old guys coffee'...I know I am a creature of habit, but also wish for the old days when life seemed so simple...but then again, I was VERY young...going back only in my memories, but it's a comforting journey I'll take any day. I tend to go there more frequently these days...always a dreamer...

  4. Those cafes are so luxurious.. esp the second picture made me pause and wonder.. I'd like to visit a place like that sometime but not for coffee..

    the poetry is so very interesting .. some people can move you deeply in such simple words with their poignancy

  5. Perhaps he is thinking of the old world of his past in another country where he grew up and was happy but it is no more...

    Holy Cow, I feel like that a lot. You have read enough of my posts that I don't like the hyper-commercialism and ubersuburban lifestyle that was partly inspired by those wanting to recreate small town life I was lucky enough to see the last few years. When I return to that not so small town now, while I see echos of what it once was in the end all it is is echos.

    ...seems as if the old uncertainty principle may apply, as the closer you get to the subject the more it is influenced by your being there.

    That seems to be the case with everything these days.

  6. "Lost Soul" that is the perfect title for this post!
    A sad poem but it too had me drawn to it!

    Thank you for sharing it!


  7. hey thanks for wishing me on independence day..yeah india was one of britain's colonies long ago, just like the united states before it fought the civil war...but there's more to her than is a 3000 years old civlisation...which has many inventions and discoveries to its zero(0) was first used in indian numeric system and the romans learnt it from us when alexandar came here with his troop ...and...well..i could go on and on.......but if ur really interested about india...please give it a visit.....!!!....

  8. Great pictures here! And, thanks for the info on Tarek Eltayeb! I learnt about someone today!

  9. I think you pegged it right in two ways Goatman - one, that he is older and wishes things were the same as they used to be and two, one should be happy with one's current circumstances for ultimately one chooses to be where he/she is at any given time.
    I feel the poem is about the acceptance of change but as you mention depending on one's own experience the perspective will be different. I find the poignant words really draw me in as well...

  10. Or it could be the translator. Often it's very hard to translate a poem, as I found out the hard way. Nevertheless it's a great piece.

  11. Hey goatman, its been a while. Went for a walk by the lake today and there was a bunch of ducklings that reminded me of you. We (my room mates and I) were amazed to find out they actually love apples!

    Anyway...I am not sure if I should be commenting about poetry...but I have always liked the notion that the reader is allowed some liberty to interpret it in his own way. The difference between prose and poems is that in poems...things are not spelt out for you and you get to read between the lines. This is the charm of least for me.

    About mixing water in the coffe...two things come to mind...the dreamer tries to get the water out, even tho its impossible, just as he's dreaming of a time and place that don't exist anymore.

    Then again, it cd b that the poet is just messin with u a li'l. They do that sometimes. :)

  12. I just stumbled on this Lost Soul as I have similar writing. As Middle Eastern American my self I’m assuming his thought about the coffee as he grew up drinking Turkish coffee and he doesn’t want watery coffee as many thinks American style coffee is like water , even Italian who drinks espresso thinks the same.

    And a correction for “shooting star” I wish I can give you drawing of the Arabic numbers as it was discovered by Egyptian farmers which are similar to the digital one we use today relating this to geometry such as # 1 with one angle, # 2 like Z with 2 angles,,, like # 7 with the dash in the center etc and Zero which is the Arabic word sifer created as circle 0 to place value as doesn’t have any angles in it. The West in fact started to use the Arabic numbers and Arabs till today use the Indian numbers which represent the fingers sign and zero is like a dot. Even you can read a lot about the subject in Wikipedia and some one can correct their info too, because I’m not trying to point fingers or give a credit to any whether Indian or Arabs.

    The amazing thing that I learned this many years ago from an Indian teacher too while researching how zero came and why! Besides, there names weren’t Arabs in the old days, so I’m trying to keep it with the poetry too.

  13. Thank you, thank you for visiting and leaving a comment at my blog so that I would be moved to click over here and discover your marvelous blog. Really, it my "find" for some months now. Not that others haven't appealed with their own light, but there's some magic here.

    The poem...well, I read an old man into the scene also. A silly aside to this great poem was my being reminded of a saying: Humans were invented by Water as a means of moving from place to place.

  14. I would love to sit back and sip coffee and write in my journal there!

  15. The discovery of "0" is an interesting concept! Seems like it would have been the first identifiable number between two people who could communicate and depended on one another for survival:

    "What did you get for dinner with that large rock?" . . . "0" !
    "Guess we eat grass tonite"

  16. Hi goatman, its nice to hear from you. I understand what you mean about my subject. And I suppose you are right. Although I'm not so young anymore, it seems I haven't been able to get over certain things. :)

    However, its not that I stopped wondering about the 'oneness' of things. For a moment I thought I was beginning to understand what its all about. But then I sort of lost it; my thoughts started darting on the exact opposite, that is absolute meaningless and chaos. I was torn between the two...(and perhaps still am to some extent) and hoped my time abroad will help me resolve these issues. I got all tangled up, in the loops of recurring thoughts and conflics and eventually, it became very hard for me to even try to put them down in writing.

    Anyhow, I have come to some sort of a reconciliation, for the moment at least. Boiled'd probably be, well...the oneness is, but a part of it. But, nevermind, the mind will do what it has to, to find some peace for itself.

    Yes, I am attending school again. Its a master's program in media management.

  17. Thanks for the kind words on my blog, they really help cheer me up. Happy trails and keep posting photos of you adventures.

  18. I was really taken by poem..then when I read the word Arabic it had drwan me more..You really painted more of the poem, the poet history and who he his and life makes perfect sense ...

    It gave me a sense of peace... Its always when you are away from your home you want belong but you are still have past and can not be wiped out and you could not becaue of what makes you the person.

    If you have time check out my story Match making and the Charmer in let me know what you think of it..


  19. lovely evocative poem
    and i've enjoyed reading the comments

  20. I truely love this poem! Upon reading it I relate to how I feel in my own's a very good poem and many eyes and hearts will interpret it differently as you mentioned. Maybe he was feeling that his life had been so "watered down" and he wished for that "awake" and "alive" feeling more? That's what I thought of. But who knows?

    I believe that all poetry is interpreted in the eyes of the beholder..if you know what I mean? It's like songs you love and how you interpret the lyrics to a song to something you personally relate to in your own life. Or something from the past that happened to you in your life. Don't we all do this? I know I do...

    I know that all the many poems I have written in the past 10 years (though I have had writers block for quite some time now due to so much drastic change and stress in my life) is interpreted differently from each individual that reads it..or open to interpretation..and to me that's what poetry is all about..and why and how I can share my writing with everyone. I want them to think and feel whatever they do upon reading's not so important to me that they know exactly what I was feeling in my writing. I wish for everyone to feel and see what they want "freely" with every poem I have ever written..this way I feel I might be "connecting" somehow with every reader. A "soul connection".

    Love the photo. Great post. Goatman, your a good writer too you know? I love how you write and what you write about. Id' like to read some more poems from you on your blog.