Present Absentee:  Mahmoud Darwish

Published in The Manhattan Review, Fall/Winter 2007-2008


The Butterfly’s Burden, Mahmoud Darwish, Translated by Fady Joudah (Copper Canyon Press, 2007)
 Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone?, Mahmoud Darwish, Translated by Jeffrey Sacks (Archipelago Books, 2006)
 Unfortunately, It Was Paradise: Selected Poems, Mahmoud Darwish, Translated and edited by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché, with Sinan Antoon and Amira El-Zein (University of California Press, 2003)


“You didn’t find your village again, Birwa?  Did it completely disappear?”
Abbas Beydoun to Mahmoud Darwish, 1995

“Every subject is an alibi.”
Mahmoud Darwish to Abbas Beydoun, 1995


            Search for the list of English translations of the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish in print in this country and you will find three titles; before Darwish was awarded the Lannan Foundation’s Cultural Freedom Prize in 2001, you would have found one[1], from this poet who has published more than twenty-five volumes in Arabic since 1960.  In France, a country with about as many Arabic speakers as the United States, the list of translations is about four times as long, including interviews, individual collections, and two anthologies of Darwish’s work from 1966 to the present:  via Gallimard, the French Knopf; Actes Sud, home of Imre Kertész and Günter Grass; and Les Éditions de Minuit, home of Samuel Beckett and Marguerite Duras, begun clandestinely under the German occupation--’the midnight editions’--the year before Darwish was born.  Maybe the small number of Darwish translations into Usahn English--one way to identify the English of the USA--should not be surprising, given the UNESCO statistic that 50% of translations travel out of English and only 6% in--and given that as of December 2006, only 33 of 1,000 US staffers at the embassy in Baghdad spoke Arabic, and only six of those were fluent.  These statistics are suggestive of an empire, one with little desire for what translation might provide; Usahn English is for the moment the language of an empire in military ascendance, and Arabic that of an empire in military decline.  The bridge between the languages of the conqueror and the conquered tends to be one the conquered cross by force, and one the conquerors cross minimally if at all; if, as historian William Appleman Williams suggests, there is a way empire as a way of life kills the imagination,[2] the silence on this side of the bridge might be one of the aftermaths of the encounter.  These three books suggest other possibilities.

            Darwish also belongs to the honor roll of writers refused entry to the United States at various times as “inadmissible aliens,” along with Julio Cortázar, Doris Lessing, Nazim Hikmet, and Nobel laureates Gabriel García Márquez and Pablo Neruda--and belongs to the language of Arabic and the people of Palestine, both of which have had a relationship with the United States which has been to say the least conflicted.  While tens of thousands of Usahn readers are familiar with Coleman Barks’s versions of Rumi, not admitting 13th-century Persian as impediment, many have never heard of the best-selling poet in every Arab country and in France as well--a living poet central to his time’s poetry and to his language, and to a nation that does and does not exist, at the edge of the Mediterranean and all over the world, who reads to tens of thousands of listeners in Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, and Paris, and who sometimes prompts a revision of Egyptian writer and literary scholar Taha Hussein’s saying that there is prose, and there’s poetry, and then there’s the inimitable miracle--the ijaz--of the Koran--to say that there is prose, and there’s poetry, and there’s the Koran, and then there’s the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish.[3]

            Darwish was six years old in the Galilean village of Birwa in 1948, in the north of what was then Palestine under British occupation, when the arrival of the Haganah, a forerunner of the Israeli army, pressed his family to flee to Lebanon.  Like many Palestinian refugees, they left thinking their absence would be temporary; they returned to find Birwa destroyed and replaced by two Israeli settlements,  and their absence codified into the bizarre legal status of ‘present absentees,’ under which their rights to their property and to citizenship were destroyed as well.  Uri Avnery, soldier in another Israeli army forerunner, later Knesset member and Israeli peace activist, described this status in a Knesset session in 1966, during a debate over the Absentee Property Law:

            ...Then there is the phenomenon of ‘present absentees.’  That this expression should exist is a disgrace to the state of Israel, but it has existed throughout the 18 years since the end of the war. What is a present absentee? A man lives in his village. 1 approach him and shoot at him:  he goes to another village until my anger has cooled off.  At the moment when I enter the village, the man is not in it--he is a kilometre, or five kilometres, away from his village. According to the law he is absent. This is a disgrace to the State of Israel...His land, the land of his fathers, has been confiscated and handed over to Jewish occupiers.[4]

It’s often remarked that Darwish’s early poems are ‘militant,’ and that his more recent poems are less so--but the word may not indicate the tender forms Darwish found even then in which to conduct his lifelong dialogue with the trauma of exile.  The first poem in the Minuit anthology is called “A Lover from Palestine”--”your eyes, a thorn tearing my heart to pieces,” it begins[5]--and the first in the Gallimard, “A Voice from the Olive Grove,” the voice of another tender militant:  “One day I will come down from my cross./But then how,/naked and barefoot, to go back to my home?”[6]

            If ‘militant’ refers to ‘serving as a soldier,’ Darwish in his tendernesses would make a poor one--in just the ways Plato suspected when he wanted to ban poets from his Republic, for discouraging soldiers by reminding them of grief, and of the precious pleasures of sensual life.  ”I am writing my agenda,” Darwish says later in “A Lover from Palestine,” published when he was in his twenties:  “I love oranges.”[7]  The most famous poem from that first volume, set to music by Marcel Khalife and sung by audiences all over the world, is “To My Mother,” missing her coffee, her caress, her bread.  When he was trapped in Beirut during the Israeli siege in 1982, he risked death crossing the kitchen of his apartment to make his coffee, which had by then become something of a mother itself:  “Conquerors can do anything,” he wrote in the prose memoir Memory for Forgetfulness.  “They can aim sea, sky, and earth at me, but they cannot root the aroma of coffee out of me.  I shall make my coffee now.  I will drink the coffee is a breast that nourishes men deeply.  A morning born of a bitter taste.  The milk of manhood.”[8]   “Even one kitten,” he says at one point, walking a street under the paths of jet fighters.  “If I were to find a kitten.  No sorrow.”[9] 

            Even when he was a young man, writing poems that no longer appear in his French anthologies, poems that provoked many detentions, in his home and in Israeli prisons, his faithfulness to heresy and his attachment to sensual life moved away from a soldier’s monologue and toward a lover’s encounter.  “Put it on record./ I am an Arab,” he wrote when he was twenty-three, in “Identity Card,” a poem he rarely reads in public anymore; “And the number of my card is fifty thousand/I have eight children/And the ninth is due after summer/What’s there to be angry about?”

Put it on record at the top of page one:
I don't hate people,
I trespass on no one's property.
And yet, if I were to become hungry
I shall eat the flesh of my usurper.
Beware, beware of my hunger
And of my anger! 

            The latent tone of a lovers’ quarrel here, by the time he is twenty-six, becomes explicit in “Rita and the Rifle,” another song set to Marcel Khalife’s music and sung by thousands:  “Between Rita and my eyes, a rifle/And he who knows Rita prostrates himself and prays/To the radiant god in her eyes of honey.” [11]  By the time he is forty he remembers this dialogue with the flesh of his usurper:

--What do you usually dream about?
 --I usually don’t dream.  And you?  What do you dream about?
 --That I stop loving you.
 --Do you love me?
 --No.  I don’t love you.  Did you know that your mother, Sarah, drove my mother, Hagar, into the desert?
 --Am I to blame then?  Is it for that you don’t love me?
 --No.  You’re not to blame; and because of that I don’t love you. Or, I love you.  My dear, my beautiful, my queen!  It’s now five-thirty in the morning, and I must get back to them.
 --To whom?
 --To the Haifa police.  I have to prove I exist, at eight in the morning.

             He was first arrested at the age of sixteen; he learned Hebrew in Israeli jails, and from the forced exchange on that bridge between conquered and conqueror made not a rigid enmity a poet could ill afford, but something he’s called “a window on two worlds”: [13]  one of the Bible--”An essential book, in spite of all we’d suffered in its name”--and one on literature in translation.  He first read the poetry of Hikmet and Lorca and Neruda in Hebrew, and the tragedies of Aeschylus.  His first love was a Jewish woman.  When asked in an interview about his “image of the enemy,“ he replied, “It was from the start human.  Multiple and various.  There doesn’t exist in me a singular and definitive vision of the Other.  The man who educated me was Jewish, the man who persecuted me was also.  The woman who loved me was Jewish.  The woman who hated me also.” [14]   If ‘militant’ refers to a level of commitment to a struggle, to steadfast, stubborn persistence--what the Palestinians call sumoud--then the label fits; but these may also be a lover’s qualities, when inextricable from a hunger for dialogue, for which the Other must be present, must awaken, must live.   In a poet with the ability not only to feel but to articulate love’s devotions and exigencies, its inability to forget--”your chronic illness,” Darwish calls it in 2002, in “A State of Siege,” “the illness of hope” [15]--who insists for a lifetime that “A dove may nest and lay eggs in iron helmets” [16]--the lover’s way may in the end prove much more dangerous to existing arrangements.

            Darwish’s voice comes from his virtuoso’s dialogue with Arabic, from Imru al-Qais and Tarafah of the pre-Islamic Mu’allaqat--”I want to read all of Tarafah,” he tells death in “Mural,” “so give me time” [17]--to the tenth-century Iraqi Mutanabbi, to the poets of al-Andalus, and onward; but this lover’s tone is also part of the voices of several other seditious twentieth-century poets with whom Darwish might claim a son’s kinship, exiles with homes in their languages:  in age order, Nazim Hikmet of Turkish, Pablo Neruda of Américan Spanish, Yannis Ritsos of Greek, and Faiz Ahmed Faiz of Urdu, ‘inadmissible aliens’ all at one time or another affiliated with the Communist Party, poets who radically expanded the range of the apostrophe, mixing the social and historical scope of the epic with a mystic’s or a lover’s lyric ‘you.’  British translator Denys Johnson-Davies said in an interview in 1983, “I come to modern Arabic writing with an open mind.  I have, too, no political axes to grind, though one is forced to the conclusion that most talent lies to the left of center....any writer worth his salt in the Arab world today is perforce a rebel.” [18]  If, as Tony Judt has written, “Communism defiled and despoiled the radical heritage,” [19] much of these men’s poetry redeems it; at great personal cost, they tried to articulate the world of the twentieth century, in whose ashes and hopes we now live, in which there sometimes seems no corner that is not a battlefield, a torture chamber, or a grave--and to meet its unprecedented quantum of human suffering with words so beautiful and alive and new that one could imagine a new world being made of them.  To epic grandeur and tragedy they brought the hope of radical politics, that human life needn’t always be so--a hope sustained by lyric intensity and beauty, combining the formal traditions of their languages with radical departures, cherishing, protecting, and transforming their mother tongues.  To unassimilable horror they brought what Julio Cortázar in reference to Argentine poet Juan Gelman, another inheritor of this legacy, calls “unthinkable tenderness” [20]:  Hikmet’s in “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved,” Neruda’s for the Chile he called his thin one, his ship of snow, Faiz’s for “A Prison Evening,” “so strangely sweet,” [21]  Ritsos’s under the Greek dictatorship for “the dead woman’s guitar,” “left upside-down./On the guitar’s back, moisture sparkles secretly./It is sparks such as these that prevent the world from dying.” [22]   These men pledged their lives to what Mahmoud Darwish describes as “the moment when literature can celebrate its great wedding, when the private voice and the public voice become one.  Yes.” [23]  “What stays an enigma, and the  great problem, is how to build a democracy, with the participation of the people,” Juan Gelman said in an interview in 2001.  “This is something to be invented.” [24] 

            In that same interview, Gelman mentions one of his neologisms, changing a vital Spanish noun’s gender to refer to ‘la mundo’; the figure of a beloved woman is indispensable to each of these poets’ visions of a world transformed, a world often referred to in one aspect or another with the pronoun ‘she.’  A woman made of flesh and blood and mind might find it difficult to recognize herself or any woman she knows in the generic portraits of Neruda or Faiz, and might find herself portrayed in Hikmet as a beloved companion with whom one does not discuss politics.  This is not the case with Darwish; his beloved is an interlocutor, often a contentious one--the rifle in his famous Rita poem is hers, as she becomes an Israeli soldier--inseparable from the world, in the way what used to be called the women’s liberation movement once pointed out that the bedroom and the boardroom and the battlefield are inseparable.  If the twentieth century’s shatterings could be described as patriarchal ideas about territory and alterity and honor and violence carried to their terrible extremes, all these poets in search of another way looked into a woman’s face, as a glyph to stand for the buried, the almost annihilated, the scorned, the silenced-but-possible, in which the hope for an alternative might survive.  It might be said that Darwish’s fathers were not yet equipped to listen and look at the same time; but he often shows signs of beginning this transformative project.  “Let us go as we are,” he writes in The Stranger’s Bed in 1998, “a free woman and a loyal friend.” [25]

            These three books of translation face particularly daunting challenges on the bridge between English and Arabic; the difference in alphabets is in some ways the least of the divergences.  If one reaches back into what the French call “la poésie anglo-saxonne”--which extends all the way to the present, and of which Usahn English poetry is a branch--one might come to “So.  The Spear-Danes in days gone by/and the kings who ruled them,” via Seamus Heaney; if one reaches back into Arabic, one might find the quite different voice of Imru al-Qais, saying “Stop, oh my friends, let us pause to weep over the remembrance of my beloved./Here was her abode on the edge of the sandy desert between Dakhool and Howmal.”  The Usahn age-mates of the seditious poets just discussed, all born in the twentieth century’s first decade--Langston Hughes, Theodore Roethke, Stanley Kunitz, Elizabeth Bishop--sound plain, austere, reserved in comparison with their non-Anglo-Saxon counterparts; English restraint can be Arabic barrenness, and Arabic lushness can be English sentimentality.  It’s possible to find an entire anthology of Usahn English poetry of the twentieth century containing no poet directly touched by imprisonment and exile and war; in Arabic this would be impossible.  By comparison, poets in Usahn English seem much less attached to their language’s potentially ecstasy-provoking musical resources; English, rich in nouns, material, precise, travels the world as the lingua franca of business--while Arabic plays almost infinite subtle changes on the three-letter chords of verb stems, and travels the world principally via the Koran, as the voice of God.  When translating from Spanish, one has the advantage of related vocabularies and similar syntaxes; so Neruda’s “Macchu Picchu, pusiste piedra en la piedra en la base de harapo” leads without much debate to “Macchu Picchu, did you put stone upon stone on a base of rags.”  But so many possibilities clamor under any given Arabic phrase that it may be unrecognizable across translated versions.  The makers of Unfortunately, It Was Paradise give us “Like the Letter ‘N’ in the Qur’an,” beginning, “East of the springs, in a forest of olives,/ my grandfather embraced his forsaken shadow” [26]--while Jeffrey Sacks in Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? calls the same poem “Like the Nun in Surat al-Rahman,” following the vocabulary and the line breaks of the original en face more closely:  “In the olive grove, east/of the wells my grandfather withdrew into his abandoned/shadow.” [27]  As usual, a reader is moved both to gratitude for the translator’s arduous indispensable labor and to tears for the fractured reality of Babel--and is tempted to abandon the idea of ‘translation’ as one-to-one correspondence, and to piece together the absent presence of the original with as much language study and as many alternate versions as possible.

            To hear Darwish read his own poetry in his language is to hear these challenges compounded; where seventh-century English would offer a “Caedmon’s Hymn” incomprehensible to an English speaker now--”Nu sclyun Hergan   hefaenricaesuard,” goes the first line, “Praise now to the keeper of the kingdom of heaven”--the modified seventh-century Arabic of the Koran is still the common language of educated Arabic speakers all over the world, and has been this poet’s dancing partner for almost fifty years.  Because of his dislocations, he does not have a home among the regional colloquial Arabics, sometimes different enough to be mutually unintelligible; his home is in the classical, which he makes the neoclassical, when he reads caressing its every nuance, opening its variations in a way that sounds like the shaded echoes and inversions and inventions of Bach, or John Coltrane, the same ecstatic play and grandeur in the fugal accumulations and cadenced releases, and that same odd impression of an artist displaying his dazzling personal powers and at the same time hosting the impersonal power of the music by stepping out of the way.  To say ‘His English is beautiful’ is not a usual compliment in this country for a poet; like many sounds in Arabic--the glottal stops with their small subsequent silences, the ق  like the strike of a horse’s hoof, the whispered  ح , the ع like a lover’s cry caught in the throat--the word tarab has no English equivalent, but means something like the ecstasy provoked by music, by sound.  In this country at the moment, where the word ‘workshop’ is often associated with a poem’s making, the sober sermon aspect of religion tends to play a larger part in poetic diction than the mystically ecstatic--and to refer to “what throughout human history has appeared as a divine gift,” as Hannah Arendt did in a 1966 essay on Brecht [28], might be greeted with some amount of contemporary Anglo-Saxon skepticism.  What Darwish found at the Andalusian crossroads of reading Lorca in Hebrew--the cry to announce someone making art conducive to the arrival of God in the room, Allah! Olé!, in 1933 meeting the Spanish Fascists’ “!Viva la muerte!” with “!Viva Dios!”--is difficult to find or to render in contemporary Usahn English; not many students of poetry here would describe their workshop goal as learning to play the years of practice scales necessary in order to let English moan through their mouths.  In his essay on the duende, Lorca calls this “a real, poetic escape from this world,” and calls the knowledgeable place he comes from “a country open to death”[ 29] --suggesting that among those for whom what Adrienne Rich has called “the facts of blood and bread”[ 30] are inescapable, this kind of poetic escape, into an alternate world, in search of messages for this one, might become a lifelong pursuit, less along the lines of articulating individual perceptions than of learning to play the oud--and suggesting that while military victories may provide one kind of safe neighborhood, with these facts hidden, art’s victories tend to live elsewhere.

            Darwish’s poetry might be considered in terms of his various unsafe neighborhoods:  the Israel/Palestine of the spring of his life, a time of exile in his own home, particularly Haifa and Carmel, where he wrote the first nine volumes; Beirut of his second exile, where he published ten more volumes, from age thirty until the Israeli siege in 1982; the cities of his third exile, where he lived after leaving Beirut:  Cairo, Tunis, Amman, Paris, from It’s a Song, It’s a Song of 1986 to Eleven Planets of 1992; and Ramallah, where he moved in 1996, from The Stranger’s Bed to his most recent Don’t Apologize For What You Did.  Another volume, Like Almond Blossoms or Farther, written in 2005, will appear in French this fall. 

            As the poet says in his introduction to the Gallimard anthology, if his freedom were complete, he would probably only keep his work since 1982, from the autumn of his life forward; he seldom reads or anthologizes the poems that made him famous as a young man, what he later called his “direct poems,” for which revered Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani, six years older, dubbed him and his comrades “poets of resistance.”  “I’m constantly concerned with freeing poetry from what isn’t poetry,” he said in an interview in Paris in 1995, “with distinguishing it from the social tasks assigned to it, to deliver it from the immediacy of politics.” [31]  In an interview in Cairo in 2002, he said, “I distinguish between poems like ‘Ahinn Ila Khubz Ummi’ (‘I long for my mother’s bread’) and ‘Sajjil Ana Arabi’ (‘Record, I am an Arab’).  ‘Ahinn’ is poetry, ‘Sajjil’ is rhetoric.  Yet I did read ‘Sajjil’ in Beirut earlier this year, because the event wasn’t an evening of poetry; it was an event organised in a football stadium, an event of Lebanese solidarity with the besieged Palestinians.  In time of emergency one musters all one’s elements in defence of one’s identity, and one makes aesthetic concessions.” [32]  While his early imperatives do sometimes tip into slogan, Darwish follows the line of imprecation into many different registers as he goes:  from “Write it down: I’m an Arab” and “Attach us with a lock of your hair/A thread that hangs from the hem of your dress,” [33] in the two poems just mentioned, to “Rita, love me!” [34] of a little later, the “Resist!” of “Ahmad al-Za’atar” of 1977 [35] giving way to “He Embraces His Murderer” of 1986--“Then throw your gun in the river!  What do you say?” [36] -- to “Take her to the balcony to watch the moon drowning in milk,” from “Lessons from the Kama Sutra,” [37] to “The Last Discourse of the Red Man” of 1992 and its “Don’t murder the river-waisted one/whose grandchildren we are,” [38]  to 1995’s order in “One Traveler”:  “Write!”[ 39]  Certainly Marcel Khalife would quarrel with Darwish’s plans to jettison the early work, as would the audiences who sing along when he performs pieces like “Rita and the Rifle”; “bin Rita,” he starts, after the oud’s introduction, then pauses while the audience finishes the phrase; “Ismu Rita,” he sings, Rita’s name, “was a feast in my mouth,” the crowd sings back, “Jismu Rita,” Rita’s body, “was a wedding in my blood”; while it’s true that this poet has since ventured into technically far more complex musics and meditations, it’s extraordinary to hear how he and Khalife have collaborated to make a part of Arab pride and resistance a poem about an Arab man loving a Jewish woman but her rifle gets in the way.

            Darwish was just shy of thirty when he left the Haifa he hadn’t been permitted to leave for eight years; after brief sojourns elsewhere he settled in Beirut, and into the harrowing reality of what it meant to be an exiled Palestinian poet there.  In 1972 Ghassan Kanafani and his teenage niece were killed by an Israeli car bomb outside his apartment in Hazmieh; in Stephen Spielberg’s “Munich” you can see a fantasy version of the death of poet Kamal Nasir in 1973, killed on the floor of his bedroom by an Israeli commando team that included Ehud Barak, later Israeli Prime Minister and fabled source of generous peace offers.  Nasir was shot repeatedly in the mouth and in his right hand.  Darwish knew them both; like Neruda in Spain waiting for the murdered Lorca, he was waiting to have lunch with Kanafani on the day he died.  Darwish’s time in Beirut was an entrance into a global dialogue about politics and about poetry; bracketed as it was by the beginning of the Lebanese civil war and the Israeli siege of Beirut, it was also an arduous tutorial in death.  ”My Beirut period was not the golden age of my poetic experience,” he has said. [40]  But while the overwhelming pressure of events tipped him toward rhetoric, he kept accumulating formal resources he would later put to complex use.  One debate, he recalled later, was ”over which is more important, over the relationship between poetry and reality, on the question of what we mean by the concept of ‘revolutionary poetry.’  Is it connected to the subject, to society, to reality, or does the revolution take place only in language?  There were two currents.  I chose both.” [41]  “This period led me to the writing of the global poem,” he said, “the open poem.  That’s what I call it.  A long poem, in several voices, composed of antagonistic elements....Why are there so many voices in my poems?  Because I am not alone.  Not alone in the poem.  Not alone in the place.  Not alone in time.  There’s the Other.” [42]  One of his most famous lines from that period has unfortunately kept its usefulness, still a tool in his hand in a long poem twenty years later, playing fierce variations on the word hisar:  “Besiege your siege.” [43]

            “After I left Beirut, I approached the shore of poetry,” Darwish has said; [44]  Unfortunately, It Was Paradise begins at just this time, with excerpts from the books written in various Arab cities and in Paris, before 1996--Fewer Roses, I See What I Want To See, and Why Have You Left the Horse Alone?--and then samples the first work from Ramallah:  A Bed for the Stranger, and Mural of 2000 in its entirety.  Munir Akash was the capable editor of the fine collection The Adam of Two Edens, mentioned previously, now out of print; at Darwish’s request, as before, Akash asked a Usahn poet to work in collaboration with the Arabic-speaking translators, to “give the translations a single consistent tone,” [45] in this case Carolyn Forché.  Forché is no stranger to the way personal and political currents join and braid in Darwish’s life, nor to the ‘unthinkable tenderness’ with which he navigates this; her ear and eye have some things in common with his, drawn toward intensity of cadence and toward powerful, sometimes enigmatic images.  Sinan Antoon in The Adam of Two Edens demonstrated his clear verbal grace and political astuteness in translating “A Horse for the Stranger,” to an Iraqi poet in exile just after the beginning of the first Usahn invasion, and “A Non-Linguistic Dispute with Imri’ Al-Qays,” a veiled criticism of the Oslo accords; it’s one of the adept choices of Unfortunately that he translates the excerpts from Darwish’s first book composed entirely of love poems,  A Bed for the Stranger.  The mixing of his voice with Forché’s is an auspicious one; “Let us go as we are,” echoes the first poem’s refrain, “a free woman and a friend who is loyal to flutes.” [46]  While the Arabic tends more toward shorter, enjambed lines, the translation’s leaning toward longer and  end-stopped effectively hints at the original’s lush musical power.

            Darwish moved to Ramallah near the thirtieth anniversary of what Palestinians call the naksa, the setback, of the 1967 war and subsequent Israeli occupation, and the fiftieth of the nakba, the catastrophe, of 1948; while his readers may have expected a topical oration on these momentous occasions, his book of 1998 besieged the siege with sonnets, with virginity that renews itself, lessons from the Kama Sutra, Damascene doves flying two by two:  “There is no name for what life should be, except/what you did and what you do to my soul.” [47]  His friend Israeli-Palestinian writer Anton Shammas was not the only reader to be shocked, finding in the book "a gloomily defiant message: 'to hell with Palestine; now I'm on my own.’” [48]  ”Is there room in the field for a new autumn?” asked the plural narrator in “We Have the Right To Love Autumn,” in Fewer Roses[49] as Darwish tried to find his way to a renewed poetic vitality after Beirut’s despairs and devastations; Juan Gelman calls it “la derrota,” the defeat, haunting the poet in dialogue with history, for Adrienne Rich in 1983 “the thought that what I must meant to break my heart and reduce me to silence.” [50]  “The force of despair,” Darwish said in 1995, “lies in the fact that it gives you the feeling of being able to compose a new human presence,” his project in A Bed for the Stranger and beyond.  “It opposes with creative force the destructive capacity of the conqueror.” [51]  In a 1996 interview with Israeli poet and editor Helit Yeshurun, he said, “I don’t represent anyone.  I’m not responsible for the way my texts are read.  But the collective voice is present in my personal voice, whether I like it or not...I stay in the middle, on the border between the public voice and the personal voice...What matters to me is to feel free.” [52]  It’s a demanding and fruitful place to stay, on the border, in the transformative realm of the two Charles Olson lines Rich cited in 1971--”What does not change/is the will to change”--and of her “Delta” of sixteen years later, insisting on lifegiving metamorphosis:

If you have taken this rubble for my past
raking through it for fragments you could sell
know that I long ago moved on
deeper into the heart of the matter
If you think you can grasp me, think again:
my story flows in more than one direction
a delta springing from the riverbed
with its five fingers spread

For Juan Gelman, one agent of metamorphosis, changing defeat to a poet’s wine, is the moon he watches rise over the waterfronts of cities of exile, including his own, whose rosy fingers Sappho loved.  “I myself love your feet,” he adds, “which never tire of trampling this defeat, of macerating it night after night.” [54]  “I have chosen to be a Trojan poet,” Darwish says. “I am resolutely in the camp of the defeated.” [55]  With Helit Yeshurun, who at one point refused to publish Darwish’s work, he had the following extraordinary exchange, in Hebrew:

MD:  “We’ve never had the Trojan version.  I’m sure there were poets in Troy,
but the voice of Homer, the voice of the conqueror, won out over the the Trojan
right to speak.  I’m trying to be the poet of Troy.  Is that bad?  I like the conquered.
HY:  Careful, you’re starting to talk like a Jew!
MD:  I hope so.  Truth always has two faces.        [56]

            Unfortunately, Unfortunately includes no trace of Darwish’s volume that appeared in 1992 in Spanish as 11 Astros, the Koranic prophet Joseph’s Eleven Planets, whose central sequence has been translated into English as “Eleven Stars Over Andalusia,” and which includes the powerful “Last Discourse of the Red Man”; but it does include the complete “Mural,” Darwish’s breathtaking panoramic pageant of the encounter with death, alive with musics and commentaries and guests, Imru’ al-Qays and the tenth century’s Ma’arri, skeptical of all religions, René Char and Heidegger, the Canaanite moon goddess Anat and the mourning Gilgamesh, the dying man at the poem’s beginning who is and is not the poet--”Mine is the temporal body, present and absent./Two meters of earth are enough for now” [57]--and the boy within him, who would have kept more than a casual interest in making history pass before a witness’s eyes.  “Green and high is the land of my ode,” Akash and Forché render it, summoning Lorca, “the words of God at dawn”; [58] the translation from the Hebrew in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz moves with even more plain grandeur, somewhere between Rilke and Jeremiah:  “Green is the earth of my poems and exalted/The earth of my poem is God’s voice at dawn.” [59]   Darwish’s beloved Mu’allaqat, the seven pre-Islamic odes, are called ‘the suspended ones,’ some think because they were hung on the wall of the holy Ka’bah in Mecca; his poem’s title in Arabic is Jidariyya, with its echo of jidar, the word for among other things the separation wall now looming along the border that is not a border between Israel and what is not Palestine, often dividing Palestinian workers from workplaces and families from families and villages from the outlying fields that sustain them.  A jidariyya is a picture or a painting on a wall; it’s also a plant that climbs there, a vine.  “One day I will be what I want to be,” says one of the poem’s voices; “One day, I will be a grapevine./After today, let summer press me./Let passersby drink my wine under the chandeliers of that sugary place./I am the message and also the messenger,/the briefest of addresses and also the mail.” [60]

            Jeffrey Sacks and Fady Joudah offer the great gift of volumes in translation rendered entire, and with the original en face; each sticks more closely to the Arabic than the translators of Unfortunately, Joudah for example calling the love poems a more accurate The Stranger’s Bed, Sacks tempering the slight inflation Unfortunately can tip into with the simpler Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone?  The question is a little boy’s to his father as they flee, in this volume of poetic autobiography that suffers from abridgment, benefitting from Sacks’s careful attention to each voice and fragrance and heartbreaking event.  Fortunately a reader with two hands can sit with a book in each; so Unfortunately in the left with the Arabic invisible might offer the musical pleasure of “The Death of the Phoenix”--”In the songs we sing there is a flute./In the flute that dwells within us there is a fire”--while Why? in the right would propose under the same title, “In the hymns that we sing, there’s a/flute/In the flute that shelters us/fire,” moving exactly with the breaks of the Arabic original, making visible the nun and the alif at the beginning of each sentence’s final words.  “The Everlasting Indian Fig” in Unfortunately would become “The Eternity of Cactus” in Why?, and the stumbling reader could venture a guess that the original word for the plant looks a bit like ‘sabra.’  For the end, “...As He Draws Away,” where “the enemy takes a rest from his gun,/leaving it on my grandfather’s chair” [61]--and where Darwish quotes Yeats’s airman, on “Those that I fight I do not hate,/Those that I guard I do not love”--she could hold the nuances of Sacks’s “Were it not for the gun/the flute would pass into the flute,” [62] and trade Unfortunately for the looseness and simplicity of Sargon Boulos’s version in The Adam of Two Edens, “As He Walks Away”:  “Our flutes would have played a duet/if it weren’t for the gun.” [63]

            Fady Joudah’s meticulous, substantial The Butterfly’s Burden pays a similar respect to the Arabic original, keeping close to it in the breaking of lines; under one cover he gives us all but one of the first four volumes from Ramallah, skipping MuralThe Stranger’s Bed, A State of Siege, and Don’t Apologize for What You’ve Done.  This last as far as I know has not been translated into English anywhere else, even in pieces; were it excerpted, a reader would miss the grand architecture of the six sections, the first a collection Joudah translates as “In the Lust of Cadence,” followed by five separate long poems.  The fifth section is called “Like a Mysterious Incident,” in which the poet visiting Neruda’s house at Isla Negra is reminded of Yannis Ritsos, whose definition of poetry supplies the poem’s title.  Darwish met Ritsos when the members of the PLO evacuated from Beirut were welcomed in Athens; these last sections of Don’t Apologize are reminiscent of the long Ritsos monologues in the voices of the figures of Greek tragedy.  While it’s difficult to hear Darwish’s distinctive cadences in the short lines of The Stranger’s Bed, he’s audible in Joudah’s sharply rendered titles, like “I Have the Wisdom of One Condemned to Death,” or “The Beloved Hemorrhaged Anemones,” and in lines allowed to unfold a little longer, like “As for me, I say to my name:  let me be.” [64]  

            But the heart of The Butterfly’s Burden is the long poem at its center, “A State of Siege,” “Halat Hisar” from the spring of 2002; when he read it at Swarthmore for a Lannan Foundation event, it hadn’t been five days since the Israeli army had withdrawn their tanks from the streets of Ramallah, after almost a month of curfews and mass arrests and the shelling and looting particularly of buildings associated with civil society:  human rights monitors, institutes for health care research and and economic development, the Palestinian Authority’s Ministries of Finance, Public Works, and Education, radio and television stations, and Darwish’s Sakakini Cultural Center, whose offices were vandalized and windows shot out.  “While writing Halat Hisar I didn’t see it as poetry,” he told Al-Ahram that December;  “I was writing something akin to diaries, quick impressions, and in truth this is new to me.” [65]  If one were unaware of the subject matter, it might seem a love poem to hear it read; “Huna,” he begins and later echoes, “Here,” the sounds of the line endings calling to each other, in what Joudah renders as “Here, by the downslope of hills, facing the sunset/and time’s muzzle,/near gardens with severed shadows,/we do what the prisoners do,/and what the unemployed do:/we nurture hope.” [66]   “To a killer,” the dialogue insists at some points, “To poetry,” “To the night”; in the forty-fourth  section he says in a mother’s voice, addressing her son at his funeral, “If you’re not a rain my love,” habibi, “be a tree,” shajara; “and if you’re not a tree my love,” habibi, “be a stone,” hajara, with its echo of the Hajarul Aswad of Mecca, the Black Stone, where the exiled Hagar lived with her son Ishmael, her name from the word ‘hajar,’ ‘to flee.’  “Elahi, Elahi,” he says four sections later, “My lord! lord! why have you forsaken me/while I’m still a child...and you haven’t tested me yet?” [67]  His voice rises when he comes to the seventy-fourth section, playing yet another variation on the theme of Uhibbuki aw la uhibbuki from thirty years previous, I Love You, I Love You Not:

I don’t love you, I don’t hate you
the detainee told the interrogator.  My heart is filled
with what doesn’t concern you.  My heart overflows with sage scent,
my heart is innocent, illuminated, full,
and there is no time in the heart for cross-examination.  Yes,
I don’t love you.  Who are you that I should love you?
Are you some of my I, and a meeting over tea
and a nay’s hoarseness, and a song that I should love you?
But I hate detainment and I don’t hate you.
This is what the detainee told the interrogator:  My passion
does not concern you.  My passion is my private night...
my night that moves between the pillows free
of meter and rhyme!


 • • •

            As I’ve been writing this essay, the fragile coalition in the government that is not a government of Darwish’s state that is not a state has disintegrated; in Gaza, Palestinian snipers replaced the more familiar Israeli ones, declaring closed military zones and shooting at anything that moved.  “It is difficult to get the news from poetry,” William Carlos Williams wrote, from our different Usahn context; but on June 17 a new Darwish poem appeared on the front page of Al-Ayyam, a newspaper from Yemen, with a first line something like, “Was it for us to fall from such heights and see our blood on our hands, to see that we weren’t angels, as we’d thought?”, under a title something like “From Now On We Have Become Someone Else.” [69]  Thanks to the internet you can read the storm of reactions Darwish tends to provoke, from worship all along the spectrum to scorn.  Ha’aretz reports that he has plans to appear next week at the Mt. Carmel Auditorium in Haifa, where he has not set foot in more than thirty years.  Maybe he’ll read from the new collection he finished in 2005, which might be called in English Like Almond Blossoms, or Farther.  ‘Ab’ad,’ the title’s last word, also appears in “A State of Siege”:  “He says: What flowers do you love?/She says: I love says: Where are you taking me/while the carnations are black?/She says: To the seat of light inside me/And she says: And farther...farther...farther.” [70]  

            Maybe he will get to Haifa without harassment or delay; “There has not been such a manifestation of international dictatorship since the Roman Empire,” he’s said about the country these determined translations come from, [71] which tends to oversee his local arrangements, but maybe its manifestations next week will permit him to make his return that is not a return.  Maybe there will be scraps in his pocket of the poem that hasn’t been written yet, his favorite, the next one, and maybe as he looks out over the sea he’ll be trying to solve the puzzle of what in English is called a verse, the turn of a line like the turn of a plow, and what in Arabic is called a beyt, a tent, a house, a home.

July 9, 2007




Night Journey

for Mahmoud Darwish

“Pero yo ya no soy yo
ni mi casa es ya mi casa.”

Federico García Lorca
 Romance Sonámbulo


The mystery of the lost voice returned in the night/to sharpen and soothe the wound of absence
The mystery of music behind your closed eyes/opening another listening
The mystery of your hand in mine/in a crowded downstairs restaurant in Ramallah
Of your hand in mine still Draft of a translation/Do I dream or do I walk with you

Your intransigent body from the Galilee/to the armored helicopter for the ceremonies
Making soldiers touch yellow roses/to lift and carry you
From your last bed On the empire's border/where you heard the Native ghosts whispering
Your heart broken for the last time in August/The day of your death was a hot bright day

And today gray in Manhattan midwinter/when I walked in the library of the letters you learned
In your first prison Letters saved/from annihilation by sumoud like yours
Letters dancing in the names of children/born and born after the failed attempt
At ashes Letters walking like the woman with a scarf/around her Native face on the train

Hebrew letters In which Hikmet told you/about the things he didn't know he loved
In which Neruda found under the known city/the lost city of the labor of slaves
A letter from a Warsaw fighter in Yiddish/The letters in the names of the soldiers today
Attempting ashes And the numbers/Seven hundred and sixty-five dead Thirteen days

Blood and blood and blood you wrote/Blood in your country In my name and yours
In the baby's milk In light and shadow/In the grain of wheat In salt
In a poem to your intransigent comrade/lost After you walked in Manhattan
That letters will tell the truth you insisted/That life on this earth is possible

Yarok Yarok you read in the prison/Green Green How I love you green
The glint of it in Galilean olives/The glint of it in your lover's mouth
In your lover's mouth Akhdar The land of my poem/is green The captain's mouth sweetened by the words
You put there as he spoke to the world Across town/Do not let the green branch fall from my hands


On your last night on this earth did you dream/of horses The one tied to a mulberry tree
Before your father's place became/a place he watched with his head in his hands
The one you found wet in an almond grove/who'd forgotten her nationality
The one with letters tangled in her mane/who carried you to the seven gates

The first where you sat with a free woman laughing/Drinking coffee and milk Pomegranate juice Rain
The second whose bright made you close your eyes/The outdoor laundry of transformations
Bright salt cove and rocks and the word Mine/rinsed of its significance
Flags and bandages Isn't every flag a bandage/Bleached white Rebecoming starstuff in the sun

And before the third The gate of music/Did you turn for one last look at the earth
To say goodbye to letters To the poems/written on cigarette boxes in jails
To bread To green To the alchemies/of the oud Making its human translations
Misery to beauty Dream to awakening/Sorrow to rapture Branch to song

Did you see the Gaza mothers weeping/over the ruined traces of their encampments
The way you saw the mothers of Shatila/Of every ghetto camp assailed
Did you see the victims and the executioners/through the chaos of their mask exchanges
The way you saw through the lie of revenge/A flag over a wound that does not heal

Did you have to show your documents/Your shyness Your refusal to hate
Your way of seeing a free woman's body/as a sign of a just world
Your remembering Your recalcitrance/Your affliction with the illness of hope
Your way of touching orphans with your eyes/the color of the Gaza dawn sea

Did you see the wheel of slaughter turning/in its mute expressive repetitions
Did you see those whose way will be the earth's way/when the time of slaughter is done
Did you see letters Scattered in patterns/like stars Extinguished Radiant Persistent
Forming the gift of words like yours/Another day will come A womanly day


Night now and the park lilacs hidden/without the revelation of blossom
The morning glories a tangle of old vine/clumped on the meadow’s chainlink fence
Glistening with ice in the streetlight/The lacy feather filaments
And the stripped lilac branches suggesting fragrance/by way of whispers to sharp ears like yours

As you were suggested that August day not/by the soldiers adjusting your roses on the bier
But by the boys playing hide and seek/under the rippling flag
Not by the president reciting/someone else’s words from a music stand
But by the women who pressed close to touchyou/Your lovers who wrote your words on their shirts

And you asked Who has spilled and taken what you gathered/And they said We can’t recognize his face
And you said In whose ways have you kept steadfast/And they blushed and turned away
What are letters in a time of annihilation/you asked from the masjid of a human body
Carried to the gates Are you still there Turned/Waiting for us to answer you

The morning glories’ black tendrils keep/the shape of their turn against the sun
Along the icy cinder path scattered/with cigarette butts and seeds
The seeds the Aztecs used to see the gates/To be translated into the vines
That will hold the furled blue trumpets of summer/one morning before they let them fall

The traces not wholly obliterated/as your Imru al-Qais would say
For when the south wind blows sand over them/the north wind sweeps it away
And another homeless man whispering/Still pacing the divided besieging city
Says in letters you knew Behold/I am doing a new thing do you not perceive it

In Gaza it’s tomorrow Is the girl still there/who put a strawberry in my hand
From the one field not razed She and her brothers/who knew your letters by heart
Dancing with you in the mystery of healing/Someone here tonight is attempting it
A homeless man Thinking he’s talking to no one/Blessing people he can’t see and singing