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It is difficult to overestimate the importance of poet Mahmoud Darwish to Palestinian culture and national aspirations, not to mention to Arab and world poetry; at the very least, we might think of him as the poet laureate of Palestine for the past forty years, and in perpetuity. Born in Birwe in 1942 and exiled to Lebanon in 1948 during the war (when Birwe was wiped off the map), Darwish’s family returned to Israel as internal refugees, called “present-absent aliens.” Over the course of the next sixty years, he has lived all over the world, participated in the political and cultural life of Palestine as an exile, and then finally was able to come back, post-Oslo Accords, to live in the West Bank city of Ramallah in 1996.
His early work, in now famous poems such as the blistering “Identity Card” and the bitter-sweet elegy “My Mother,” Darwish embodied what Ghassan Kanafani and Barbara Harlow have termed “resistance poetry” — explicitly political writing conceived as a force for mobilizing resistance, and acting as a repository of national consciousness. Yet the range of his work — from the stark social realism of “Identity Card” to the visionary mode of “We Travel Like Other People” — makes him both a figure of Palestinian persistence and proof that Palestinian life is not reducible to victimization and loss.
The Butterfly’s Burden — a collection of his most recent books translated by Fady Joudah into a supple and lush English — The Stranger’s Bed (1998), A State of Siege (2002), and Don’t Apologize for What You’ve Done (2003) — aptly represents the range of Darwish’s mature style. From the courtly and ecstatic love lyrics of The Stranger’s Bed, to the diaristic and penetrating political poem of A State of Siege, to the colloquial meditations on mortality, history, and the future in Don’t Apologize, The Butterfly’s Burden bears witness to the generous breadth of Darwish’s poetic and cultural achievement.
Fady Joudah, winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize for The Earth in the Attic (2008), a physician with Doctors Without Borders, and a Palestinian-American, had his work cut out for him — given the chasm between Arabic and American poetics, not to mention between the cultural specificities of Palestinian life. Yet he bears across the often dizzyingly complex linguistic, poetic, and cultural associations embedded in Darwish’s poetry into an increasingly satisfying and, at times, breath-taking poetry.
The first book, The Stranger’s Bed, is Darwish’s long-anticipated book of love poems. Written after his resignation from the PLO, Darwish liberated himself from the obligations of a purely public poetry to return to one of the wellsprings of poetry and the Arabic poetic tradition: the encounter with the beloved. In this way, perhaps, Darwish’s love poems resemble his previous oeuvre, except the beloved is no longer a cipher for the lost land of Palestine; rather, it is a map to the private geography of human relation.
Yet, to my ear, some of these poems seem lost in translation, foundering in their gentility, courtly gestures, and spiritualism. It is quite likely that Darwish’s poems pull deeply from the well of the love poetry of the Jahili (pre-Islamic) and Sufi traditions, rich in symbols and metaphors. But there just isn’t much smell of the human in these poems — or just a bit too much jasmine, almond blossoms, butterflies, and freedom.
These poems, whatever their limitations in English, share with all of Darwish’s work an obsession with articulating — and slipping the bonds of — identity, in its relation to the other. When Darwish adopts the voice of a woman, as in “No More and No Less,” he generates the kind of unvarnished love poetry that feels more Shakespeare than Petrarch:
...As for me
I liked to be loved as I am
not as a color photo
in the paper, or as an idea
composed in a poem amid the stags...
I hear Laila’s faraway scream
from the bedroom: Do not leave me
a prisoner of rhyme in the tribal nights
do not leave me to them as news... (49)
When the beloved talks back, Darwish’s poem engages the counterspeech that makes lyric love poetry so vital and so unmonological.
In “Jameel Bouthaina and I,” Darwish lovingly dramatizes aging love, a love that does ripens even as one nears death:
She grows old, my friend, outside the heart
in others’ eyes. But inside me
the gazelle bathes in the spring that pours our of her being (93)
Here, Darwish evokes the Song of Solomon — that archetypal poetry of young love — as he throws off the brutality of aging, to help us envision what it would be like to see through the devoted lover’s eyes, after a lifetime together.
If in the sonnets, the long lines tend to slacken, in a poem like “The Damascene Collar of the Dove,” the short lines vibrate: “In Damascus:/I see all of my language/written with a woman’s needle/on a grain of wheat” (105).
Though the love poems hovered just out of my grasp, A State of Siege insinuated itself right in my gut. I’d rank it among the great political long poems in recent memory, in the tradition of Anna Akhmatova’s ‘Requiem’ and Peter Dale Scott’s ‘Coming to Jakarta’. Like the best political poems, A State of Siege ranges in style and concern, approaching the problem of art in a time of national political crisis. Philosophically engaged and engaging, A State of Siege succeeds because it is not merely a cri de coeur (of the collapse of the Oslo Accords, the beginning of the Second Intifada, etc.). It is also a fragmented diaristic rumination of the psychology of siege — the siege of bodies and consciousness alike.
It summons many different voices — the voices of the neutral, the voices of the outraged, the voices of future bombers, the voices of victims — and each slips into the next in such quick passages that following the poem is something like chasing someone running through a labyrinth. The poem’s quick moves and intense, focused glimpses enables those of us privy only to the bone-crushing images of street beatings of rock throwers so familiar from the First Intifada to have a glimpse inside, as it were, to the subjective tremors of being that such upheaval inevitably cause:
When the fighter planes disappear, the doves fly
white, white. Washing the sky’s cheek
with free wings, reclaiming the splendor and sovereignty
of air and play. Higher and higher
the doves fly, white white. I wish the sky
were real (a man passing between two bombs told me)
Darwish earns his symbolic doves by juxtaposing that “white white” delight against the benumbed mutterings of a passerby, working his way between attacks. Later, echoing Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai’s “Wildpeace,” Darwish predicts that “This siege will extend until/the besieger feels, like the besieged,/that boredom/is a human trait” (143). Ending with a litany of “Salaams,” Darwish’s poem tries to move beyond the resistance of the freedom fighter (muquwama) and steadfast survivalist resistance of the civilian (sumud) into something like a vision of future coexistence:
Salaam is two enemies, longing, each separately,
to yawn on boredom’s sidewalk
Salaam is two lovers moaning to bathe
Salaam is a train that unites all its passengers
who are coming from or going to a picnic in eternity’s suburbs...
Salaam is the public confession of truth:
What have you done with the murdered’s ghost?
Salaam is the turning toward an errand in the garden:
What will we plant in a little while? (173)
In this catalogue, Darwish sutures love poetry to political poetry, poetry of birth to poetry of mortality, poetry of memory to the poetry of letting go.
The final book, Don’t Apologize For What You Have Done, returns Darwish to some familiar styles and concerns, though he has abandoned the stark protest of his early poems. In “Not as a Foreign Tourist Does,” Darwish hearkens back to his poetry of longing, yet with a meta-historical and meta-poetic perspective:
I wasn’t realistic. But I don’t believe
the Iliad’s military history,
it is a poem, a myth creating reality....
And I wondered: Had the camera and the media
been witnesses above the walls of Asian Troy
would Homer have written other than the Odyssey? (293)
The motifs and concerns of his work seen here — the position of exile, the longing for a lost land, the haunting past, the quest for identity — merge in Don’t Apologize with a confrontation with mortality and the final erasure that it promises. In “To Our Land,” Darwish comes closest to reversing the elegiac love of his early poem, “My Mother.” In hailing the land with the archaic language of patriotic poetry, Darwish ends:
To our land, and it is a prize of war,
the freedom to die from longing and burning
and our land, in its bloodied night,
is a jewel that glimmers from the far upon the far
and illuminates what’s outside it...
As for us, inside,
we suffocate more! (203)
This poem could apply to the fate of the so-called Arab Israeli who has had to bear the burdens of second-class citizenship. Yet it could apply equally to Israelis and Palestinians alike, for whom, it could be argued, idolatry of the land drowns out human considerations. As Naomi Shihab Nye asks, in her poem “Jerusalem”: “what if people are the only holy land?”
In “This is Forgetfulness,” Darwish warns Israelis and Palestinians alike, in all the necessary memorializing of national loss, not to forget the future:
And a museum empty of tomorrow, cold,
narrating the seasons already chosen from the start.
This is forgetfulness: that you remember the past
and not remember tomorrow in the story (233)
Rather than meeting mortality with resignation, Darwish summons a wonder and capacity for surprise. One poem, about entering a theater late, ends, “I’m missing the beginning, what’s the beginning?”
The Butterfly’s Burden is a book that ripens as one reads it, as if the earlier, still-growing fruit of the first book turn, by the end, into the rare and complex sweetness.
Philip Metres is a poet and a translator whose work has appeared Best American Poetry (2002). He is the author of To See the Earth (2008), Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront since 1941 (2007), Instants (chap, 2006), Primer for Non-Native Speakers (chap, 2004), Catalogue of Comedic Novelties: Selected Poems of Lev Rubinstein (2004), and A Kindred Orphanhood: Selected Poems of Sergey Gandlevsky (2003). He teaches literature and creative writing at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio. Were it not for Ellis Island, his last name would be Abourjaili. See http://www.philipmetres.com and http://www.behindthelinespoetry.blogspot.com for more information and links to books and poems. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.