Saturday, October 14, 2006

Mahmoud Darwish

I've noticed poems by Mahmoud Darwish creeping into American anthologies recently. The latest edition of Poetry: an Introduction, for example, boasts one, although not one of his best. (I find all such textbooks intensely depressing these days, about which I must blog when I get the time.) Unless you read the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, however, you might have missed this rather useful piece about the poet, one which might let you teach him alongside Yeats, rather than in the contexts the anthologies tend to suggest. Here it is, then: read, learn, and enjoy!

Palestine as poetry

By Sami Shalom Chetrit

"Tziur kir" ("Mural") by Mahmoud Darwish, translated into Hebrew by Muhammad Hamza Ghanaim, Andalus Publishing, 102 pages, NIS 68

Unlike William Butler Yeats' pronouncement of the death of the romantic Ireland, the romantic Palestine has not died; it is alive and throbbing between the lines of Mahmoud Darwish's poems. And, in fact, for Darwish, as for Yeats, it is becoming more and more romantic as its dream grows more distant. It is becoming a poem, like a distant, lost love.

Darwish loves Yeats and his poetry is very reminiscent of Yeats' work - on the one hand, in the dramatic rhythms, on the other, in the position of the speaker as a simple man, and in its deliberate and striking language. Above all, it is similar to Yeats in the burning need to document and store the collective memory, not in large epics, but rather in simple lines about the experience of the transient individual, who is aware of his weakness and smallness, but also protests strongly and with the last ounce of his strength against destruction itself, and challenges it, as in this breathtaking long poem, "Tziur kir" ("Mural").

Edward Said once said of Darwish's poetry that it is "an epic effort to transform the lyrics of loss into the indefinitely postponed drama of return." In this respect, too, Darwish resembles a Jewish Diaspora poet who, through his words, transforms the hopeless expectation for redemption. He exchanges the poetry of mourning for redemption. Again and again he reinvents a cut-down realm of longings, as in Darwish's words on exile: "Exile is not a geographical situation, I take it with me everywhere, just as I take my homeland, a land of words." It is no wonder then that 25,000 Palestinians and Lebanese gathered in a stadium in Beirut to seek shelter, if only for a brief while, in the shade of the homeland of words that Darwish has created for them.

Unlike the order in which they were originally published in Arabic, "Mural" appeared here in Hebrew after "State of Siege" (also published by Andalus and in Muhammad Hamza Ghanaim's wonderful Hebrew translation, which perhaps can be said to be Arabic in spirit). Therefore my first impulse after reading "Mural" was to go back to "State of Siege" and read it again, this time in the proper order, which is a crucial matter in Darwish's poetry, which Ferial J. Ghazoul, a scholar of Arabic literature, has called "the lyrical diaries of the Palestinian saga." But I came to the rereading of "State of Siege" exhausted psychologically and emotionally worn out, and I believe also with an increased pulse rate and a dry throat, as though someone had turned out all the lights and left only one flashlight deep in the dark, flickering in yellowish light, now almost extinguished and now brightening, like the beeps of a cardiac monitor in an intensive care unit. Like the long poem itself: Now it is harsh and bleak with no way out, not leaving any hope, and now it swells and shakes itself off and then the lack of hope is actually revealed to us as a lack of illusion, and without illusions there are no deceptions.

There remains only the naked and insufferable truth about the finiteness and nothingness of the individual, which for Darwish becomes a tremendous power in face of the minister of death that has decided to attack his heart: "Green is the earth of my poems and exalted / ... The earth of my poem is God's voice at dawn"; and again: "Green, green the earth of my poems and uplifted / ... looking out at me from the valley of my abysses"; or, in an image of eternity: "Green is the earth of my poems, green / on their shoulders poets will lift it / from time into time, as it is, / fertile."

Life and death

Lying in a hospital after complicated cardiac surgery that saved his life (1999), wandering between the worlds, between life and death, Darwish decides to look death in the eye and embarks on a dialogue with it, as a poet, as a representative of the eternal words, as the son of the earth of the exalted poem. He enlists onto his negotiating team the huge eternal powers of the Arabic words, the poets of the Jahaliya (pre-Islamic period) and early Islam.

Thus this fascinating negotiation continues throughout most of the lines of the long poem, at least until the nurse awakens him and tells him of his hallucinations and his speech with death.

In contrast to the stories of "A Thousand and One Nights," which aim to distract the mind from the bitter end until light breaks, Darwish puts all his cards on the table and speaks frankly about "omnipotent death," as he calls it either cynically or fawningly - or both. In language so ironic that it is funny, he amuses death with sincerity in order to draw out the time until he weaves a stratagem for victory, but in the meantime death can wait: "Wait in your own realms, wait till I am done / having a conversation with what I have left of my life." Or else he asks death to wait until he completes his carefully planned funeral arrangements. He does not speak to death out of fear, but he does acknowledge its cruel authority and inundates it with a series of requests, questions and suggestions: "Death, wait till I prepare / my suitcase: toothbrush, soap / electric razor, aftershave and clothes."

And then, when he seems to have snuggled up to death a bit, he sets his trap: He permits himself to give death some advice about hunting, indeed about how to hunt him, and as in an old legend, he promises that a brave friendship will yet spring up between them: "Death, wait / till my clarity of mind returns to me in the spring / till I get back my health / and you will be / a noble hunter who does not shoot a deer at the edge of a pool." Later on he invites Mr. Death to a glass of wine - "Relax a bit" - and softens death up in order to attack it frontally and land the knockout blow: "Death, you have been defeated by art. / You have been defeated by the poetry of Mesopotamia. And the obelisks of Egypt / and the tombs of the pharaohs / and the carvings / in temple stones all these have defeated you / and won. Eternal life has evaded / your ambushes ..."

And indeed, Darwish awakens from his journey in the corridor between here and there and immediately touches and tests the functioning of his body parts to make certain that he has returned from there. He declares himself a victor, not only in this round but in the entire match, and cries out to death for the last time: "I was not, neither alive nor dead. / Only you alone were, only you!"

Eternal journey

In the final third of the long poem Darwish is encouraged and gets a grip on things. Without letting up, he continues, not hallucinating this time, on the journey of the relationship between death and eternity. For this journey he enlists gigantic figures who have already dealt with death and the positive aspects of eternity, from the early Gilgamesh who is disconsolate over the death of his friend Enkidu, through the wise Ecclesiastes who asserts "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity" - or in Darwish's wonderful paraphrase: "And time's / time has come and gone. Zero and void." From there he continues on in the image of Jesus descending from the cross because of his fear of heights ...

But reading Darwish does not end at this level. No reading of such a poet is possible without a national reading, even when he is ostensibly lyrical and personal. Arriving at the end of the poem under review, anyone who doubts this will find Darwish's declaration of independence vis-a-vis those who desire his demise, which every Palestinian can read: "This sea - it is mine / The humid air - mine / The pier and everything on it / of my steps and of my seed - mine / and the old bus stop - mine. And / mine my ghostly double and its masters. And the copper vessels / and the Throne verse in the Koran and the key - are mine / and the guards and the bells - mine." And immediately after this declaration of ownership, in a touching sequence that in Arabic (and in the Hebrew translation, though probably impossible to render in English) is an acrostic of his first name, he sets forth his self-definition: "Mim - orphaned, redundant, tortured / full completion of what has passed / Ha - a garden plot, heart's delight - both missed out, two regrets / Mim - enslaved, the date slated for exile / readied for death, taking risks, stricken with desire / Waw - cession and separation, a rose blooming from inside the vein / loyalty to every baby born, a father's and a mother's hope / Dal - a way and a guide, liberty pampering to blood and tears / a teardrop for what's lost in the twilight."

Mahmoud Darwish chooses his first name as a self-definition, because he knows that Darwish has already become a symbol, and thus, for anyone who still has doubts, the final lines of the poem seal it in reconciled surrender: "And only I / in whom all the reasons to go forth on the way / overflow / I am not mine, I am not mine / I am not mine ..."

This is perhaps the curse of the poet who in his youth had already become the foremost lyricist of the Palestinian struggle. He has often said in interviews that he is definitely committed to the role that his poetry has imposed upon him, but he yearns for the moment when the struggle will be decided and the free Palestine will arise, and then he will allow himself to curse it and leave for somewhere else. This is the true liberation: having a state that you can leave.

Thus, even when Darwish writes such a lyrical poem that is set in an individual's most intimate place - the horror-chest of his fears - even then we will come and demand the parallel, the analogy, the tenor of the metaphor. In effect, like a child who is afraid to reveal his fears, Darwish whistles in the dark, whistling more loudly than the noises that come to scare him.

And thus the entire long poem, which is studded with innumerable stations in the Palestinian-Israeli expanse, and even moves into the first person plural from time to time, becomes the national whistling in the dark of the Israeli occupation, which also is able to offer nothing but death. Thus, in reading "State of Siege," which was written under the Israeli siege of Ramallah in 2002, after reading this exhausting negotiation with death, we again meet the flesh of endless death. This time it is riding a tank and wearing a uniform, and has a face, and even a grandmother and a sweetheart.

Both of these long poems star the same prisoners, guards and jailers; both of them require the same long breath and the patience that sometimes seems to become exhausted and sometimes seems to fill the lungs, until the next round. In a national reading of the long poem, it is impossible not to recall a similar knockout delivered by the representative of immortal words to the representatives of death, on the day he learned that they had wrecked his office in Ramallah in an intentional provocation: "I took the message personally. I know that they are strong and can invade and kill anyone. But they cannot break or occupy my words."

Dr. Sami Shalom Chetrit teaches literature and politics in the film department at Sapir College in the Negev and at UCLA.

If you want to read more Darwish, you might take a look at the translations in Unfortunately, It Was Paradise and The Adam of Two Edens and keep an eye out, this summer, for The Butterfly's Burden, forthcoming from Copper Canyon, which looks to be quite a book.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Souring on Paglia; Sweetness from Swenson

Well, it's that time of the quarter: the Slough of Midterm Despond, when every plan, every class, every poem just sits there. Like that.

Today. For example. I taught. Two poems. By Yeats.

Yeats! You'd think that Yeats would spark some passion in the students--at least I would, since he usually does. Alas, the only Yeats poems Paglia supplies are "The Second Coming" and "Leda and the Swan."

Have you ever noticed how depressing those poems are? I don't know--maybe I just spent too much time pursuing Romantic echoes in the first one, and bored them. (A little Blake, a little Shelley, some fun contrasts with Wordsworth. I thought we were doing fine.) Maybe it's just that Paglia's essays, day after day, are taking the fun of discovery out of the course for the students. (They do seem a little more energized when I just give them a poem and set them questions. Maybe that's how I should run things again next quarter.)

On to Stevens and Williams next week. Maybe that will liven things up.

And now, to sweeten the deal for you, having read this far, a little treat from May Swenson: the closest thing I know to a Georgia O'Keefe painting in a poem:

Blue, but you are Rose, too,
and buttermilk, but with blood
dots showing through.
A little salty your white
nape boy-wide. Glinting hairs
shoot back of your ears' Rose
that tongues like to feel
the maze of, slip into the funnel,
tell a thunder-whisper to.
When I kiss, your eyes' straight
lashes down crisp go like doll's
blond straws. Glazed iris Roses,
your lids unclose to Blue-ringed
targets, their dark sheen-spokes
almost green. I sink in Blue-
black Rose-heart holes until you
blink. Pink lips, the serrate
folds taste smooth, and Rosehip-
round, the center bud I suck.
I milknip your two Blue-skeined
blown Rose beauties, too, to sniff
their berries' blood, up stiff
pink tips. You're white in
patches, only mostly Rose,
buckskin and saltly, speckled
like a sky. I love your spots,
your white neck, Rose, your hair's
wild straw splash, silk spools
for your ears. But where white
spouts out, spills on your brow
to clear eyepools, wheel shafts
of light, Rose, you are Blue.
Ooh! Maybe I should have given my students some answer poems to the Yeats, like Mona Van Duyn's "Leda" poems. Sweeten the deal for them, as I just did for you.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Great Lists for Teachers

Whoever is in charge of the Poetry Foundation's webpage--I should surf over and find out right now, but I'm feeling lazy, and a drip from the sump pump is driving me up the wall, so the sooner I'm out of this basement the better!


As I was saying, whoever is in charge of the Poetry Foundation's webpage has been busy for the last few months, and the page now goes from strength to strength. One addition I've particularly enjoyed, and one quite useful to teachers, is the string of annotated lists of poems they've been soliciting from poets, teachers, professors, and the like, with each title linked to the poem itself in their handy-dandy Archive. A few weeks ago they started up a new set of lists called the "Back to School Survival Guide," and although the titles of the lists seem aimed primarily at students (like Caitlyn Kimball's "Ten Poems To Read When You Get Stuffed in Your Locker" or "Ten Poems to Send the Person You're Crushing On," by Becca Klaver), every one is a Godsend to the teacher who needs something to teach and a lead-in to discussion.

Two lists in particular give you, the teacher, news you can use.

Karen Glenn has compiled a list of "Ten Poems to Get You Through Science Class This Year," and although her annotations are pretty slim--one or two sentences, and sometimes rather pat--I'm very glad to have some poems in mind to help me map the vexed relationship between Poetry and Science for my students. (The best such poem for teachers, I think, is Gary Snyder's "Earrings Dangling and Miles of Desert," which isn't anywhere on line, alas! It's a mix of prose and verse, a praise-poem for a plant (Artemesia) that incorporates serious biology, multicultural mythology, and smart free verse. You can find it in Snyder's Mountains and Rivers Without End, though, and also in the anthology American Poetry Since 1950: Innovators and Outsiders, where you'll also find good science poems by Ronald Johnson.)

The newest and best of the lists, though, just went up this week: "Ten Poems Students Love to Read Out Loud," compiled by the fabulous Chicago teacher Eileen Murphy. (I know Eileen--she was a participant in the first "Say Something Wonderful" summer seminar for schoolteachers--and can testify that she knows what she's talking about in the classroom. If you need more evidence, note that she's also coached the first two Illinois champions in the Poetry Out Loud national recitation competition.)

"Performing a poem can offer pleasures unlike any other experience of literature," Murphy writes by way of introduction. "But approaching a poem as a script for an oral performance demands that students pay attention to aspects of the work that they aren’t used to looking for." Each of the poems she chooses gets a solid paragraph of annotation, each keyed to a single question: "What can attitude tell us?" "What can images tell us?" "What can syntax tell us?" Good stuff. I think I'm the guy who introduced her to a few of these poems, and I'm pleased as punch to see the great use she's making of them in her classroom.

What poems does she choose? Go check them out, and tell me what you think. My own list ("Ten Poems I Love to Teach") should be up in a week or two.