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.

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