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TRACING MAHMOUD DARWISH’S MAP- The Quarterly Conversation


By George Fragopoulos

Books discussed in this essay:

• The Adam of Two Edens Mahmoud Darwish. Syracuse University Press. 203 pp.
• Almond Blossoms and Beyond Mahmoud Darwish (trans. Mohammad Shaheen). Interlink Books. 96 pp.
• Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982 Mahmoud Darwish (trans. Ibrahim Muhawi). University of California Press. 182 pp.
• Mural Mahmoud Darwish (trans. John Berger and Rema Hammami). Verso Books. 69 pp.
• A River Dies of Thirst: journals Mahmoud Darwish (trans. Catherine Cobham). Archipelago Books. 160 pp.
• Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? Mahmoud Darwish (trans. Jeffrey Sacks). Archipelago Books. 230 pp.

To paraphrase poet George Seferis, everywhere Mahmoud Darwish went, Palestine wounded him. It is no coincidence that readers of Darwish’s works often evoke the image of a map as a metaphor in attempting to come to terms with his poems of protest and resistance, for his words draw a very specific landscape, one that has recently been the site of far too much violence, strife, and conflict. Palestine was the map Darwish carried with him wherever he went, and it existed not only as a dream, but also in his language, in his poems, and in his body—as he wrote in the prose poem, “A Shameful Land,” from one of his last collections, A River Dies of Thirst: “This is a confined land that we inhabit and that inhabits us.” What Darwish’s poetry is in search of is in actuality a lost map, a map filled with the actual ruins of a people stripped of their homes, identities and their history. This from the introduction to The Adam of Two Edens by Munir Akash:

It would now be impossible for . . . these archaeological-poetical realms of Palestinian memory to be completely retrieved. Too much has been lost, too much destroyed, and too much of what has survived the Israeli devastation, including Darwish’s poetry, now finds itself on ruin street. . . . Darwish’s poetry is not only a defense—a self-defense—of his personal memory, it is also an in-the-beginning-there-was¬ of a Palestinian genesis, a challenge to the erasure of the memory of an entire nation. In [his] poems there is a wealth of evocative artifacts buried just beneath the surface. In some areas we can still see the evidence of past habitation, while in others there is nothing but a thin beam of hope and expectation. With an endangered memory, one culture having replaced another wholesale, resistance become existential, calling for a more sophisticated form of resistance, than merely against occupation, and here the visionary Darwish, celebrating grief, alerts us to the danger of time’s relentless sowing of the seeds of ruin, and to the basic lack of guarantees of any Palestinian survival at all.

For Darwish there was no escaping—and, for those who live on, still no escaping—the brute reality of what it means to be a Palestinian today: the acceptance of an identity that, for all intents and purposes, is an outlawed one, an invisible one, a position of “no-exit,” as Darwish himself recounted in an 1985 article “The Madness of Being a Palestinian”: “[The Palestinian] can do but one thing: become even more Palestinian, a Palestinian until homeland and liberty, a Palestinian until death; for he has no other choice.”

While it would be almost impossible to speak of an oeuvre as diverse as the one Darwish left behind at the time of his passing in August of 2008 in any singular way, it is also equally impossible to separate Darwish from the historical reality of the Palestinian Nakba, the day of disaster. His major themes can be traced to this pivotal moment, a moment that has marked not only the exterior landscape of the Middle East to this day—its actual maps, its displaced people and its borders—but also, and perhaps more importantly, the inner psyche of two peoples and that of the world. Darwish was only a young boy when he and his family were forced to flee to neighboring Lebanon, a harrowing escape recounted in a variety of ways in his work. His poetic maps are littered with monuments that have now become, unfortunately, common tropes in the everyday parlance of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: loss, exile, violence, war. But Darwish’s work just as often challenges the hegemony of this parlance, these brutalized languages, as his poems are often also encounters with happiness, beauty, and the hope of political change. Darwish bemoaned the fact that he was often criticized when not writing overtly political poetry, for he was conscious of how important it was to have his poetry move beyond such reductive, ready-made formulations. For Darwish, a poetics of resistance also means resistance to preconceived notions of what poetry should be.
Since his death, at least four new translations and editions of Darwish’s works have been published here in the United States, and more are on the way. This review will consider three of the most recent publications—Almond Blossoms and Beyond, A River Dies of Thirst and Mural—along with a collection published in 2006, Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? As Robyn Creswell pointed out in a recent article in theNational, Darwish considered his late works to be his best, and it is this part of his life that is primarily represented in English. We are therefore left with a somewhat skewed version of the poet’s oeuvre, with far too much emphasis on the later works—which, as Creswell makes clear, are radically different from his much earlier work, work that is more overtly political and confrontational.
My goal in this essay is simple, yet terribly complicated as well: to trace an outline of the map Darwish left for his readers to follow in these last works, and to accept that my own reading, my own critical map, can never threaten anything as facile or provisional as an “understanding” of his poetry, or of the context from which it springs and seeks to interrogate. Any worthwhile criticism should warily walk the line between work and “understanding,” never certain of the direction it is headed in, yet always aware that the middle of the line is the most complicated, most dangerous, and most certain of places to be in.

* * *
Reading Darwish’s work in translation and outside of its own context can be a discomfiting experience, if only for the simple reason that it makes one that much more aware of missing out on an wealth of meaning. Scholar Ibrahim Muhawi explained in a recent talk titled “Contexts of Language in Mahmoud Darwish” just how much is missing when Darwish is read in translation. Writing on the dialectical aspects of Darwish’s use of sounds and rhythms in Arabic, Muhawi states:

If you rub two dark flints against each other, you will get a spark. And if you rub two dark thoughts against each other, a new meaning will result. This is Darwish’s ironic way of proposing a new kind of dialectics in which an obscure thesis rubs against an obscure antithesis, resulting in a luminous synthesis.

There is in the poetry the use of language as “metaphorically . . . having materiality,” and this materiality brings with it a “musicality” that Darwish reveled in. The dialectic that Muhawi speaks of is something inherent in the language itself, and something impossible to bring into English. The poems, therefore, frequently present challenges that a reader of the translations must be willing to accept, keeping in mind that failure to grasp the complex picture will be the order of the day; and while I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the translations, all of the work under review here does read exceptionally well in English. (One major problem, however, with the Archipelago releases under review is that they lack any critical apparatus that would make approaching the poems easier. There are no endnotes, glossaries, introductions, or even footnotes, though credit should be given for the decision to present the Arabic originals side-by-side with the English translations in Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? Such important critical work would have helped readers to resist the urge to universalize Darwish’s poetry, which poses a great threat to the historical specificity and urgency of the work at hand. Almond Blossoms and Beyond, fortunately, does have an excellent introduction and some notes. Mural—which contains the title poem and another long poem, “The Dice Player”—includes a couple of end notes, and a very personal and beautiful, if not overtly critical and far too brief, introduction by John Berger, along with beautiful drawings by Berger that were inspired by Darwish’s life and works.) Context is of exceptional importance in reading Darwish’s poetry. Poet, scholar, translator Ammiel Alcalay wrote in an essay titled “Who’s Afraid of Mahmoud Darwish?” “Darwish . . . comes from the tradition of political exile embodied by poets like Cesar Vallejo, Nazim Hikmet, or Yannis Ritsos” and that his work, therefore, “is truly an effort for those weaned on bourgeois Anglo-American and European literature. For such exiles, there is no such thing as a pure, objectified art; no ‘engaged or disengaged’ writing: their work is simply one part of the very condition of those who do not rest on some vague laurels or operate within the apparatus of assumptions that power, in the larger sense, can provide.”
The goal of Darwish’s work has been to express in a language beyond language the suffering, loss, and plight of the Palestinian people. Darwish was uneasy about the title “resistance poet,” but did not shy away from being described as the national poet of his people. Echoing the thoughts of Anton Shammas, Darwish’s poems seek to reclaim a map in language that has been lost in reality—echoes, again, of the connection between the material and language. Akash states, that Darwish, like Paul Celan, asks the question of how one can “write or think about a disaster that defies speech and compels silence, burns books, and shatters meaning?” In Darwish’s work the questioning of language as language is a constant theme, part of the exploration of what poetry can possibly say in an age as barbaric as ours.

A theme such as exile, for example, while clearly a symptom of the political realities of our world today, means something incredibly specific in Darwish’s work, and is part of this “barbaric age” in which we find ourselves. Poet Joseph Brodsky wrote in his essay “The Condition We Call Exile,” “Displacement and misplacement are this century’s commonplace.” In reply: yes and no. While in agreement with Brodsky that exilic displacement has become a universal metaphor for certain aspects of our “modern condition,” we must still keep in mind the distinct specificity of every exilic condition, and its consequences. Exile should not be reduced to an abstract, “humanistic,” or “universal” concept, for to consider it as such would do a great disservice to the realities a poet like Darwish was responding to.
Darwish channeled his creative energy through the very specificity of his historical reality in an attempt to answer some of the most pressing questions of our age: What becomes of a people without a homeland? What is a national poet without a nation? What becomes of language for the displaced, the exiled? Is this an age for poetry? When Theodor Adorno posited that writing poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric, he was not only addressing the horrors of the gas chambers and the holocaust of the European Jews but the logic which would give rise to the brutality of the concentration camp. The concentration camp, in other words, was simply the logical end of where the West was (and possibly still is) headed. It would not be a stretch to read Darwish’s work as, in part, a response to Adorno’s claim. In other words, the displacement and violence against the Palestinian people, for all its uniqueness, is also the result of the turning of a historical wheel that is much larger than any singular political event can ever be.

* * *
As already mentioned, the works under review are some of Darwish’s last, and I would like to consider them under the auspices of what Theodor Adorno, and, after him, Edward Said, calls “late works.”1 As Adorno wrote in his seminal essay, “Beethoven’s Late Style”:

The maturity of the late works of important artists is not like the ripeness of fruit. As a rule, these works are not well rounded, but wrinkled, even fissured. They are apt to lack sweetness, fending off with prickly tartness those interested merely in sampling them. They lack all that harmony which the classicist aesthetic is accustomed to demand from the work of art, showing more traces of history than of growth. The accepted explanation is that they are products of a subjectivity or, still better, of a “personality” ruthlessly proclaiming itself, which breaks through the roundedness of form for the sake of expression, exchanging harmony for the dissonance of its sorrow and spurning sensuous charm under the dictates of the imperiously emancipated mind. The late work is thereby relegated to the margins of art and brought closer to documentation.

In his critical study On Late Style, Said, while further elaborating on Adorno’s claims, argues that late works are “a form of exile.” How so? Because lateness, in terms of aesthetic temperament, “is a kind of self-imposed exile from what is generally acceptable, coming after it, and surviving beyond it. . . . The catastrophe represented by late style for Adorno is that in Beethoven’s case the music is episodic, fragmentary, riven with the absences and silences that can [never] be filled by supplying some general scheme for them . . .”
Late works are marked by an inward turning, a confrontation with the self, something that Mohammad Shaheen also recognizes in his introduction to Almond Blossoms and Beyond: “[He] began by writing poems about Palestine, and, after long explorations of obscurity, has arrived at a human poetic enterprise . . . looking to the poetic heritage of mankind as a whole. Thus, his collection Ward Aqal (Fewer Roses) tended toward ‘private verse’ and this tendency became more pronounced in this collection.” Adorno ends his essay on the topic with the compelling thought, “In the history of art, late works are the catastrophes.” In addition, as Said suggests, late works are works of exile, for they are self-explorations, unmoored retreats from the outside, to a space that is conscious of its own isolation from the rest of the waking world. The exilic consciousness is a belated one, always aware of the insurmountable distance between present and past, home and homeland, language and the self. Temporality is called into question, as the mind remains frozen in a past that can only be resolved in a future that never arrives, or that seems ever the more ominous and dreadful. In an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz conducted in July of 2007, Darwish said “The Palestinians are the only nation in the world that feels with certainty that today is better than what the days ahead will hold. Tomorrow always heralds a worse situation.” He asks the following (most likely rhetorical) question in “Mural”: “How can my tomorrow be saved?” The exile and the Palestinian are always left waiting for a tomorrow that never arrives. This from a poem in Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone?:

I was waiting
on the platform for a train that passed
The travelers turned toward
their days . . . and I
am still waiting.

In this sense, all of Darwish’s works are late works, because they are works of exile. What is exceedingly interesting in the works under consideration here is how intense the exploration of language is, and how it leads to this inward turning that Adorno and Said have articulated. What we are left with is a language that becomes increasingly aware of itself, but also aware of its failures in representation.

* * *
An excellent representative work that speaks to this sense of waiting and frustrated hopes is the long sequence “Exile” in Almond Blossoms and Beyond. The “Exile” sequence begins with as a flâneur-like experience: “Tuesday, a bright day. I walk / along a side street, roofed over by / chestnut trees. I walk lightly, lightly, / as if I had evaporated from my body . . . ” The walk leads to nowhere, to nothingness, its rhythms and motions symbolic of the Exile who has no home to return to:

And I walk down a street that leads to no destination.
Perhaps my footsteps have guided me
to an empty bench in the garden, or
perhaps they’ve guided me to an idea about the truth lost
between the aesthetic and the real.

“Exile” cascades into four parts, the last of which is a dedication to Said, who was Darwish’s friend, and who passed away after a long battle with cancer in 2003. Much like Darwish, Said was also an active advocate for the Palestinian cause, and wrote frequently on the question of exile and loss. In the sequence’s fourth and last part, “Counterpoint (For Edward Said),” the poet recounts a meeting with his friend in New York:

There, at the door of a skyscraper, high in the sky,
I met Edward, thirty years ago.
The time was less willful than now.
We both said: If your past is experience,
make tomorrow into meaning and vision!
Let us go, let us go to our tomorrow confidently,
with the truth of imagination and the miracle of grass.

The poem continues as the two men’s voices are weaved into one, and it becomes difficult to distinguish them, as we are asked to consider how these two very different men have been brought together through the shared experience that exile, language and hope allow for:

And he said: And if I die before you
I urge you not to forget the impossible!
I asked: Is the impossible far away?
And he said: A generation away.

Darwish is not naïve enough to assume that radical change will arrive at any moment. He is, however, optimistic enough to not let go of what both men agree appears to be an impossible dream: that of a Palestinian state, and of the right of return for all those in exile. The exilic consciousness is an elegiac one, one that is nostalgic for a future that will never be seen: the hopeful future is always just one generation away, never to be experienced in this life.
Much of Almond Blossoms and Beyond is told through a fracturing of the singular voice into a multiplicity of voices, an inward turning subjectivity, “ruthlessly proclaiming itself,” to use Adorno’s words, but also splintering itself. This subjectivity for Darwish is a fragmentary, dissonant one; it questions its own existence within the much larger categories of society, nation, and language. Almond Blossoms exhibits this dissonance through its very form. The collection is divided into eight sections: “You,” “He,” “I,” “She,” and the final four parts of the “Exile” sequence. The poetic voice examines itself through the very nature of language. Almond Blossoms, therefore, is also a broader examination of those voices that exist outside of his own. “Mural” is perhaps the best example of a poetic voice that turns against itself through paradox, questioning and irony.

But how does the poet overcome these divisions, how does he conquer the fractured visage of the self that arises from forced exile, and dispossession? First and foremost, there are no real answers to such questions. What Darwish supplies us with is simply a means by which to interrogate and ask questions of language, nation and identity, and he does as such through the use of voice. The answers, however, never arrive. What do I mean by voice? I define it as the distinct kernel of self that we pluck from the abyssal depths of language. The poet Robert Duncan once said that the notion of the self was simply a trick that language plays on us. This comes close to what I mean by voice, as opposed to language. Language is the common medium, the shared medium, while voice is that which distinguishes itself from language although, by necessity, through it. Voice sculpts out of language that thing we call “self,” or the poet’s “singular” personality, but in doing so further makes the self aware of its fragmentary and illusory nature. As Slavoj Žižek has argued in his film The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, the voice is not only an autonomous partial object, but also the very core of one’s personality. But it is at the same time something profoundly alien to us. The voice, despite the fact that it appears to originate from an easily recognizable self, is not something domestic to the self, but, rather, foreign, alien, something that needs to be controlled. The poetic voice arises through an ongoing process of questioning, what Žižek calls the domestication of the voice. These questions are also relevant to the exile’s connection to language, because the exile always exists as one-step removed from his language. Darwish returns over and over again to questions of language and of voice, but also to the violence of having a voice or of fighting for the very right to have a voice. Darwish was no stranger to being arrested, in large part because of the very fact that he was a poet.
Consider the very first poem from A River Dies of Thirst, “The Girl/The Scream”:

On the seashore is a girl, and the girl has a family
and the family has a house. And the house has two windows and a door.
And in the sea is a warship having fun
catching promenaders on the seashore:
Four, five, seven
fall down on the sand. And the girl is saved for a while
because a hazy hand
a divine hand of some sort helps her, so she calls out: ‘Father
Father! Let’s go home, the sea is not for people like us!’

Father and daughter, however, do not escape, becoming another set of statistics in the calculations of war:

Her voice carries her higher and further than
the seashore. She screams at night over the land
The echo has no echo
so she becomes the endless scream in the breaking news
which was no longer breaking news
the aircraft returned to bomb a house with two windows and a door.

The scream replaces language, for the scream is a metaphor for those who have no voice, no ability to speak against the horrors of occupation and violence. Language fails, tumbling as it does into the horrific nonsense of the scream. Consider the poem “From the Byzantine Odes of Abu Firas al-Hamdani” Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone?

An echo returning. A wide street in the echo
Steps exchange the rattle of a cough, approach
the door, little by little, and draw
away. Family will visit tomorrow
Their Thursday visit.

The theme of the echo, the shadow of the voice returning home, continues, but this time it becomes a question of language itself:

An echo
In the echo. The echo has its metal staircase, its transparence, its dew
ringing with those who climb to their dawn . . . and those
who descend to their graves through breaks in the horizon . . .

Take me with you to my language! I said

But to his language Darwish can never fully arrive or return to, for what is a “language” without a nation? “Mural” find Darwish at death’s door following life-threatening surgery, asking for nothing but his language: “I don’t want to return to any land / After this long absence / I want only to return to my language deep in the cooing of a dove.” But return is impossible. What is left is an echo, a voice turned both outward and inward, what is called in “Mural” a “farewell to my inside from my outside.” There is an intrinsic connection between the poet and his nation, but when that very bond has been called into question what exists in its place is a spectral echo that can never fully bridge the void of dispossession. What is left is an exploration that only succeeds in its very refusal to remain silent, and in its complex paradoxes. Creswell, in the aforementioned essay, following the lead of Darwish translator Fady Joudah, writes of Darwish’s works as “lyric epics”:

Joudah calls If I Were Another a tribute to Darwish’s “lyric epic”, an oxymoron that Darwish borrowed from the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos, whom he met in Athens in 1982 following the PLO’s expulsion from Beirut. Darwish found that Ritsos’s phrase captured what he was aiming for with his own verse at the time: a fusion of the private voice with “the expression of a collective conscience faced with loss and mourning”. Many of the long poems that Darwish wrote in the 1990s are lyric epics in this sense. They are allegories of Palestinian experience as seen through the prism of Andalusian history, the dispossession of Native Americans, or the Sufi myth of the Persian poet al-Attar’s Conference of Birds.

This divide, between self and people, is where the echo exists, the space between lyric and epic. As a colleague of mine, Kevin Lambert, suggested after reading an earlier draft of this essay, the echo can also be read as a metaphor for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself. Lambert wrote to me, “The Israeli acts and the Palestinian responds, reacts, but does not initiate, is unable to do so just as he is unable to reach the forever disappeared past and the always unreachable future.” The echo, in other words, is just that: the ghost of the voice, the ghost of the past/future; it reminds Darwish, and his readers, of what has been lost, and of what can never be reclaimed.
The echo is the cleaved voice, the acceptance of a split self that can only be located in and through the mirror of language. But the echo also represents the distance between the poetic voice and the larger social body of language, and Darwish’s distance from his own sense of self. The self is the ghost in language’s machine, and it is fitting that the narrators in Darwish’s poems, at times, recognize themselves as ghosts:

I look out like a balcony on what I want
I look out on my ghost
a distance . . .

“Mural” also presents us with a poet trying—and failing—to find himself in the mirror of language:

I sit behind the door and watch:
Am I him?
It’s my language
Its voice has the sting of my blood
but the author is someone else

This ghostly self is the knotty thread in which mortality, exile, language, and a lost homeland meet to create the poet’s double. Darwish’s poetry arises from these tensions, tensions that are never resolved through poetry itself. Because for Darwish, poetry was not an escape from the world, but a means to confront it. It is, in many ways, as honest a document as one can find in world literature, and it speaks with an urgency that demands attention.

1 Edward Said, unbeknownst to me during my initial researching of this essay, actually wrote of Darwish’s works as being representative late works. Said’s piece can be found in the now-defunct journal Grand Street. Munir Akash’s introduction to The Adam of Two Edens references Said’s piece.

George Fragopoulos lives in New York. He is currently writing his dissertation on modern American poetics.American poetics.



Published on December 7, 2009

George Fragopoulos

The Quarterly Conversation