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Web Letter

Like many readers of poetry, I imagine, I was delighted to see a long review article considering the numerous new (and less new) translations of the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish in The Nation. But as I read Jordan Davis's essay, I became more and more perplexed, and disturbed on several counts.

I think it is important for a reviewer of poetry in translation to state whether s/he can read the work in its original language; otherwise, the reader does not know if preferences for one translated passage over another, or dissatisfactions with a line or a stanza, are questions of accuracy or of the reviewer's taste in the receptor language.

It is as natural that Darwish should reference the Mu'allaqêt in his poetry as that Derek Walcott should refer to the Odyssey in his: they are among the foundational texts of literature in Arabic. Nor is it surprising that the Mu'allaqêt should be as bloody as Beowulf or the Iliad (though the tales of the amorous exploits of Imru al-Qays are, among other things, a send-up of the kind of "courtly love" that was traditionally the subject of the opening qasîda of an ode--meant to be outrageous as well as seductive: Rabelais, not the Roman de la rose). But to begin an essay on Darwish with a lengthy disquisition on the Mu'allaqêt is as peculiar as writing about Seamus Heaney in the context of Sean-Ghaeilge epics. The interlocutors in Darwish's poetry include Lorca, Paul Celan, Yannis Ritsos, Edward Said, Badr Shakir as-Sayyab (himself one of the founders of modernism in Arabic poetry--a modernism that integrated the same European sources as Eliot and Pound), even Walcott and Mark Strand. Darwish was a world poet (and a polyglot), as well as the poet, the psychic historian, of the Palestinian people; he was also profoundly involved with contemporary Arabic poetry as a mentor and editor.

"Even readers disinclined to set aside the fact that Darwish served on the Executive Committee of the PLO..."? Or that Yehuda Amichai was part of an invasion force in 1948? Or that Paul Claudel, for that matter, was in the French diplomatic corps? I am sure Nation readers recall the epithet "premature anti-Fascist" as it was used in the 1950s. Arafat received the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Rabin, no more a saint than he was, and both of them were assassinated. So Darwish was for a while a "premature" Fatah official, with a complex, secular and democratic political engagement that the reviewer seems not to have investigated--so why refer to Darwish's political action outside his writing at all?

Marilyn Hacker

Paris, France

Apr 11 2010 - 8:07am

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