Arab poets have never lacked for attention. One pre-Islamic poet’s fame among his tribe drove a rival to observe and ask, "The Taghlibites have been made oblivious to every high exploit/by a single ode that Amr son of Kulthum composed;/they recite it eternally from the moment they are born–/what sort of men are they, never to tire of a poem?" If you were a Taghlibite, you’d recite it too. The only respites in the poem from boasts about white banners brought back from battle "crimson, well-saturated" and "forearms flying like play-chucks" are more boasts: "When any boy of ours reaches his weaning/the tyrants fall down before him prostrating." According to accounts of the poet’s life, Amr came by his taste for gore and righteousness honestly. He is said to have avenged an insult to his mother by cutting off the head of the same king who had murdered Tarafa, a fellow poet.
Tarafa’s and Amr’s best-known poems (Amr’s only poem, if the critic quoted above is correct) are found in the Mu’allaqat, a collection of seven odes, arguably the greatest achievements of secular Arab literature. They retain this standing despite the outlandish episodes that define the work, such as the come-on that begins, "Many’s the pregnant woman like you, aye, and the nursing mother/I’ve night visited, and made her forget her amuleted one-year-old." The Prophet Muhammad reproached that poet, Imru al-Qais, as "the most poetical of the poets, and their leader into Hell-fire." (It will not surprise his readers that Frederick Seidel claims to have been translating Imru al-Qais for twenty years.)
Though his capacity for shock bears little comparison to the poets of the Mu’allaqat, the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish inspires in his work similar devotion in the Arab diaspora. Darwish was 6 when his family fled from Palestine to Lebanon in 1948, and he remembered vividly the coldness of the flight through mountain passes and the strangeness of being declared a "present-absent alien" upon returning to the new-named land, his village razed and effectively erased. His first poetry reading drew a dressing-down from the Israeli military governor. He was 8.
As a teenager, he took part in poetry festivals throughout Galilee, and by his early 20s he had perfected an aggressive, self-mocking style that would have made him a perpetual winner of international poetry slams, if that eternally rediscovered combat had been active then:
Write it down!
I am an Arab
And my identity card number is fifty thousand.
I have eight children
And the ninth is coming after the summer.
Makes you angry, doesn’t it?
An exile at home, he saw no reason not to wander, first to study in Moscow, then to live in Cairo, Beirut, Paris and Amman, finally returning to Ramallah. Along the way, and during a bout of weariness with the role of unofficial laureate of a cornered, homeless people, he set aside his public, incantatory poetry to write a prose account of the siege of Beirut, during which rockets and shells flew into the city sometimes more than once a second. Memory for Forgetfulness is a page-turning comedy of horrors: "Two hours ago I went to sleep. I plugged my ears with cotton and went to sleep after hearing the last newscast. It didn’t report I was dead. That means I’m still alive." Even readers disinclined to set aside the fact that Darwish served on the Executive Committee of the PLO have to admire his meditations on coffee–its aroma, one’s idiosyncratic rituals for making it and the impossibility of observing those rituals while under missile attack, its endless variations:
There’s no flavor we might label "the flavor of coffee" because coffee is not a concept, or even a single substance. And it’s not an absolute. Everyone’s coffee is special, so special that I can tell one’s taste and elegance of spirit by the flavor of the coffee. Coffee with the flavor of coriander means the woman’s kitchen is not organized. Coffee with the flavor of carob juice means the host is stingy. Coffee with the aroma of perfume means the lady is too concerned with appearances. Coffee that feels like moss in the mouth means its maker is an infantile leftist. Coffee that tastes stale from too much turning over in the hot water means its maker is an extreme rightist. And coffee with the overwhelming flavor of cardamom means the lady is newly rich.
Memory for Forgetfulness eventually exhibits signs of strain similar to those that come halfway through The Captive Mind, Czeslaw Milosz’s account of life in Communist Poland. Rational analysis of totalitarianism suddenly gives way to intense and justifiably paranoid irritability. The strain is the point, and anyone can feel it. If Darwish had written nothing further, this book alone would be a major achievement. As it happens, he appears to have wanted rather more–to write a contemporary poem that would stand with the Mu’allaqat.
While Darwish has long been the most widely translated of modern Arab poets–there are twice as many collections in English of his writing as there are of his nearest colleague, the Syrian poet Adonis–until recently, American readers have been entitled to some skepticism toward the poems. Like post-Stalin-era favorites Yannis Ritsos and Pablo Neruda, Darwish published a lot. (Arab critics characterize his prolific habits by referring charitably to a "fountain" quality.) And the virtues of his later work are clearer in his longer poems than in the one- or two-page lyrics that mark the limit of the space most American literary journals allocate. It would not be wrong to think the short poems of Darwish’s countrymen Samih al-Qasim and Taha Muhammed Ali have a bite that Darwish’s quicker takes often lack. Without the momentum of a sustained argument, the horses and roses and anemones and butterflies that fill his poems come to sound decorative, interchangeable from one poem to the next. It may just be the translations.
Of the four new translations of Darwish’s last books, two (Mural, translated by Rema Hammami and John Berger, and If I Were Another, translated by Fady Joudah) feature the same long poem. "Mural" is remarkably sturdy. While neither of the new English versions–nor the one published in 2003 in Unfortunately, It Was Paradise, and translated by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché–is completely satisfying (in fact, all are often frustratingly vague), the poem is nevertheless a tour de force, Darwish’s best claim to have written a modern Mu’allaqat. If "Mural" does not quite match the unlimited repeatability of the Taghlibite ode, at forty-plus pages, it still serves at once as an anthem for lost Arab nations from al-Andalus to Palestine, a subliminal introduction to the poetry of the Middle East, a masque with speeches by Gilgamesh and Solomon and dialogues with an Israeli jailor and Death, and a weary rapprochement of the poet with conflicting demands for public rallying cries and evocative private references. It ought to be too much. For the skeptical reader–the only kind poetry still deserves–it will almost seem not enough.
Darwish wrote "Mural" in 1999 while recovering from major surgery (in this and other qualities, the poem is reminiscent of John Ashbery’s major long poem, "A Wave," which he wrote after recovering from a serious illness in 1982). The poem begins with what may be a reference to Adonis’s best known poem, or may simply be his nurse’s greeting after the operation: "This is your name." Where Adonis uses the line for portent and splendor, Darwish, the supreme poet of exile in a century given to creating refugees, greets his own name warily. It’s only something else he knows he’ll be forced to leave. In the near-death experience that follows, a "sea hanging above a roof of white clouds/in the sky of the absolute white nothingness," in the Hammami/Berger translation, even emptiness is taken away.
"Every poet is an exile to some extent," Hala Khamis Nassar and Najat Rahman say in the introduction to their collection, Mahmoud Darwish: Exile’s Poet, pointing out that in his case, exile is more than a mere literary device; it’s a physical condition affecting his health and spirits every day. Nassar quotes Edward Said’s remark in Reflections on Exile that to "see a poet in exile–as opposed to reading the poetry of exile–is to see exile’s antinomies embodied and endured with a unique intensity." The key terms here are "endured" and "intensity." Over time, exile refined away any self-pity, sarcasm or rebelliousness that may have marred Darwish’s poems, leaving only a pure, continuous astonishment at having to live out the designation he received in 1949, "present-absent alien." As Said had it, Darwish endured "to transform the lyrics of loss into the indefinitely postponed drama of return."
If I Were Another is the second collection of translations of Darwish by Fady Joudah, a recent winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize (for his book The Earth in the Attic) and a Palestinian-American physician for Doctors Without Borders. Along with Mural, If I Were Another features three other collections: I See What I Want (1990), Eleven Planets (1992) and Exile (2005). Joudah’s introduction argues that I See What I Want is a transitional work between the early performances of a nation’s anger and the later subjective epics. Indeed, the long poems "Take Care of the Stags, Father," "The Tragedy of Narcissus the Comedy of Silver" and "The Hoopoe" all rehearse the symphonic organization of the great last qasidas, as do "The ‘Red Indian’s’ Penultimate Speech to the White Man," "We Will Choose Sophocles" and "Rita’s Winter," from the explicitly personal Eleven Planets.
Both Joudah’s volume and Mohammad Shaheen’s translation of Almond Blossoms and Beyond include four of Darwish’s last major poems, but unlike with the multiple versions of "Mural," here the comparison is clearer. Shaheen’s versions are so much less cluttered, so much more moving, that it may take a few readings to recognize that Joudah is even referring to the same text. (Joudah: "Dream/slowly… no matter how often you dream you’ll realize/the butterfly didn’t burn to illuminate you"; Shaheen: "Dream slowly,/and whatever you dream, understand/that the moth does not burn to give you light.")
Only Berger and Hammami include "The Dice Player," Darwish’s last poem and one he did not survive to include in a collection. Compared with their version, Joudah’s translation, which appeared in the Winter 2009 issue of Virginia Quarterly Review, sings. It is not collected here, giving hope that Joudah will reprint it in a third, less stage-frightened collection in the fullness of time.
The language in Joudah’s previous Darwish diwan, The Butterfly’s Burden, is both sonically rich and refreshingly direct, marked by active constructions with a force that makes Darwish’s dream-logic assertions ecstatic and natural: "your shirt button bears in its glare/the secret word of birds of every sort." Not every piece there holds together, but the best, such as a love poem from a bed to a couple, are thrilling:
Of night, I love the beginning, when you two come together
hand in hand, and bit by bit embrace me one section at a time
then in flight take me, higher. Stay my friends, don’t hurry
According to Syrian critic Subhi Hadidi, the book from which that poem is taken, The Stranger’s Bed, marked a turn in Darwish’s poems. He would no longer imagine what it would be like to be Sirhan Bishara Sirhan drinking coffee in a cafeteria. In the new poems he would reject calls to violent action and instead pursue the lyric epic, a paradox equal to his "present-absent" status (and a paradox pursued, at different times and places in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, by poets as various as Ezra Pound, Nathaniel Mackey and Constantine Cavafy). Toward that end, he derived a love poetry in part from the eleventh-century Andalusian philosopher Ibn Hazm, who in his treatise on love, The Collar of the Dove, writes that "the secret of intermingling in creatures is communication, and the secret of separation among them is difference. Form always calls for similar form; we tend to lean towards resemblance, and affinity is tangibly at work and has visible influence."
Doves turn up throughout all three English versions of "Mural," but only in Joudah’s version are they also (correctly, I believe) identified as allusions to Ibn Hazm’s book. Near the end of the poem, Darwish contrasts himself with those who still seek an epic view of life. Berger and Hammami render the couplet as "Eagles are for bards/for me/the dove’s collar." In Unfortunately, It Was Paradise Akash and Forché take a similar approach: "Heroes have their eagles,/mine is a ring-necked dove." Here’s Joudah: "The epicists have falcons, and I have/The Collar of the Dove." Joudah’s erudition inspires confidence, but as poetry none of these versions is particularly persuasive. At the low end of their ranges, Joudah is stuffy, Berger and Hammami are brusque, and Akash and Forché overpolish to the point of vagueness. Each also has moments of triumph that shine like metal among the dross. Berger and Hammami take Darwish’s soaring feelings at the sight of even one stream of Palestine as "enough to solder the ancient myths onto the falcon’s wing." Akash and Forché render Darwish’s irony about poeticizing his childhood with a metaphor: "distance is a skilled blacksmith/who can turn worthless iron into moonlight." For his part, Joudah translates Darwish’s sublimest reproach as clearly and memorably as possible. "Everything that exceeds its limit/becomes its own opposite one day." Solomon is a character in the poem; perhaps he’d recommend that readers interested in Darwish consult all three versions.
The best concise new introduction to the variety of Darwish’s work is A River Dies of Thirst, Catherine Cobham’s translation of his last poetry collection to appear in Arabic, short prose pieces and sketches for poems. While occasionally preachy and melodramatic ("We will become a people, if we want to, when we learn that we are not/angels, and that evil is not the prerogative of others"), every piece by Cobham’s Darwish resolves satisfyingly, and the vague patches are few. Also worth noting is a true-to-life panegyric for Edward Said in Almond Blossoms and Beyond.
In his History of Modern Palestine, Israeli historian Ilan Pappé broke from official accounts of the events of 1948 to try to imagine the events not only as a series of leaders’ actions and counteractions but as an as-yet-unresolved catastrophe that continues to affect the daily lives of everyone anywhere near Palestine, and many elsewhere:
Among the cultural elite, one group stands out as united, and aloof from the tension between collaboration with the Jewish state and opposition to it. These were the poets. Poetry was the one area in which national identity survived the Nakbah unscathed. What political activists did not dare express, poets sang out with force.
As tenth-century poet al-Mutanabbi had it, "This is a reproach against you, but it is an expression of love, inlaid with pearls, only they are words." At the end, Darwish was sanguine: "If you have looked at a rose without it causing you pain,/and you have rejoiced in it, say to your heart, Thank you!"