(This post originally appeared in The Nation, February 11, 2002, under the title “Lines Beyond the Nakba.” It’s a review-essay of The Adam of Two Edens, a collection from Mahmoud Darwish, edited by Munir Akash. Syracuse University Press.)
Mahmoud Darwish burst on the Arab poetic scene in the mid-1960s with the publication in Beirut of poems written while he was living in Haifa, Israel, and working as a translator and editor for the Israeli Communist Party, Rakah. As Munir Akash points out in his introduction to this volume of selections from Darwish’s recent work, with their fiery intensity and assuredness, the early poems touched a raw nerve in Arab readers. In a matter of a few years Darwish had become the most vocal and eloquent poetic spokesman of the Palestinians, and the foremost practitioner of what had come to be known as “the poetry of resistance.”
Among poets writing in Arabic today, in fact, Darwish is the most widely translated. His work has made a home for itself in more than twenty-two languages, the bulk of it in some twenty books in French, which are bestsellers. By contrast, English has so far been less receptive to Darwish’s poetry, except for a handful of volumes mostly out of print and a number of individual poems published in English-language literary magazines and anthologies. The Adam of Two Edens is only the second book-length volume of translations into English currently available to readers in the United States. Adam invites into our midst a deeply lyrical, sorrowful and unforgettable poetic voice.
The selections in The Adam of Two Edens are from Darwish’s later works, mainly Ahad Ashar Kawkaban (Eleven Planets, 1992) and Limatha Tarakta al-Hissana Waheedan (Why Have You Left the Horse Alone?, 1995). Both collections were occasioned by a constellation of historic and personal events, at the center of which was the flawed Oslo Declaration of Principles in 1993. That year Darwish resigned from the PLO Executive Committee in protest and returned to the Middle East after an eleven-year exile in Paris. He settled first in Amman, the Jordanian capital, and then in the Palestinian town of Ramallah, where he also edits the Modernist Arabic literary journal al-Karmel, which he founded in 1981 in Beirut and continued editing in France.
Akash notes that the differences between Darwish’s early, more declarative “poems of resistance” and the later works are striking–in thematic complexity and expressive sophistication. The curve of Darwish’s poetic progress is little short of staggering–not only in the volume of his writerly and editorial output but also in the ways in which his writing has enlarged itself, consciously and systematically. For more than a decade now, the poet has slowly steered toward more open spaces and brought into his poetic sphere voices from other literary traditions and grafted their symbols, concerns and directions onto the trunk of Arabic poetry. His aim has been to create a poetic community of cultures, especially those that have been obliterated or are threatened with erasure–from the Native American to the Andalusian to the Palestinian and beyond.
Paradoxically, the expansion has also made Darwish’s poetry more interior and personal. In this newly crafted lyrical space, atop the Palestinian soil, the experience of migration and the longing for solidarity with those who have embarked on the same trail have found an enduring anchor:
In migration we remember shirt buttons we lost,
forget the glittering crowns of our days,
recall the scent of apricot sweat,
forget the dancing horses on our wedding nights.
(“In the Great Migration, I Love You More”)
But even in its most intimate moments, his lyrical voice is often tempered with irony and seasoned with the salt of many departures. The intensity is always held in check, somewhat distanced and detached. Like the birds that inhabit Darwish’s Mediterranean sky, his poems often flutter between poetic assertion and its difficulty in the face of the Palestinian national narrative of the nakba (catastrophe) of 1948:
I illuminate tomorrow’s present in the moment.
Time separates me from my place.
My place separates me from my time.
All the prophets are my kin.
But heaven is still far from its earth
and I am still far from my words.
(“On a Canaanite Stone at the Dead Sea”)
The distance and separation are geographical, historical and personal. The Edenic title of the collection reverberates from poem to poem, as Darwish weaves symbolic nets that connect the biblical expulsion with the expulsion of the Arabs from Andalusia in “Ruba’yat”:
I’ve seen all I want to see of the sea:
gulls flying through sunset.
I close my eyes:
this loss leads to Andalusia–
this sail is doves’ prayers
pouring down on me.
And centuries later, with the migration of the poet from his native village of Birweh in the Upper Galilee, which the Israelis set ablaze and razed in 1948:
Do you remember our migration route to Lebanon?
Where you forgot me in a sack of bread
(it was wheat bread).
I kept quiet so as not to wake the guards.
The scent of morning dew lifted me onto your shoulders.
The metaphor of migration wanders the entire universe of Darwish’s poetry. It crosses cities, cultures, regions, landscapes and historic periods, reproducing itself in an abundance of doubles and ironic twists to finally return home to the most bitter and prophetic irony of all: Home is another form of occupation, which robs people of their ability to dream of paradise. In a poem in 1982, Darwish asked, “Where should we go after the last frontiers?” In the poems of this collection, he tries to describe that rudderless, shadowy territory where everything has been co-opted by the mirage and rhetoric of peace.
Still, in these later works Darwish knows that the best the poet can do is populate these shadowy territories with the products of the only tools he has at his disposal–imagination and language:
My mother illuminates Canaan’s last stars
around my mirror
and throws her shawl across my last poem.
In a poem dedicated to an Iraqi poet, he writes:
I’ll remove the fingers of my dead from your body,
the buttons of their shirts and their birth certificates.
You’ll take the letters of your dead to Jerusalem.
We’ll wipe the blood from our glasses, my friend,
and reread our Kafka,
and open two windows onto a street of shadows.
(“A Horse for the Stranger”)
The image of two Arab poets rereading Kafka against the open window of uncertainty is a telling example of the kind of grafting that is common in Darwish’s poetry: The poetic voice is also a communal voice–of García Lorca and Yeats, Homer and the bards of ancient cultures.
But these alliances, which Darwish weaves so masterfully, are also emblematic of the direction of his more recent poetry. Borrowing Adorno’s term, Edward Said has noted that Darwish’s “late style” opens onto a realm of irresolution and fracture, where poetry itself becomes the tenuous terrain of a lost homeland and an imagined community. Evoking the Arab expulsion from Granada in 1492, Darwish writes:
One day I’ll pass by her moons and
scent my desires with lemon.
Embrace me, so I can be reborn
from aromas, from sunlight, from the river
thrown over your shoulders.
From two feet scratching the twilight
to make it weep milk tears
for a night of poetry!
(“One Day I’ll Sit on the Sidewalk”)
In the end, what remains, what is permanent and real, is something as fleeting as a night of poetry whose fragile shoulders must carry not only the poet’s longing for return but also the load of history, the long trail of expulsion and migration. In these dark, plaintive poems, though, poetry performs its essential task:
I’ll shed my skin and from my language
words of love
will filter down through the poetry of García Lorca
who’ll dwell in my bedroom
and see what I’ve seen of the bedouin moon.
(“A sky Beyond sky for Me”)
As an introduction to Darwish’s later poetry, The Adam of Two Edens is an indispensable source. Akash’s introduction –part memoir, part tribute, part analysis, part historical context–is both moving and effective in bringing Darwish and his poetry to life for American readers. Even those who have never read Darwish will know that they are in the company of a great poet whose imagined worlds are informed by great erudition, mythic sweep and meticulous lyricism.
Despite its noble aims, The Adam of Two Edens is limited in one key area. It lacks the translator’s deliberate self-consciousness about the project at hand. We are told that several writers who are themselves versed in Arabic and English translated the individual poems, which were later “polished” by the American poet Daniel Moore to make them “harmonious in a single voice.” But a translation’s primary aim is to recast the music of the original in a wholly new expressive context, and to do so in bold ways. The collection would have benefited immensely from a discussion of the issues that the translators and Moore faced in this passage from Arabic to English, and how these issues were resolved, dodged or reframed.
Every translation renews the language of the original as well as the adopted language. So, too, with every poem. Darwish is well versed not only in Arabic and Hebrew poetry but also poetry written in English and French. The range of his poetic concerns is evident in a groundbreaking book of conversations with Arab and Israeli interviewers, La Palestine comme métaphore (Palestine as Metaphor, 1997; alas, not available in English). Part argument, part meditation, part analysis, it outlines not only Darwish’s literary biography and the ways in which Palestinian and Israeli literatures have shaped his writing but also his efforts at forging an alliance between his native Arabic poetic tradition and the currents of Modernist poetry. But the introduction of The Adam of Two Edens merely notes that Darwish’s “sense of cadence is symphonically structured,” which, says Akash, has few equivalents in American poetry. That begs the question: What are the hurdles that a translator of Darwish’s poetry faces in executing a translation into a poetic tradition and idiom that seems to lack what is so essential in the original?
Darwish’s poetry, for example, sometimes displays instances where a line or a phrase or a word is repeated, and language seems to fold in on itself. This kind of creasing, which has its sources in the classical Arabic tradition of recitation, is a very effective device in giving the writing a pause, a suspended quality. A poetry reading by Darwish is always a huge cultural event in the Arab world, and this attribute places him in a line of poets who were also great reciters of their poetry–with Yeats, Ginsberg, Voznesensky, Dylan Thomas and others. But Darwish’s Modernist impulses subvert the traditional comforts of this kind of creasing, turning this poetic device of classical Arabic into a source of both pleasure and anxiety. English, by contrast, does not tolerate repetition as well as Arabic does, and the translator has a huge problem in reinventing the original. It may be that with the best of intentions, the translators of the present volume have ended up being too loyal to the original, too willing to assume that there is a natural congruity between Arabic and English poetic cultures. The result is that sometimes the creases and folds seem clunky and pull the poem down.
The cadence of Darwish’s Arabic sometimes has an eerie, miragelike feel to it, as if the lines were about to go into nothingness. Often the progress of the poetic line is musical; it seems to hover at the edge of something unknown, at the point where it can quickly become other than itself–a whisper, a silence, perhaps even a muffled sob. Darwish has argued at some length for the fraternity of music and poetry in the Arabic poetic tradition, even describing himself as something of a “reactionary,” who, unlike some of his Arab contemporaries, has neither destroyed the poetic meter nor chosen prose over poetry. In the translations of The Adam of Two Edens we often do not have this sense of impending loss; the lines sometimes have a prosaic security that is at odds with the fragility of Darwish’s poetry–reading it, writing it, listening to it.
In 1945 Czeslaw Milosz asked:
What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
Against hope, Darwish’s poetry still speaks of coexistence and a shared culture:
Stranger, hang your weapons in our palm tree
and let me plant my wheat in Canaan’s sacred soil.
(“On a Canaanite Stone at the Dead Sea”)
His vision of peace is the poet’s prerogative, of course, but it may, in the end, be the only one that stands a chance–if not of saving nations, then at least of perspective and moderation:
All I want of love is a beginning.
Doves flew above the roof of the last sky,
flew off and kept flying…
After we’re gone there’ll be plenty of wine in the jars.
A little land is land enough for us for a place to meet,
enough for peace to descend…
(“All I Want of Love is a Beginning”)