I am one of those writers of prose (fiction and non-fiction), who is actually a lover of poets and poetry. At the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Denver, Colorado last week, I found myself purchasing collections of poetry, among them Satellite Convulsions, Poems from Tin House (Tin House Books, 2008), The Art of Folding by Sarah Zale (Plainview Press, 2010), an intimate involvement in the disclosures concealed in daily life, and The Giving of Pears (Black Lawrence Press, 2010), by Nigerian poet, Abayomi Animashaun, winner of the Hudson Prize. I also found myself lingering in conversation not with fiction editors but rather with small presses devoted to the publication of poetry, and the poetry editors of journals that I found interesting. Perhaps it is because poetry crystallizes the matters of human life that prose writing expands. Fiction, for me, is an unraveling, while poetry gathers to. There’s a Sri Lankan song that talks about a man leaving three women who love him and in this story, one woman cries and begs him not to leave, the other tells him to travel safely, the third says nothing, simply gazes upon his face. Poetry is that third woman as I see it, the one that stays on my mind, the one that it is worth coming back to.
I was supposed to talk about a group of poets today, but instead I am going to focus on one of my beloveds, who was re-introduced to me at this year’s AWP: Mahmoud Darwish. The details of this Palestinian poet are well known, so I will be brief. He was born into a Sunni Muslim family in al-Barwe, east of Acre where, after the war of 1948, Israelis took over the land his family owned, turning them into refugees. Thanks to a census that was taken without notice (a fact I discovered at this reading), he became designated as “a present absentee” a turn of phrase as strange as the use of “resident alien” here in the United States. He lived in Lebanon, Cyprus, Tunisia, Jordan and France. He worked in Haifa as a journalist and joined the Israeli Community Party, Raka. He studied in Moscow, and settled in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1971, where he worked for the PLO in various capacities until he resigned from the PLO executive in 1994. In 2001 Darwish reveived the Prize for Cultural Freedom established by Lannan Foundation. He visited Israel in 1996 after 26 years of exile, having made his home in Ramallah in the Central West Bank and which was, subsequently reoccupied by the Israeli army in 2002. He died on August 9th 2008 while undergoing open-heart surgery.
What Darwish survived throughout his life, his series of assaults and displacements which he refers to in one of his poems thus “a life I used to measure/ In minutes / Or departures,” forms much of what we think of when we think of his work, but as the tribute showed, the poet himself was much more various than we have let him be. The poets reading Darwish’s work were Fady Joudah (Yale Series of Younger Poets Award winner for The Earth in the Attic), Yusef Komunyakaa (winner of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Kingley Tufts Poetry Award for Neon Vernacular and the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry), Michael Collier (former poet laureate of Maryland and author of Dark Wild Realm, The Ledge, etc), and Libyan poet, Khaled Mattawa (Questions and Their Retinue: Selected Poems of Iraqi poet Hatif Janabi), and each of these remarkable poets took a different route to their celebration of Darwish.
It was interesting for me to hear Mattawa who prefaced his reading of the poem ‘Identity Card,’ by Darwish, which begins with the lines “Write down!/ I am an Arab” with the biographical note that the poem was written for his father. The poem is full of details from their own life: 8 children, a ninth on the way, work in the quarries, their landowning history as farmers, and it was written as a response from a Palestinian against an Israeli. Yet throughout Darwish’s life, the poem was adopted as a rallying cry for Arabs who would recite it among themselves, a tradition he found, frankly, idiotic since the absence of the original context made the poem sound nonsensical. It was a perfect example of how we take the poet’s intention and bestow to it our need. It is a beautiful poem, full of rage and torment and yet, I wondered how diminished we are in reading poetry in translation. To my ear, the last line, “and my anger” fell flat and useless. The poem ought to have ended with “Beware…/ Beware…/ Of my hunger.” But who am I to say.
The difficulty of maintaining cadence in translation was also made clear in the reading by Fady Joudah, whose recitation of the first poem in the Arabic ‘On a day like today,’ was full of the long and repetitive ‘n’s and the drawn-out ‘a’s and hard ‘g’s that almost made it into his recitation of the same poem in English and yet left me with a longing for that original language rather than a feeling of satiation from having heard what the poet may have intended.
Here are some lines from Darwish’s poem, ‘Mural,’
One day I will become an idea. No sword will carry it
to the wasteland and no book…
like a rain on a mountain that has cracked
from a single sprout
so neither force
nor fugitive justice can win
One day I will become what I want.”
In Joudah’s voice, that “want” was no mere expression of desire, but a well crafted statement of what is deserved, its utterance full of the modulation of a native speaker of Arabic transforming it from familiar to deep portent.
The first time I heard Yousef Komunyakaa was at Bread Loaf. I’d talked to him several times, even shared a picnic lunch with him, but I had no knowledge of his importance among American poets or, indeed, his poetic caliber. Another writer told me “listen to him read and you will fall in love,” and so I went. To listen to Komunyakaa read is, truly, to be transported to a place of understanding where words, how they roll in ones mouth, how they come together and break apart in voice, is more important than anything else that could be happening. To hear Yousef Komunyakaa read Darwish, even in translation, and speak these words, “writing wounds without drawing blood,” was sublime. Komunyakaa’s reflected thus on Darwish (I paraphrase):
“(his) clandestine war of imagery and innuendo, where we have been changed without drawing blood, without the smell of gunpowder in the air. His voice echoes from the conflicted center of the PLO writing poetry which is like martial arts, so breathless that the adversary does not know how he has been affected until he wakes in the night with an image in his head.”
I cannot place the choices made by any of these poets in an order of importance for they created a far more complete portrait of a poet I thought I knew, than any one of them probably could have managed alone. But it was particularly wonderful to hear Michael Collier read a studiously edited (his) version of several pages from Memory for Forgetfulness, where he uses the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the resulting bombing of Beirut which went on almost constantly from June 13th to August 12th, as a setting for a series of prose poems which refers also to one of those dates, August 6th, which is Hiroshima Day, a day during which he chooses to explore the streets of Beirut.
In the collection, he asks, “To whom shall I offer my innocent silence?” describing scenes of a ravaged place, brutalized people. But the section Michael Collier chose to read was about a meditation on the poet’s desire to make a perfect cup of coffee in between the sounds of the shelling. Having been flung into the corridor outside his room, he wonders if he has enough seconds – five is all he asks for – to get to the kitchen. In that kitchen, he will make coffee, and he describes at great length, the way in which a perfect cup of coffee, perfect for him, may be made, while meditating on the very nature of coffee with these memorable lines:
“The aroma of coffee is a return to and a bringing back of first things because it is the offspring of the primordial. It’s a journey, begun thousands of years ago, that still goes on. Coffee is a place. Coffee is pores that let the inside seep through to the outside. A separation that unites what can’t be united except through its aroma. Coffee is not for weaning. On the contrary, coffee is a breast that nourishes men deeply. A morning born of a bitter taste. The milk of manhood. Coffee is geography.”
How hideous that this mindful existence within the contemplation of coffee takes place while the poet fears for his life. How appropriate that it is only those simple rituals that order our lives and turn a general existence into a personalized life. How easy it was to forget, as this American poet read that Palestinian poet’s words that this was not only an exposition of how humanizing that desire was, the desire to do what is always done, but a moment that could end all thought and word and act, until he closed with the lines, “a second is long enough for me to burn.”
Fady Joudah, picking it up from there, related an anecdote about a friend who was crouching with his father and brothers during the more recent concentrated attack on Gaza – I believe it was the December 2008 – January 2009 bombing that was mentioned, but it could have been Qalandiya, Balata or one of dozens of other places within the occupied territories, one of thousands of other dates and other brutalities. He describes how one of the brothers tells him to go make some coffee and the boy does not move because he is too scared and says so to which his brother responds, “What’s the matter with you? haven’t you read Mahmoud Darwish?” At which point the boy gets up and defiantly goes into the kitchen and makes coffee for his family.
One of the readers, I forget now which one, said that Darwish appeared to have spent his life arguing with himself, as though he was wondering if he took the right direction and, the speaker said, it seems that, in the final analysis, when we consider his body of work, he might agree that he did. Which brings me back to this poem, translated by Joudah and read by Komunyakaa, which might just tell us what Darwish actually felt:
Don’t Write History As Poetry
Translated from Arabic by Fady Joudah
Don’t write history as poetry, because the weapon is
The historian. And the historian doesn’t get fever
Chills when he names his victims and doesn’t listen
To the guitar’s rendition. And history is the dailiness
Of weapons prescribed upon our bodies. “The
Intelligent genius is the mighty one.” And history
Has no compassion so that we can long for our
Beginning, and no intention so that we can know what’s ahead
And what’s behind . . . and it has no rest stops by
The railroad tracks for us to bury the dead, for us to look
Toward what time has done to us over there, and what
We’ve done to time. As if we were of it and outside it.
History is neither logical nor intuitive that we can break
What is left of our myth about happy times,
Nor is it a myth that we can accept our dwelling at the doors
Of judgment day. It is in us and outside us . . . and a mad
Repetition, from the catapult to the nuclear thunder.
Aimlessly we make it and it makes us . . . Perhaps
History wasn’t born as we desired, because
The Human Being never existed?
Philosophers and artists passed through there . . .
And the poets wrote down the dailiness of their purple flowers
Then passed through there . . . and the poor believed
In sayings about paradise and waited there . . .
And gods came to rescue nature from our divinity
And passed through there. And history has no
Time for contemplation, history has no mirror
And no bare face. It is unreal reality
Or unfanciful fancy, so don’t write it.
Don’t write it, don’t write it as poetry!