The White Sky of the Absolute
Mahmoud Darwish once read his poetry to an audience of 25,000 at a stadium in Beirut, and he’s drawn more crowds numbering in the thousands in Cairo and Paris. He is a force, undoubtedly the most popular and powerful poet of the Middle East, if not the world.
Since childhood, his life has variously figured into (and been figured, transfigured) the history of the region. Born in 1942 in a village of Palestine called Birwe. When he was six, the Israeli army occupied and later destroyed Birwe, along with over 400 other villages, causing a mass exodus of at least three-quarters of a million people. According to editor-translators Munir Akash and Carolyn Forche, “to avoid the ensuing massacres, the Darwish family fled to Lebanon. A year later, they returned to their county ‘illegally’, and settled in the nearby village of Dayr al-Asad, but too late to be counted among the Palestinians who survived and remained within the borders of the new state. The young Darwish was now an ‘internal refugee’, legally classified as a ‘present-absent alien’”. Designated as such, Darwish was harassed frequently and imprisoned several times for traveling from village to village without a permit, reciting his poetry. He finally left the country in 1970.
Why this book is important should be obvious: this region, and this world, is in ever-increasing political, military, economic and emotional turmoil. In world politics, the balance between how much power is in one pair of hands is uncomfortable at best and catastrophic.
One of the more magnificent things about Darwish’s work though is how it does not rely on history, biography, or politics. While it gives insight to these affairs, it doesn’t “explain” or “solve” them either, and he is far from a pedestrianly political-protest poet lacking depth or nuance, made of nothing but surface (the closest he comes to this is in a line like “I know what the dove means when it lays eggs on the rifle’s muzzle”-if only more “political poets” could say that was one of their least compelling statements).
His work strikes me most when it is at the highest point of tension between intimacy and elusiveness. “Mural” is a long poem that seems to be in the voice of a dying man-one might look at it as an eerily elaborated version of the moment one’s life flashes before one’s eyes. Here are a few of my favorite chunks:
We are left in place as the echo of an epic hymn.
... Like a small jar of water, absence breaks in me.
... My gods are a storm turned to stone in the land of the imagination.
... I only changed my heartbeat to hear my heart more clearly.
... I told myself: I am alive.
And I said: When two ghosts meet in the desert, do they walk on the same sands?
Do they compete to overpower the night?
... I said: I will wake up when I die.
There’s little linear narrative to be found, and I bet that’s out of necessity, when so much of the work’s thrust comes from the slipperiness of memory and language, and the awkward, tenderly haunted position of being an exile in one’s own land.
And exile is everywhere, a placelessness that can’t be quelled (“There is no place on earth where we haven’t pitched our tent of exile”). In lines like “A woman of our group says: My village is the bundle on my back” and “Where can I free myself of the homeland in my body?”, this is this displacing sense of one ultimately is one’s own home, just one’s own body, and all other evidence or remains of homeland is hearsay, memory, or photograph.
The self is also constantly evaporating: “My ‘I’ has flown away. For there is no ‘I’ but ‘I’.”, “O self, who shall I be after you?” “I could not distinguish between the dream of my self and my self.” “Does the stranger see himself in the mirror/of another stranger?” This might be seen as speaking to the slippery slope of subjectivity, but it also has to do with the impossibility of objectivity and the potential of metamorphosis (both personal and political. When Darwish writes “Of our home we see only the unseen: our mystery./...The soul must recognize itself in its very soul, or die here”, the message, the enigma, is at once instructively global and mystically private (“We could be what we should be”). And it might be interesting to attempt the perspective of the soldier in “A Soldier Dreams of White Tulips”: “Suddenly I saw the land as one sees a grocery store, a street, newspapers.”
These poems are hypnotically fluid, sounded like a bell by anaphora, often cyclic, kaleidoscopic in their constant transformation, and doves are everywhere. Sentences are overwhelmingly declarative, and the lines are heavily end-stopped, but the overall effect is of something that hovers. There are so many seeming-contradictions, paradoxes, conflicts and transformations in these poems-“We live our death. This half-death is our triumph”-that the whole collection seems to be a kind of interzone (to borrow William S. Burroughs’ novel-title) of philosophical wrestling and lyric omniscience.
For me, this book-perhaps the most important, available, and representative volume of Darwish to date-is really remarkable. It’s striking how this poet is so much at once and as a whole: personal and political, “experimental” yet lyrically so, informed by philosophy yet reminiscent of prayer. I can only call it undeniably beautiful in its elusiveness, like watching a ghost the way one watches a sunset, or how music means without meaning, pointing marvelously to what is not wholly there:
Like a desert, space recedes from time
the distance needed for a poem to explode.
...O lute, give me back what has been lost,
and sacrifice me over it.
...O stranger, I am a stranger and you are like me.
O stranger, far from home, go back.
O lute, bring back what is lost, and sacrifice over you
from jugular to jugular.
Everything will begin again.
I don’t want to stay too long on any crunchy hobbyhorse about how beautiful it is that while we have political leaders affecting the masses with their decisions and various weapons, there is also (fortunately) a poetic leader affecting the masses with his imagery, his lyricism, and his voice. Still, in the end I have to cast my vote for this connection between poetry and politics, and for the hope that this seeming disparity-the disparity between human atrocity and human beauty-projects.
I wish I could find the stanza that solves everything, the image that we could all dwell in, the lyric that breathes in each person’s chest. And it must be hopelessly naive of me to imagine political leaders using poetry to effect change, something poets already do on their own (however slight the range), and maybe that wouldn’t be right in the first place, the explicit “merger” of poetry and politics. Maybe this is Plato’s fault, exiling poets from his Ideal State. Maybe politicians are cursed to dwell predominantly in ceremony. Maybe it’s inevitable that the work of most poets who become popular loses its pumping blood and flashing mind, while all the other poets are sentenced to obscurity, isolation, and dusty shelves. But not this one.