Cover story After his death at age 67, the late poems of Mahmoud Darwish have found new life in translation. Robyn Creswell considers the poet's legacy.
After his death at age 67, the late poems of Mahmoud Darwish have found new life in translation. Robyn Creswell considers the poet's legacy. A little more than a year after his death it seems fair to say that Mahmoud Darwish, one of the past century's signal poets, has finally arrived in English. Six substantial collections of his work have been translated in the past three years and several others are on the way, a level of attention publishers usually reserve for Nobel Prize winners. With a little luck, Darwish might one day join that small group of foreign poets - like Lorca, Cavafy, or Mandelstam - whose idiom becomes a touchstone for peers writing in English. But the Darwish that has begun to come into view for English language readers is, of course, quite different from the one his Arab audience is familiar with. Darwish became famous as a young man in the 1960s as "the poet of the resistance". His early lyrics were angry, eloquent and in-your-face. They were crowd pleasers, and the crowds that attended his readings in Nazareth and Acre were large and delirious. Darwish cut a dashing figure. In the opening poem of his first collection, published in 1964, he warned the reader that there were black flowers in his heart and fire on his lips. A Communist, he demanded poetry that was directly engaged in political struggle. "Creativity in the Revolution and revolution in creativity," was one of his slogans, and he kept up his side of the bargain (the politicians, however, did not). To have missed the opening scenes of Darwish's career, or to know of them only in summary form, does make a difference in one's sense of him as a poet. It is difficult for the English reader to appreciate, for example, the extent to which Darwish's late poetry is a complex mode of self-criticism. Darwish was always his own severest judge. He never allowed any one style, however successful, to harden into a method. His final lyrics are very distinct from the plainspoken, confrontational poetry that made him a celebrity while he was still in his early twenties. They are also distinct from the poetry he wrote in Beirut during the Civil War, or during the first Intifada, or the long foundering and bitter aftermath of the Oslo Accords. Indeed, Darwish's late poetry is in an important sense a reaction against his earlier work, an attempt to escape the prisons of his former personae. Darwish regarded the late poetry as his finest, and it is this corpus that has been most comprehensively translated into English. By contrast, the early poems that first established his reputation among Arab readers and critics are largely unavailable. The few translations that do exist are out-of-print and hard to find. So the English reader is like a theatregoer who arrives at intermission and tries to deduce, from the denouement, what happened in the first act. Darwish's last period begins, most critics would agree, with Mural, a long poem published in 2000, two years after the poet underwent open heart surgery that nearly killed him (and eight years before another heart operation finally did take his life). Mural is a scarred monument to this brush with extinction, and much of the verse that followed it is also concerned with the imminence of death, an eventuality the poet regards with a combination of defiance, gallows humour and stylised indifference. In one late lyric an idiot questioner asks the poet what he would do if he knew he would die that evening. "I will comb my hair," Darwish answers, "and throw the poem, this poem / in the rubbish bin / put on the latest shirt from Italy / say my final farewell to myself with a backing of Spanish violins / then / walk / to the graveyard!" Such intimations of mortality are symptomatic of the inward turn in Darwish's late poetry. The political polemics and allegories of Darwish's earlier work are here replaced by a dialectics of the self: the self in conversation with its other, with its earthly shadow or intimate enemy. This private, almost esoteric sensibility is of a piece with Darwish's engagement, in the late poems, with Sufism. The mystical tradition certainly informs Darwish's fondness for paradox, his search for self-knowledge and states of ecstasy: the famous, concluding statement of Mural, "I am not mine / I am not mine," can certainly be read along these lines. And Darwish also invokes, more than once, the mystic's habit of austerity, his gradual casting off of worldly goods and cares. Darwish's final poems are graced by a mood of disburdenment, a ghostly lightheartedness. It is as if the poet felt himself liberated at last from all his prior performances, or as if the long siege of history had momentarily lifted and set him free.
Darwish's inward turn reaches a climax in the poems of A River Dies of Thirst, the last book he published before his death. It is a remarkable collection, expertly translated by Catherine Cobham. Here, Darwish figures the creative process itself as a playful, almost solipsistic exercise (an idea that would have been violently rejected in his earlier engagé work). Yet these private and imaginative pleasures are constantly harried by larger, less forgiving forces. The ascetic's attempt to withdraw from the world is thwarted and mocked by the incursions of history, the facts on the ground. A River Dies of Thirst is subtitled "Yawmiyat," meaning that Darwish viewed the book as a diary or journal rather than a straight diwan, or collection of poems (the title recalls Yawmiyat al Huzn al 'Adi [Diary of an Ordinary Sorrow], Darwish's early memoir, published in 1973 and now being translated into English by Archipelago Press). The poet of this collection is typically involved in everyday tasks: household chores, walks in the hills, watching the news. The texts alternate between prose poems - a form well-suited to the prosaic subject matter - and relatively formal lyrics (a distinction that Darwish was more and more concerned to deconstruct.) The hero of these poems is a solitary wanderer, a distant descendant perhaps of the romantic archetype one finds in Wordworth's Prelude, or Whitman's Song of the Open Road, whose speaker, a progenitor of all later nationalist poets, chants: "From this hour I ordain myself loos'd of limits and imaginary lines..../ Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating, / Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me." The poet of Darwish's collection is also a lonely rambler, walking among the hills outside Ramallah, "on my way to no where in particular", "not looking for anything, not even for myself in all this light", climbing up from valley to peak, "making my own way, unaided". But if the poet of A River Dies of Thirst belongs to this tradition of romantic questers, then he is a latecomer and not entirely at ease with the company. The wisdom of Darwish's poet is autumnal rather than innocent; his voice has been schooled by experience. In one of the collection's opening prose poems, Darwish reveals that his solitary walker is actually a convalescent and that his walks are a form of therapy. Artistic inspiration, he suggests, is not his primary concern: "He walks because the doctors have advised him to walk, with no particular goal, to train the heart in a kind of indifference necessary for good health. Any idea that occurs to him will be purely gratuitous." "Indifference" [la-mubala] is among the keywords of this collection. It is even, I think, a name for the poet's final philosophy. Indifference signals, on the one hand, the serenity of old age, the renunciation of passion, and the arrival of maturity ("a light-hearted stage of life," Darwish calls it, when "we are neither optimistic nor pessimistic"). Indifference in this sense is a form of autonomy, "the freedom of the self-sufficient". The poet who achieves this state, Darwish tells us, is "like an idea unencumbered by argumentation". But there is another aspect to indifference, one that is linked to creativity, playfulness and even a kind of eroticism. This is the subject of a prose poem called A Colored Cloud, which describes the poet at home washing his dishes, an everyday chore that nevertheless fills him with "an invigorating emptiness". "I amuse myself with soap bubbles," Darwish writes, "I play with the lather, which is like a cloud in which seasonal colors gleam then fade. I grasp the cloud in my hand and distribute it over the plates, glasses, cups, spoons and knives. It inflates as drops of water run over it. I scoop it up and make it fly through the air." This childlike form of self-amusement and spontaneity leads gradually to a state of trance, in which the poet is visited by images of his past, now freed of all their former associations: "My mind is blank, as indifferent as the noonday heat. But images of memories descend from afar and land in the bowl of water, neutral memories, neither painful nor joyful, such as a walk in the pine forest, or waiting for a bus in the rain, and I wash them as intently as if I had a literary crystal vase in my hands." A Colored Cloud is, I think, the most concentrated statement of Darwish's late aesthetic. It gives us a persuasive image of creative solitude and virtuosic self-absorption. But what makes A River Dies of Thirst especially remarkable is that this image of the poet-at-play is embedded in a collection of other texts that constantly challenge its implications, that never allow "indifference" to slide into complacency. For Darwish, the yawmiyat is not merely a journal for recording the poet's private experience. Interspersed among the lyrics of the solitary walker and soap bubble sculptor is another series of poems that record a more troubled history. Most of the texts in A River Dies of Thirst were written in 2006 and 2007, years that encompassed the worst period of sectarian fighting in Iraq, the latest Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and the beginnings of civil war between Hamas and Fatah. This trio of conflicts - scenes from what Darwish calls "this long American movie" - forms an ominous backdrop to the poet's ruminations on poetry, his lonely treks through the West Bank. Darwish's response to these political events does not usually come in the form of a public, oratorical poem, though odes such as "Iraq's night is long," or "From now on you are somebody else," show that Darwish can still deliver a jeremiad when he wants. Instead, and in keeping with the diary form, Darwish tends to refract these political events through the experience of the poet, mired in the un-heroic everyday. The opening poems concern the invasion of Lebanon, which inevitably reminds Darwish of an earlier invasion - "In 1982 the same thing happened to us as is happening now" - when he was among the besieged. In 2006, however, he can only follow the war on the news, as helplessly as any other onlooker: "I sit in front of the television, since I can't do anything else. There, in front of the television, I discover my feelings and see what's happening to me." The poet of this late collection is by turns indifferent and impassioned, in search of the sublime yet hemmed in by history. These qualities aren't reconciled by Darwish, but simply set side by side, like entries in a diary. No matter how deeply the poet withdraws into himself, or attempts to climb above the everyday, he finds history laying its traps. In one especially haunting episode from a prose poem called A sort of loss, the poet climbs a steep hill "to see the sea", amusing himself with various impossibilities such as "dodging my shadow and thinking cheerfully about where a rainbow ends". But at the top of his climb he does not find larger vistas, but rather a dark and claustrophobic landscape: "The clouds grow thicker and cover the low ground and the outlying areas and the sea, which has been taken prisoner in one of the wars. Night falls, and the lights of the settlements appear on all sides." Or, as he writes elsewhere, "How much a peak resembles an abyss."
Darwish's strong preference for his later work has often been mirrored by his critics and translators. Fady Joudah, a Palestinian-American doctor and award-winning poet, has emerged as Darwish's most consistent, sure-footed English translator. The Butterfly's Burden, which included three translated volumes of Darwish's late poetry, was published two years ago and Joudah has now published a further selection of late poems, If I Were Another. The poems in this new volume, chosen by Joudah, are taken from four separate collections, two from the early nineties (I See What I Want and Eleven Planets), and two from the past decade, (Mural and Almond Blossoms and Beyond). Almost all the poems have been translated before, chiefly in two collections edited by Munir Akash, The Adam of Two Edens and Unfortunately, It Was Paradise. There is nothing wrong with having more than one translation; on the contrary, a poet survives by being re-translated, and the earlier versions of these poems were often unsatisfactory and even inaccurate. Still, Joudah's selection is puzzling given that so much of Darwish's early work remains unavailable in English. Joudah calls If I Were Another a tribute to Darwish's "lyric epic", an oxymoron that Darwish borrowed from the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos, whom he met in Athens in 1982 following the PLO's expulsion from Beirut. Darwish found that Ritsos's phrase captured what he was aiming for with his own verse at the time: a fusion of the private voice with "the expression of a collective conscience faced with loss and mourning". Many of the long poems that Darwish wrote in the 1990s are lyric epics in this sense. They are allegories of Palestinian experience as seen through the prism of Andalusian history, the dispossession of Native Americans, or the Sufi myth of the Persian poet al-Attar's Conference of Birds. And just as, in this last text, the 30 birds who go in search of the fabled Simurgh discover, at the end of their journey, that they themselves are the Simurgh, a bird made up of birds, so in Darwish's poetry from this period there is an effort to reconcile the poet's voice with a collective history or myth. But Darwish's later poems, beginning with Mural in 2000, do not appear to be lyric epics in this sense, though Joudah believes they belong together with the allegorical poetry of the 1990s. It seems to me that the intense, even ecstatic solitude of Darwish's final works belongs to a different sensibility, more intimate and less reconciled. Where allegory aims at a degree of intellectual clarity, and at a certain mastery of its materials, Darwish's late poetry is increasingly vagrant, bemused and improvisatory. Here, the poet seems willing to risk being misunderstood, which may simply be the price one pays for "indifference" in his special sense. Whatever one thinks of Joudah's selection, however, it is a delight to have his version of Mural, a poem that Darwish regarded as his masterpiece ("the one magnum opus of which he was certain," according to Joudah). It is a further delight - and instructive, too - that we have a second version of the poem, also recently published, by a pair of British translators, Rema Hammami and John Berger, the distinguished art critic and novelist, who was a close friend of Darwish. The two versions are subtly different. Hammami and Berger's translation is looser and more colloquial. They have done away with most punctuation - there are very few periods or commas - and rearranged the original's line breaks to make a more punchy, readable, and epigrammatic text. Their translation is at its best during the celebrated middle episode, where the poet addresses Death in a monologue that is by turns welcoming, defiant, mocking, and supplicatory. Sit Put down your hunting things outside under the awning Hang your set of heavy keys above the door!... Don't stand on the threshold like a beggar or tax collector Don't be an undercover policeman directing traffic Be strong like shining steel and take off the fox's mask Be chivalrous glamorous fatal... Death wait take a seat drink a glass of wine. Hammadi and Berger's version, it must be said, has a number of errors. "Ulqi bi-nafsi janiban", in the poem's second stanza, does not mean, "I meet myself at my side," but "I threw myself aside" (ulqi, not alqi); "udi'a dakhili fi kharijla", at the end of the poet's conversation with death, does not mean "I can say farewell to my inside from my outside," but rather "I store my interior in my exterior" (udi'a, not uwaddi'a); and there are other misreadings. Joudah is a more reliable guide through these semantic thickets. His version, while it does not always achieve the liveliness of Hammami and Berger's, is also better attuned to the music of Darwish's text, its quietly rising and falling cadences. One hears as much in this passage, whose first line echoes the murmured refrain of Federico García Lorca's somnambulist ("Verde, que te quiero verde"): Green, my poem's land is green, And the lyricists carry it from one time to another faithful to its fertility... And I have serenity. A small grain of wheat is enough (for me and my enemy brother). My hour hasn't arrived yet. Nor has harvest. I must shadow absence and believe my heart first, follow it to Cana in Galilee. My hour hasn't arrived yet. Perhaps there's something in me that banishes me, perhaps I am other than me.
"He became his admirers," is how Auden famously glossed the death of Yeats in his elegy for the older poet. What he meant, among other things, was that a poet survives physical extinction through the medium of friends and readers. A translator is, in this way, a rather special case of the admirer, one who ensures survival by way of a necessary betrayal, a making-other or making-strange. We might even speculate that every translation is a kind of elegy: that is, a survival purchased by the original's passing ("By mourning tongues," Auden writes, "The death of the poet was kept from his poems"). I suggested above that Darwish might one day become a resource or touchstone for poets writing in English. In fact this has already begun to happen in a fascinating and unpredictable way. Voice Over by the South African poet and novelist Breyten Breytenbach, is not quite an elegy for Darwish, and it is not quite a translation either, but it is a little bit of both. It is the rare work that is both intelligently experimental and full of feeling. The book is a series of twelve poems written by Breytenbach in the months after the death of Darwish, who was a friend. During this time, Breytenbach tells us, he read Darwish's poetry in English and French "approximations." His own poems, the poems of Voice Over, are grounded in Darwish's writings, but "with my own voice woven into the process." The poems were originally composed in Afrikaans and later translated, by Breytenbach himself, into English.
This exercise of reading, meditation, and composition, with its many degrees of distance and intimacy - involving translations and near-translations from Arabic to French to Afrikaans to English - strikes me as a unique and unexpectedly moving instance of the mourning rite, in which death is both faced and deflected, named and transformed. It is also a markedly secular, improvised example of that rite. The poet is laid to rest and new life is found only in someone else's language, a resurrection for which there are no established protocols. Of course Darwish's late verse is, in its own way, a meditation on the ways is which the self becomes a stranger to itself, becomes full of voices that are not its own. One of his most charming poems on this subject is The Dice Player (also translated by Hammami and Berger in their edition of Mural). In this long, quasi-autobiographical lyric, Darwish reflects on the many accidents of genealogy and history that conspired to make him who he is, or was, and how easy it would have been for him to turn out otherwise, or never to have existed at all. ("It's possible that poetry might have gained more / if precisely this poet hadn't existed," he wryly shrugs.) In this way, the poem also becomes a matter of chance: not an act of random creation but, like the self, a complicated result of the place where one happens to be born, the language one happens to speak, the poems one has read, and the friends one makes along the way. The Dice Player is, appropriately, the centrepiece of Breytenbach's collection. His voiceover ensures that the poem never really comes to an end, that it remains open to further transformations and translations, further accidents of history and strokes of luck. Here is Darwish, via Hammami and Berger (and Mallarmé): This poem is a dice throw onto a board of darkness that glows and doesn't glow words fall like feathers on sand. I don't think it was me who wrote the poem. And here is Breytenbach's answering coup de dés: The poem is but a geeing of dice Shimmering in a dancer-dark cone Or maybe not and words flutter Like feathers to the sand I have no role in this writing.
Robyn Creswell, a regular contributor to The Review, is a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at New York University.