Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish created a poetry of martyrdom for his people—and a political coup for the idea of the nakba
A poem is bound by language but a poetics is not. But what is a poetics? Is it a style or mood? Is it a question or answer? Or is searching for a definition for this enigmatic term akin to the infamous search for a word meaning “a word without synonyms”? Aristotle, by defining poetics as the theory of making art out of words, partitioned it from rhetoric, which he defined as the theory of turning words to governance, to politics. Though the poetic has always engaged with the political, in our day the political has ceased engaging with the poetic: Though the Soviet Union is no more and Mandelstam and Tsvetaeva are still read, and though ancient Greek and Latin are no longer spoken and Pindar and Virgil are still read, there is no doubt that what will survive today’s regimes will not be verse so much as verselike caches of random data.
Synonyms are both logical fallacies—no two words can be identical—and artistically useful (expedient, practical); synonymic poetics furthers that paradox into history, or histories. Which is to say that though the genres of tragedy and comedy transcend borders, races, and creeds, specific tragedies and comedies do not. The event one people celebrate with a victorious ode another people commemorate with an elegy of defeat.
Poetry that’s old enough, that has justified its age, tends to be credited to that greatest of versifiers, “Anonymous.” Let’s summon that God, for a moment, to bless the following scraps, translated into the neutrality of English:
How will you fill your cup
On the day of liberation? and with what?
Are you prepared, in your joy, to endure
The dark howling heard
From skulls of days glittering
In a bottomless pit?
We survived much death. We defeated forgetfulness and you said to me: We survive, but do not triumph. I said to you: Survival is the prey’s potential triumph over the hunter. Steadfastness is survival and survival is the beginning of existence. We persevered and much blood flowed on the coasts and in the deserts. Much more blood than what the name needed for its identity, or what identity needed for its name.
The first fragment is a stanza from How? written in 1943 in the Vilna Ghetto by the Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever. The second is from In the Presence of Absence, one of the last collections of stray sentences in paragraphs by Mahmoud Darwish, perhaps the foremost Palestinian poet of last century (published in Arabic in 2006, and this month by Archipelago Books, in a translation by Sinan Antoon).
That these two texts spring from a shared poetics can be denied only by those who read prejudicially, who judge books by covers of their own creation: When you oppress a people, when you beat and rape and kill them, the literature they write will inevitably resemble the literatures of other peoples who’ve been beaten, raped, and murdered (unless you’ve stumbled upon a happy tribe of masochists). But this shock must be admitted: The same poetics has sadly marked the literatures of Jews—not just Israelis—and Palestinians, in the same century—a poetics that fled Europe and hid, until it found another shelter.
Al-Birwa was a tiny olive, grain, and watermelon village in Western Galilee, Mandate Palestine. Darwish was born there to a Sunni Muslim family in March 1941, the same month and year the Nazis’ extermination camps became fully operational. In 1948, with war ended, war began: Darwish’s family was forced from their orchards by the nascent IDF’s Carmeli Brigade; they fled to Lebanon, to Jezzine and Damour. Later, they illegally returned to Israel—insofar as one can return to a different country—settling in Deir al-Asad, which had been renamed, in Hebrew, Shagur. (Darwish spoke fluent Hebrew.)
In 1970, Darwish, then a communist, briefly attended university in Moscow before migrating to Egypt and then to Lebanon again. There he joined the PLO, for which he coauthored the Algiers Declaration. When the PLO was expelled from Lebanon, Darwish went to Cyprus. Stints followed in Tunis and Paris. For his work in the PLO, the poet was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize, originally the Stalin Peace Prize, which he accepted as idealistically as he’d later reject the Oslo Accords (which occasioned his break with Yasser Arafat).
It was Oslo, however, in its slight easing of restrictions in the Occupied Territories, that gave Darwish a temporary reprieve: In 1996, now a poet with an international reputation and a major cardiac condition, he finally received Israeli permission to settle in Ramallah. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, major infarcts had led to major surgeries. Though his literary heart was strong, his literal heart was weak—so went the global obituaries. In August 2008, while undergoing treatment at a hospital in Houston, he died. He’s buried in Ramallah, atop a hill called Al-Rabweh, “the hill of green grass”—a small snatch of his childhood Galilee transported to the dusty West Bank.
So do not reconcile with anything except for this obscure reason. Do not regret a war that ripened you just as August ripens pomegranates on the slopes of stolen mountains. For there is no other hell waiting for you. What once was yours is now against you.
I am already quite scarce. For years
appearing only here and there
at the edges of jungle. My awkward body,
camouflaged by reeds, clings
to the damp shadow around it.
Had I been civilized,
I would never have been able to withstand.
I am tired. Only the great fires
still drive me from hiding to hiding.
Let’s avoid turning this survey into an exercise in perversity, a childish game: I’ve chosen to quote Darwish in his prose-poems, and the others, the original Others, enjambed. The man “already quite scarce” is the Israeli poet Dan Pagis. The source for the excerpt above is a poem called The Last Ones. The initial circumstance is the language, then the name and title, and only then, the poem. Bad poetry wants for forewords, good poetry, for afterwords, whereas Pagis’ poetry, like Darwish’s, needs a more encompassing apparatus—it necessitates experience.
The Metropolitan Opera’s new Siegfried, part of its ambitious Ring cycle, exposes the greatness—and the limitations—of Wagner and his admirers