To the Language of Doves

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Darwish’s identity (and the Palestinian identity) has been, at least partly, developed in exile. Darwish writes: “I am absence./ The heavenly and the expelled.” Here he speaks not only for himself, but for his people.

If I Were Another catalogs the epic later poems of Mahmoud Darwish, who up until his death in 2008 was often credited not only as the Palestinian national poet, but the voice of the Palestinian people. Darwish was born in al-Burwa, a village in western Galilee that was depopulated in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, six years after his birth. Following the war, his family spent a year in Lebanon before returning to Israel and settling near Acre. In 1970 Darwish left Israel to study and live abroad and in 1973 joined the PLO, after which he was unable to return to Israel until 1995 when he finally settled in Ramallah. By the time he arrived as an exile in Beirut in the 1970’s his reputation for being among the most gifted poets of his generation in the Arab world was already widely established. He was also one of the few Arab poets to appreciate the great Israeli poets, reading them in their original Hebrew no less.

The way Darwish’s poems exist in the Arab, and more acutely Palestinian, consciousness, might be compared to how a poem like Paul Celan’s Death Fugue or Psalm 137 might exist in the Jewish psyche. Darwish exists as more than a cultural figure, but a voice of individual longing and the longing of a popular consciousness. Translator Fady Joudah, a Palestinian-American poet and medical doctor living in Houston, insisted to me over the phone that Darwish was more a love poet than anything else. If I Were Another brings together lyric meditations, elegy, Sufi-inspired allegory, lamentations, love poetry and the epic lyric narratives all within notions of exile, dispossession, and collective memory.

In many ways, this book deals with exile in a far less direct sense than one might imagine. The word “Palestine” does not appear once in the text of any of the poems, nor do the names of any political organizations, nor any caricature of any religious or cultural other. Darwish is more concerned with questions of exile in the context of the lover, sibling, or parent. In his poem “Take Care of the Stags, Father” from the first book in this collection I See What I Want, he couples the absence of a father and the absence of his land: “you’re a land/ of mint under my poems, drawing near and going far.”

Instead of directly discussing the Palestinian people, Darwish smartly uses the allegory of “The Hoopoe,” based off 12th century Sufi poem The Conference of the Birds, taking the reader on a lyrically intense journey into personal and communal longing: “We are a flock of birds, words/ are fed up with us and we with them, we’re full of thirst, and echo has scattered us.” The inadequacy of language echoes the feeling of powerlessness the poet struggles with: language will not bring home the exile, will not revive the dead, and will not close the endless distances. Despite this, the poet asks rhetorically in another poem “What good is the poem?” only to answer himself immediately, as if he had no doubt: “It raises the ceiling of our caves and flies from our blood to the language of doves.”

Darwish’s poetry does aspire “to the language of doves.” Though we have moments of bleak, and bitter lamentation “The wasteland is packed with traces of human absence./ And it seems we were here once.” we also have exultant, nostalgic moments like in the second book of this collection Eleven Planets: “O love, we were/ the fox of that fence and the chamomile of those plains.” Regardless of the topic, longing is always at the center of Darwish’s poems. In this way the poet of exile is the love poet: the poet who longs feverishly for a reality that cannot exist. The lover will never possess his/her other, the exile will never reclaim his/her land.

Also in Eleven Planets we have the final poem Darwish wrote about his great love Rita, a pseudonym for a Jewish Israeli woman who turned into a cultural icon in the Arab world after Lebanese musician Marcel Khalife wrote a song after Darwish’s poem “Rita and the Rifle” in 1976. In “Rita’s Winter” we see Darwish among our greatest love poets: “Rita sleeps in her body’s garden/ the berries on the fence of her nails light up the salt/in my blood. I love you. Two birds slept under my hands…” Through Rita we see a defamiliarized other, a Jewish Israeli woman who implores the speaker to exist solely with her, outside of any political framework: “Don’t read the newspaper now, the drums are the drums/ and war isn’t my profession.” Later she describes the paradox of their relationship: “There is no land for two bodies in one, no exile for exile” and “We sing between two chasms in vain” to only later beg, sobbing “Take me to a faraway land […] this winter/ is long…”

Mural, Darwish thought would be his final work, following his second heart attack in 1998. “This is your name/ a woman said” opens us to this very internal lyric/epic poem concerned with identity, forgetfulness, art, and failure of language and the human body. He combines the voice of the prophetic seer as well as that of the aging mortal. “Death,” Darwish writes, “is this History:/ your brother or your enemy climbing/ between two chasms?” In this work, the poet is grasping toward meaning, not only in poetry, but life itself:

I turned
away from my body and myself to complete
my first journey toward meaning, but meaning
burned me and disappeared.

Meaning is not discarded, but must not be anticipated as a grand gesture that gives some sort of answer. Meaning is instead found through the exploration of identity, both personal and public. Darwish’s identity (and the Palestinian identity) has been, at least partly, developed in exile. Darwish writes: “I am absence./ The heavenly and the expelled.” Here he speaks not only for himself, but for his people. These lines from Mural are reminiscent of Whitman:

Whenever I searched for myself I found
the others. Whenever I searched for the others I found
only my stranger self in them,
so am I the one, the multitude?

However, we do see in startlingly clear moments, Darwish as simply an aging mortal with his own set of private problems: “Heart, O heart, trace my steps back to me,/ I want to walk to the bathroom/ on my own.”

Exile, Darwish’s final long poem in If I Were Another , is broken into four distinct parts and explores many of the same themes found in his earlier work with a certain calmed lightness not normally found in his earlier work. He writes: “I walk lightly/ as if I have evaporated from my body” and later we see his surrender to his body and to death where he will not be bound by notions of home: “I’ll doze off for awhile … two little birds will carry me/ higher, to a star that has scattered me.” This idea of elevating the self above, to put it lightly, less-than-ideal conditions is central to Darwish.

Exile culminates with an elegy for Darwish’s friend the Palestinian-American theorist Edward Said who died after a twelve-year battle with cancer in 2003. The tone is conversational and intimately felt. In this section we are given a glance into Said’s personality: “New York. Edward wakes to a sluggish/ dawn. Plays a Mozart piece. Runs around/ in the university tennis court. Thinks/ of the migration of birds over borders and checkpoints.” Through Said, Darwish enters into a frank discussion of identity in the form of a conversation between the poet and his late friend:

He says: I am from there, I am from here,
but I am neither there nor here.
I have two names that meet and part,
and I have two languages, I forget
with which I dream.

The challenge of identity exhibited in these exchanges serve as a metaphor for the greater questions of the exile. Darwish describes Said as “a reader wondering what poetry/ can tell us in the age of catastrophe,” the age of catastrophe, of course, alluding to the Palestinian Nakba. Darwish quoting Said later in the same poem: “He said: We will live, even if life abandons us/ to ourselves.” At the conclusion of the poem, both men speak of the responsibility each would have if the other were to die first and Said says: “If I die before you do,/ I entrust you with the impossible.” The impossible, perhaps, means finding a home within exile, expressing the inexpressible longing of the exile. “He was like the last epic hero/ defending Troy’s right/ to share in the narrative,” Darwish says of Said. This final comparison to Troy puts Palestine in the context of the factual and the legendary, the real and the imagined.

“Identity is the daughter of birth,” Darwish says in this final poem, “but in the end/ she’s what her owner creates, not an inheritance/ of past.” Palestinian identity and all cultural or national identity is a construction existing within history. It is subject to the decisions of the self, and is not to be determined by another.

If I Were Another is a powerful collection of books that explores the problems of exile, love, cultural and national identity, family, collective memory, and the human body in one powerful volume. This masterful collection, in addition to Fady Joudah’s earlier Darwish translations The Butterfly’s Burden, brings a major world poet’s final works into English who up until the 1990’s was relatively unknown outside the Arab world. “There is no nation smaller than its poem,” Darwish writes in Mural, but to understand the nation, one must understand their poets. Though Darwish often resists easy interpretation, his poems provide important insights into the story of a people that for too long has been heard only on the periphery.

Matthew Siegel is a poet and essayist from New York. Some forthcoming and recent work can be found in Gigantic Sequins, Indiana Review, The Lumberyard, Lo-Ball, and Saw Mill Online. He is a 2009-2011 Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and lives in San Francisco. More from this author →