How to voice conflict without bitterness or blame? This question haunted the work of James Baldwin, whose essays on civil unrest in America often addressed the bitterness that had eroded his father. In Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi asks this question against the backdrop of Iranians bitter from the revolution. And this is the engine that drives the poems of Najwan Darwish: how to avoid bitterness yet remain in active protest? Though Nothing More to Lose marks his debut in English, the young Darwish is already a sensation in the Arabic-speaking world, much like another Palestinian poet with whom he shares his name and popularity, the late Mahmoud Darwish, said to be the last poet who could fill a football stadium.
Unlike Mahmoud Darwish, Najwan Darwish’s poems on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict venture beyond the quiet meditation or elegy. They’re often a shrill curse:
In the 1930s
it occurred to the Nazis
to put their victims in gas chambers
Today’s executioners are more professional:
They put the gas chambers
in their victims
I’m not sure I need to elaborate much on this, taken from a poem called “In Hell.” The fury burning under a tone of performed ease reminds me of ancient Greek bullets, flung with a slingshot toward the enemy in battle. The makers often etched perverse or humorous inscriptions like “Catch” or “Here’s dessert.” Darwish blends a similar fiery invective and earthy wit that makes the poem fly. Just shy of a full attack, Darwish turns inward:
May the boats and the planes, the banks and the billboards all go to hell
I scream, “To hell…”
knowing full well that I
am the only one
who lives there
Here, Darwish delivers one of many answers to the bitterness question: you don’t avoid it, you use it, you voice it.
But this is only one possible answer, and, actually, the one least expressed in Nothing More to Lose. Like the inward turn in “To Hell,” Darwish often directs the writing toward himself in a kind of poetic mutiny. More than a century after Rimbaud wrote “I is someone else,” Darwish troubles the waters of the poetic I in “Self-Mockery” with wry humor: “It’s not I who writes these words: / It’s some other bastard.” Who’s to blame for the continuing horrors in the West Bank? Everyone. Or no one. Or merely “some other bastard.” The answer is slippery, but feels closer to the truth than a simple finger-pointing.
In “Fabrication,” a disassembling of many constructs, Darwish alights, again, on the first-person: “I, too, a fabrication. Not only because I am but because all pronouns are fabrications.” His criticism of the self is crucial, I think, in the emotional impact of his poems. The I is never absolute. Neither is the point of view. Darwish is as wary as he is sure of the written word.
Darwish stretches Rimbaud’s idea into ethnic identity. At various times, the speaker identifies as not only Palestinian but Kurd, Amazigh, Armenian, Arab, Sephardic Jew, Syrian, and Ancient Egyptian, to name a few, encompassing diaspora groups across ethnicities, religions, histories, and nationalities. He expands this idea in “Identity Card”:
There is no place that resisted its invaders except that I was one of its people; there is no free man to whom I am not bound in kinship; and there is no single tree or cloud to which I am not indebted. And my scorn for Zionists will not prevent me from saying that I was a Jew expelled from Andalusia, and that I still weave meaning from the light of that setting sun.
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you, he might have said. Darwish ends this poem with a frank address to his own identity: “And by anything less than this, one is not an Arab.”
Kareem James Abu-Zeid’s exquisite translation conveys this shape-shifting voice with a casual, American tone which arrives at unexpected moments of musicality. The opening lines of “This Role” convey these two qualities best:
I play this role that pleases you, somewhat
then hurl myself into sleep’s hellish subway
and hear nothing but the cars rattling on the rails
I hear them, but I don’t
I hear them, but I don’t
I hear at least two subway cars shuttling through the fourth and fifth lines, but Abu-Zeid’s translation doesn’t feel like it reaches far for this effect. It arrives naturally at an intersection between the vernacular and the lyrical.
Darwish’s protean voice could seem like an escape. Charging no one – or everyone – with a collective responsibility does not absolve the individual from the record. Moreover, it’s a solution that’s too easy, too theoretical without any active consequences, but Darwish knows this. In “It’s No Use,” he writes
It’s no use hiding and locking the doors
Moving into buildings where no one could know us
is also no use
Even if you run off the precipice
and into the void
will still hold on to your name
The word history, here, is like a hinge that swings between void – eternal oblivion – and the historical record – eternal martyrdom, or damnation, depending on who’s telling the story. He arrives at the real dilemma of voicing conflict: ignorance or complacency in writing conflict allows History to bulldoze your name, while passionate engagement risks the role of antagonist. Is it better to be remembered for evil or forgotten for good? In the rarest cases, History deifies the martyr. Either path looks grim:
I’ll be banished from being
because I’m partial to the void
I’ll be banished from the void
for my suspect ties to being
I’ll be banished from both being and the void
because I was born of becoming
The real enemy here is something larger than a people. The real enemy is Time, is History, just as the real voice is not I, but all who seek recognition and reconciliation.
When it seems “the seats of hope are always reserved,” how can a poet possibly navigate through the Symplegades of History and Being? Darwish urges resilience. The voice of “I Rise from Her Love” recovers from a broken heart “like a man hit by a truck,” and from a broken nation, “And here I am still at it / heedlessly / jumping in front of another.” The poet can only witness, but maybe that’s enough. What matters for Darwish is legacy, an idea clear in his nod to European poetic traditions like Rimbaud and Baudelaire. “The Obelisk” revisits Shelly’s idea of power and legacy in “Ozymandias”:
The Egyptian villager inside her was greater than any city
and greater than any poet is the worker
now smiling within me, enraptured
by this praise of his ancestors –
the ones who hewed that obelisk
The hope of these poems lies in that vision of legacy, and his eye on the future avoids a bitterness of the present. If the Palestinians and Israelis fail to find peace in this lifetime, if the Palestinians fail to secure a home, “if I am not able,” Darwish writes, “then one of you / will make this promise again”. In light of so many visible acts of resistance, Darwish dares the reader to “Tell this to those / who say we’ve been defeated.”
As I read through Nothing More to Lose for the first time, two Palestinian boys were shot as they threw rocks at IDF soldiers on Nakba Day. The father of one of the boys blamed a soldier, while the soldier claims to have used only rubber bullets. In the following weeks, the debate devolved into a mudslide of identity politics, impossible claims, and carefully worded statements from the IDF. I’m reminded of the often quoted but very relevant statement from William Carlos Williams that “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” Darwish confesses nothing, illuminates nothing about the conflict worthy of CNN, but his barbed lines exude an essential empathy for all humans. Nothing More to Lose can only spring from a poet awake to the grim reality in the present, but sure of a peaceful reckoning in the future. And, regardless, the future will come.