In the Hurricane’s Eye: on The Butterfly’s Burden

Kazim Ali

Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2006. 327 pages. $20.00

Contemporary poets in the United States seem to find themselves suspended between Walt Whitman—sprawling, public, ecstatic—and Emily Dickinson—hermetic, interior, controlled. You could choose a side, you could be half one half the other, or you could even claim both in the same body and to make a break for new ground.

Mahmoud Darwish is a singular figure in world poetry. One of the most prominent literary voices of Palestine and the Palestinian diaspora, he writes poetry of the highest and most intense quality—poetry that embodies epic and lyric both, deeply symbolic, intensely emotional. Palestinian American poet Fady Joudah has translated three full collections of Darwish’s later work, collected as The Butterfly’s Burden and published by Copper Canyon Press. This new translation joins only a few other American publications of Darwish’s work—a single volume from 1995, Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? (Jeffrey Sacks, translator), as well as two volumes of selected works, The Adam of Two Edens (Munir Akash and Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore) and Unfortunately It Was Paradise (Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché). Unfortunately, Darwish’s work is not widely available in the United States considering the breadth of his influence on the world poetry scene, and so Copper Canyon is to be twice commended, first for publishing full volumes of Darwish’s work, and second for issuing an omnibus edition of three separate works.

The three books collected in The Butterfly’s Burden were all written and published after Darwish’s 1997 return to Palestine after twenty-four years in exile. Though Darwish has nearly always been read through a political lens, in an interview given in 1995, he claimed exactly the opposite for himself and his work: “History does not reduce itself to a compensation for the lost geography. It’s also a place of observation between shadows, between the self and the Other, known in more complex human ways . . . is it just an aesthetic trick, simple gesture? Or is it that despair seizes the body? The response is of no importance. The essential thing is that I found a great lyric capacity and a passage from the relative to the absolute. An opening in which I inscribe the national into the universal, that Palestine is not limited to Palestine, but it has established its aesthetic legitimacy in a human realm much vaster.”

“Let’s go as we are,” the first poem in “The Stranger’s Bed” opens, seeming to invite a break from opposition, a break from strife, “ . . . soon there will be a new present for us. / If you look back you will see only / the exile of your looking back” (5). The notion of exile is not political here, has nothing to do with the “lost geography” of which Darwish spoke of above, but is a human condition, a condition of loss beyond the political, a loss, Darwish seems to say, that a political healing will not be able to reconcile. There is some resignation here to be sure—“Our time wasn’t enough to grow old together / to walk wearily to the cinema / to witness the end of Athens’ war with her neighbors / and to see the banquet of peace between Rome and Carthage / about to happen” (5)—but an awareness that the solutions of community and polity will be able to resuscitate neither the individual nor the lost “homeland”: “No cultural solutions for existential concerns” / [ . . . ] / “Wherever you go my sky / is real” (6).

The poems, though discrete, lock themselves in the mind of the reader by repeating both abstract concepts—peace, exile, poetry, loneliness—and concrete objects and images—wheat, silk, hands, dust, birds. One gets the feeling of being submerged in a conciousness, almost as if the poems were a stream without clear beginnings or endings. If such a comparison tips Darwish to the more Whitmanesque, in an American vocabulary, the poems themselves remain gorgeously elusive, at their core purely Dickinsonian in both their clever rhythmic structures (brilliantly brought over to English by Joudah) and in their creepily nocturnal energies.

Many of Darwish’s quotidian observances are of things from afar, things that are impossible to know: “There’s a love passing through us, / without us noticing, / and neither it knows nor do we know / why a rose in an ancient wall makes us fugitives / and why a girl at the bus stop cries: / Nothing, nothing more / than a bee passing through my blood . . . ” (15). The reader is so entranced by the examples and imagery Darwish uses to describe the feeling of not understanding love that he nearly misses the realization that it wasn’t love at all moving through the blood, but another object entirely, the bee. One experiences the loss within the physical lines of the poetry itself, moving through the poem.

Darwish does not want to escape into the purely abstract; he always marries it tightly to very physical and real conditions. It is almost as if to write symbolically or metaphorically becomes another form of exile, another form of separation from the human and the real. He muses to a lover, “A real country, not a metaphor, your arms / around me . . . over there by the holy book / or right here. Who of us said: Language / might preserve the land from the plight / of absence if poetry wins?” (21).

It’s the “right here” that resonates—the lover’s arms become a place more permanent, more actual, more real than the holy book, than “Language,” than the “poetry” that would “preserve the land from the plight / of absence.” When physical bodies are shared, Darwish offers, exile evaporates. It took a man to come home after very real exile to write poems like this, though important to add, sometimes home is not home. Darwish came back to Ramallah, but the village in which he was born and raised, Birweh, no longer exists—it is one of those that was cleared and razed in the war of 1948. “The night sits wherever you are,” he writes in a subsequent poem, alluding to the true secret knowledge of one permanently exiled, not that he will never have home again, but that any place, any place at all holds the possibility of becoming a home.

For Darwish, in this work, much of this hope, this “homing in” comes from human interactions, experiences of love with other people. He writes, “in our bodies / a heaven and earth embrace” and “Night / in the covenant of night, crawling in my body” (23). Not only are the bodies twinned in each other, a single unit, but “Night” can lie within itself, an object inside the same object, the ultimate in intimacy. He seems to suggest there is no possibility for reconciliation unless the two strangers meet each other and recognize one another in the other. No possibility without such means, of course, that every possibility for reconciliation does exist: “Go to the sea then, man, west of your book, / and dive lightly, lightly as if you were carrying / yourself at birth in two waves, / you’ll find a wetland forest and a green sky / of water, then dive lightly / lightly as if you were nothing in anything, / and you’ll find us together . . . / we are one in two / We need to see how we were here. . . . ” (27).

It’s a most personal mourning, and Darwish seems very conscious of poetry’s role in trying to create a reality in which the self can authentically actualize itself: “Of night, I love the beginning, when you two come together / hand in hand, and bit by bit embrace me one section at a time. . . . ” (33). Though the stakes are high for him, he knows poetry is not mere play or ecstatic utterance and that though he seems to feel sometimes a mere instrument for greater breath, he has great faith in his work as a craftsman: “But the flute should be patient / and polish a sonnet, when you two descend on me . . . it chooses me as a threshold // of Poetry. . . . ” It’s a beautiful thing to think of the poet’s human sensing body as a “threshold” that poetry will cross from wordlessness into this world, and “what flows from you,” he says, “is ‘I’ the free and kind” (33).

It’s appropriate then that the second book collected here, “A State of Seige,” though written during the events of the siege of Ramallah, focuses neither on political polemic, nor on autobiographical confessional, but is an intensely personal lyric response in a language that really has no equivalent (yet, one hopes) in American idiom. “Don’t trust the poem,” Darwish writes, “this daughter of absence, / she’s neither speculation / nor intellect, / she’s chasm’s sense. . . . ” Though at the same time, he knows poetry is real: “I wrote twenty lines about love / and imagined / this siege / has withdrawn twenty meters! . . . ” (151). The key here is that the poem which caused the seige’s withdrawal (even if only in the imagination of the poet) was a poem of love. Earlier he writes, “This siege will extend until we teach our enemies / paradigms of our Jahili poetry” (121).

One of the paradigms in Darwish’s work is the motion of the “relative to the Absolute,” as he stated in the interview quoted above; more specifically, the motion of an abstract against a very particular or quotidian: “Here, by the downslope of hills, facing the sunset / and time’s muzzle,” he opens the long poem. If in a Darwish poem one feels always lost because one never gets the simple sunset without “time’s muzzle,” he takes care of you in reverse—you’ll never get dropped into the abstraction of time’s muzzle without the actual sunset there to anchor to. Things are all so unreal they have to imagine even themselves: “life with its shortcomings, / hosts neighboring stars / that are timeless . . . / and immigrant clouds / that are placeless. / And life here / wonders: / How do we bring it back to life!” The pronouns teach you a lesson here: life wondering how to bring something to life.

The epic and lyric collide not only in Darwish’s form, but also in the content material of the poems: “Pain / is: that a housewife doesn’t hang up her clothesline / in the morning, and that she’s satisfied with this flag’s cleanliness” (125). When people turn away from the local, the small elements of their lives, he seems to say, they lose any ability to see the poetry, the ineffable, the spiritual in the world: “The soldiers measure the distance between being / and nonbeing / with a tank’s scope. . . . ” (125). The oppressed, on the other hand, the alienated, the unhomed, have nothing left but their spiritual resources: “We measure the distance between our bodies / and mortar shells . . . with the sixth sense” (125). It is interesting to note here that the soldiers are in possession of spiritual material (“being and nonbeing”) but do not have the resources to comprehend them, while the speaker and his comrades have the coarse material of destruction to contend with and only the tools of ineffability with which to do so.

Throughout the long sequence on the siege, Darwish meditates on the actual events, describes personal responses to them, and also tries to enact in poetic form the peculiar atmosphere of the events, frequently along the way displaying a clever wit and humor, even comedy, rarely seen in his more earnest lyric work in the collection. For example, in writing about the strange unfolding of time during a siege: “Whenever yesterday arrives, I tell it: / Our appointment is not today, so go away / and come back tomorrow!”

One is always in a dream reading Darwish, alternating between the ephemeral and the absolute, the “person” himself and the larger universe (sometimes symbolically represented as “poetry”) often dissolving into each other. At one point in the poem, Darwish (likely tired of being interpreted as a “political writer”) fires off a little barb, that true to Darwish-form dissolves from tartness into poetry: “Do not interpret my words / with a teaspoon or a bird snare! / My speech besieges me in sleep, / my speech that I have not yet said, / it writes me then leaves me searching / for the remnants of my sleep. . . . ” (129). He’s writing perhaps of an actual siege in the world, but in his poetic imagination he is under siege by his own speech; it’s not a speech that kills him but a speech that “writes” him; “sleep,” the town in which he was supposed to be protected is in tatters around him. “Let endlessness complete its infinite chores,” he writes, “As for me I’ll whisper to the shadow: If / the history of the place were less crowded / our eulogies to the topography of / poplar trees . . . would’ve been more!” (137).

The poem continues studded with small lyric moments, testy vociferations, desperate pleadings, and darkly philosophical epigrams. “This siege will extend until / the besieger feels, like the besieged, / that boredom / is a human trait” (143). Later, in a section that addresses various abstracts—the poet, poetry, prose—Darwish requests, “(To poetry): Besiege your siege” (149). The sequence ends in a beautiful and lyrically cadenced outburst of pure lyric, the poet singing for his life, singing for the end of the siege, singing for peace.

Joudah chooses not to translate the wonderful Arabic word for peace, “salaam,” letting instead its vowels do the work. Once more in the closing motion of the poem-sequence, Darwish opts for the most human of feelings rather than mere political speech: “Salaam is two enemies longing, each separately / to yawn on boredom’s sidewalk // Salaam is two lovers moaning to bathe / in moonlight” (171). When he does seem to tilt to the political, it actually sounds more like pure love poetry: “Salaam is the apology of the might to the one / with weaker weapons and stronger range // Salaam is the sword breaking in front of natural / beauty, where dew smelts the iron” (171).

In the final collected book, “Don’t Apologize for What You’ve Done,” Darwish seems to move to a very personal, even conversational tone. It is a fascinating transition to witness throughout the scope of the book. Perhaps it was the extreme concision and tight compression of the lyrics of “A State of Seige” that then allowed the luxurious flowering of voice in the final book, the feast after the fast as it were. Darwish has now returned home in “The Stranger’s Bed,” realized that even home is not always home in “A State of Seige,” and so in this collection he must pass into a third awareness.

Appropriately he uses Lorca as one of the epigraphs: “And now, I am not I / and the house is not my house” (175). Though Joudah uses a more typical English translation for Lorca’s Spanish, in the Arabic translation the negation comes first, something like: “And neither I, am I / and nor the house, my house” (175). The sense of alienation is somewhat profounder in the Arabic and this desire to place oneself in the midst of alienation pervades the book.

The blurring of boundaries between self and the larger universe around seems slowed down here, even absent. The absolute or universal slides off the original—doesn’t stick: “Cadence chooses me, it chokes on me / I am the violin’s regurgitant flow, and not its player” (179). While he still has faith in the powers of poetry to restore—“Whenever I listen to the stone I hear / the cooing of a white pigeon”—a new despair—or is it resignation?—has entered: “I am still here / but you won’t return as you were when I left you / you won’t return and I won’t return. . . . ” (179). The poetry, or “cadence” here that would have so seamlessly before integrated with the poet’s consciousness, remains something exterior here, even undesired, or is it the poet himself that is now undesired by poetry: “ . . . cadence completes its cycle / and chokes on me. . . . ”

Darwish seems to move, in this section, from the abstracted and symbolic into concrete and real situations, the closest he has come to a straight poetry of narration. For example, in “Nothing Pleases Me”: “Nothing pleases me / the traveler on the bus says—Not the radio / or the morning newspaper, nor the citadels on the hills” (247). But don’t be tricked—it is still Darwish with all his hallmarks—the negotiation between the material world and the intangible spiritual world, the slipperiness of boundaries between awareness, the quick motion between plain narrative and deliciously mysterious lyric; after the traveler confesses his existential crisis, others on the bus join in, first a woman with her practical complaint, “I guided my son to my grave, / he liked it and slept there, without saying goodbye” (247) and then the poem takes its left turn into strangeness with the student who confesses, “I studied archeology but didn’t / find identity in stone. Am I / really me?” and the soldier (perhaps one of those from “A State of Seige” who found himself unable to resolve the difference between being and unbeing?) who says “I always besiege a ghost / besieging me” (247). Though the group refuses in a panic to depart the bus as it approaches the last stop, the weary speaker admits, “Let me off here. I am / like them, nothing pleases me, but I’m worn out / from travel” (247).

With this release then, Darwish assembles a beautiful final section of domestic scenes, poetic exploration, philosophical music, and spiritual vision. He brings all of his intense energies to bear in the daily and material world, examining the nature of history by way of an imaginary conversation in an abandoned theater, channeling Yannis Ritsos in Neruda’s house, or talking poignantly about the exile of a Kurdish friend in terms both tender—“ . . . the winds have no suitcases, and no job for dust”—and fierce—“Come here you son of a bitch and let’s beat this night’s / drum until we awaken the dead” (317).

Something very brief must be said about Darwish’s line break. He breaks it, not with the traditional prosody of the poetic line or even with breath, but seemingly as free-verse poets often do, for the most dramatic impact, though in Darwish it is often used as a de-centering strategy. For example, in “Nothing Pleases Me,” quoted above, lines break not on nouns but on phrases like “am I” and “didn’t find.” In earlier translations of Darwish, his strange line breaks were smoothed out into Whitmanesque pronouncements, but Joudah here simulates the original line breaks in the translation, heightening the particular music Darwish enacts in the line. There is, as Joudah explains in his introduction, a complex prosody at work within the poem entire that does not appear visually obvious considering the line breaks.

This compendium of three books offers a comprehensive and arresting look at a body of work from 1995 to the present by one of the single most important poets in the world today. Joudah has provided an exceptionally illuminating introduction to the book and added comprehensive notes that clarify many cultural and Quranic references as well as offering glosses on the translation process. Copper Canyon has published the book in a bilingual edition with clean and legible Arabic copy. One can only hope that the publication of this book will further interest in Darwish and make more widely available in English/American translation Darwish’s previous and forthcoming work.

As Joudah mentions in his introduction, “Translation should, as Darwish suggests, become more than a new poem in another language, it should expend into that language new vastness.” For too long poets in the United States have been stuck between false poles, needing to make a choice between personal and political, between accessible and hermetic, between community-orientation and self-orientation. As Neruda, Szymborska, Paz, and Ritsos offered American poets new possibilities for language and spirit in the past, so, too, does Darwish now. He has, in Joudah’s startling and tensile English, expended into us a new vastness.

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