First published in The Kenyon Review, New Series, Vol. 27, No. 3, (Summer, 2005), pp. 1-4.
Translated from Arabic by Fady Joudah
On a day like today, in the hidden corner
Of the church, in full feminine adornment,
In a leap year, in the meeting of endless
Green with kohl darkness on this morning,
And in the meeting of shape with substance,
And the sensory with the Sufi,
Beneath a spacious grapevine trellis
In a cyclical shadow
That distresses meaning’s image, and in this
I will meet with my end and my beginning
And say: damn you! take me and leave
The heart of truth fresh for the jackals’ daughters,
And I’ll say: I am not a citizen
Or a refugee
And I want only one thing, nothing else,
A quiet simple death
On a day like today,
In the hidden corner of irises,
Which might compensate me a lot or a little
For a life I used to measure
And I want a death in the garden
No more and no less!
Translated from Arabic by Fady Joudah
In Jerusalem, and I mean within the ancient walls,
I walk from one epoch to another without a memory
To guide me. The prophets over there are sharing
The history of the holy . . . ascending to heaven
And returning less discouraged and melancholy, because love
And peace are holy and are coming to town.
I was walking down a slope and thinking to myself: how
Do the narrators disagree over what light said about a stone?
Is it from a dimly lit stone that wars flare up?
I walk in my sleep. I stare in my sleep. I see
No one behind me. No one ahead of me.
All this light is for me. I walk. I become lighter. I fly
Then I become another. Transfigured. Words
Sprout like grass from Isaiah’s messenger
Mouth: “If you don’t believe you won’t believe.”
I walk as if I were another. And my wound a white
Biblical rose. And my hands like two doves
On the cross hovering and carrying the earth.
I don’t walk, I fly, I become
Another, transfigured. No place and no time. So who am I?
I am no I in ascension’s presence. But I
Think to myself: alone, the prophet Mohammad
Spoke classical Arabic. “And then what?”
Then what? A woman soldier shouted:
Is that you again? Didn’t I kill you?
I said: you killed me . . . and I forgot,
Like you, to die.
Don’t Write History As Poetry
Translated from Arabic by Fady Joudah
Don’t write history as poetry, because the weapon is
The historian. And the historian doesn’t get fever
Chills when he names his victims and doesn’t listen
To the guitar’s rendition. And history is the dailiness
Of weapons prescribed upon our bodies. “The
Intelligent genius is the mighty one.” And history
Has no compassion so that we can long for our
Beginning, and no intention so that we can know what’s ahead
And what’s behind . . . and it has no rest stops by
The railroad tracks for us to bury the dead, for us to look
Toward what time has done to us over there, and what
We’ve done to time. As if we were of it and outside it.
History is neither logical nor intuitive that we can break
What is left of our myth about happy times,
Nor is it a myth that we can accept our dwelling at the doors
Of judgment day. It is in us and outside us . . . and a mad
Repetition, from the catapult to the nuclear thunder.
Aimlessly we make it and it makes us . . . Perhaps
History wasn’t born as we desired, because
The Human Being never existed?
Philosophers and artists passed through there . . .
And the poets wrote down the dailiness of their purple flowers
Then passed through there . . . and the poor believed
In sayings about paradise and waited there . . .
And gods came to rescue nature from our divinity
And passed through there. And history has no
Time for contemplation, history has no mirror
And no bare face. It is unreal reality
Or unfanciful fancy, so don’t write it.
Don’t write it, don’t write it as poetry!
In Memory of Mahmoud Darwish
I was five years old when I first memorized your poems in exchange for coins my father would give me. I would memorize and forget you, tuck you in deep hiding places of my soul, as if I were slowly saturating my being with your seas . . . sea, that word that also stands for prosody in Arabic. Or perhaps I stored you like vintage wine, red and white, which you knew well and drank with pleasure.
And I forgot you there until America, through your absence in it, reminded me you were still here, and slowly you began to rise in me like a day, and you returned to my mirror, a scheming Narcissus at times, and other times a frail boy. And your anemones and jasmine and almond blossoms opened within me. How could I have known I would be one more birth for you, you who loved perpetual rebirth in your poems and life? How could I have known I’d be one more shadow for your grave?
Do you remember the first time I called you: I forgot how old I was? The second time I woke you up from a jet-lagged sleep and you lost your temper then apologized. And for four years after that our phone calls never ceased. And when my father visited you in your elegant but humble apartment in Amman, you told him: Your son asks me questions about my poems I’ve never thought of. And my father laughed.
Did I ever tell you how much more I loved you when I heard your voice for the first time? It was a villager’s voice, a kindhearted villager without shame, as you said in your beautiful poem. And I did not tell you I took your books with me to refugee camps in Zambia and Darfur with Doctors Without Borders: I would read and translate you there, merge your seas with mine.
Do you remember when you asked me what I intended to name the translated collection? The Butterfly’s Burden, I said. And laughing you said: The heaviness of lightness. You were so delighted that I did not choose a title about history and elegy, loss and myth. It was the butterfly you chased as a boy. When you couldn’t catch it and you’d give up on it, it would come back and alight on your shoulder, and you’d leave it there.
We met only once. Five days before your death. You said you were coming to Houston for that fateful surgery, and you said: Let’s meet before it’s too late. We talked for hours. We talked about trees when you noticed live oak and pecans. And we talked about holm oak, figs, and how to cook certain Arabic dishes (not to boil mulukhiya for more than 90 seconds). We sat in a small quiet café at the end of the massive spectacle of the Galleria Mall in Houston, away from its center, what you called “the chicken coop” of shopping sprees. And your two loyal friends, Akram and Ali, who accompanied you, kept telling me about your secrets, and we kept laughing and mocking each other.
Two months earlier, I could hear death in your voice, as if you knew you would die when you called me on the phone to tell me to translate “The Dice Player,” your last poem, your final toss, and when you asked me again about it before you went into the hospital. You had written your farewell, eaten your favorite steaks, visited your Galilee for the last time, where we are not allowed to be buried, to grow as basil for your mother.
Mahmoud, they want me to say things about your dying, what I whispered to you, what you heard in that final whiteness. Mahmoud, they want me to say what they already know: You did not want to live afraid of death, so you walked to it, either it takes you or you break it for a third time. You who are one of God’s beautiful faces; you now live in the world’s time.
The night you died you visited me in a dream. “I am the probability of jasmine,” you said. Mahmoud, don’t stop visiting me in my sleep, please come a few more times.
And we talked about poetry and the world of poetry. We talked about your love poems, your self and its feminine I. You were more beautiful than a country, more beautiful than a language confined to a time and a place, and your path home was more beautiful than home.
We will soon know you, Mahmoud, when we know exile is no longer an exterior or an interior, but two in one, like a swallow’s wings. We will soon know your satire and love, your dream and sleep, your presence and absence, your Sufi lexicon that is and is not yours alone, you who were open to the world’s language and heritage, and rode the seas of the earth on the back of paradox at times, and other times away from meaning entirely.
Mahmoud, I will think of the thousand words I haven’t yet said.
“I am my language, I am.”
And “I am not mine, I am not mine, I am not mine.”
The Tea and Sage Poem
First published in The Kenyon Review, New Series, Vol. 29, No. 1, (Winter, 2007), pp. 73-75.
At a desk made of glass,
In a glass-walled room
With red airport carpet,
An officer asked
My father for fingerprints,
And my father refused,
So another offered him tea
And he sipped it. The teacup
Template for fingerprints.
My father says, it was just
Hot water with a bag.
My father says, in his country,
Because the earth knows
The scent of history,
It gave the people sage.
I like my tea with sage
From my mother’s garden,
Next to the snapdragons
She calls fishmouths
Coming out for air. A remedy
For stomach pains she keeps
In the kitchen where
She always sings.
First, she is Hagar
Where tea is loosened.
Then she drops
In it a pinch of sage
And lets it sit a while.
She tells a story:
The groom arrives late
To his wedding
Wearing only one shoe.
The bride asks him
About the shoe. He tells her
He lost it while jumping
Over a house wall,
Breaking away from soldiers.
Tea with sage
Or tea with mint?
With sage, he says.
Sweet scent, bitter tongue.