Translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid. New York, NY: New York Review of Books, 2014. 120 pages. $12.95.
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In the United States, Europe, and Asia you can visit formerly secret nuclear bunkers from the Cold War era as a tourist. Artists create projects around them; novelists write about them. These underground potential worlds of survival and living-as-usual, these uncanny and hybrid spaces, are now sources of entertainment and leisure, often occupied by mannequins. It’s difficult to imagine the smuggling tunnels of Gaza or Hamas bunkers one day becoming tourist attractions, or the West Bank barrier crumbling amid comradeship and celebration as at the fall of the Berlin Wall, bits of pocked and graffiti-marked concrete resting on living room shelves as mementos for some Swiss or Indonesian traveler. Perhaps sixty years ago, imagining the wane and collapse of the Cold War felt just as impossible. In Nothing More to Lose, his first collection of verse published in English, Najwan Darwish certainly seems skeptical.
A celebrated Palestinian poet, and former attorney, Darwish was born in Jerusalem thirty years into the Nakba (the forced dispossession and displacement of Palestinians, which began in 1948), and was a child when the First Palestinian Intifada began. One can see in Darwish’s defiant and analytical poems the influence of, but also a modification upon, the poetic traditions embodied in the work of Palestinian writers two generations removed, including Ghassan Kanafani, Samih al-Qasim, Tawfiq Ziad, and Mahmoud Darwish.
The poems in Nothing More to Lose act as an index of how two key elements of traditional surrealism, antithesis and inversion, found a home in Darwish’s geopolitical context and culture, adding structure to its story of destruction rather than fracturing that culture as those surrealist elements were originally meant to do. As in “Self-Mockery,” here printed in full:
Those aren’t uncles: they’re the feed bags of hyenas
Those aren’t parents: they’re the eyelids of vultures
Those aren’t friends: they’re chameleons
It’s not I who writes these words:
It’s some other bastard
As demonstrated here, in his best moments, Darwish is not telling the same old story of oppression and co-option, but a tale more ethically and politically ambiguous. He is critical of others and himself; critical of the Israeli regime while simultaneously finding fault with Arab governments and actors, and pointing out the venality and impotence of Palestinian politicians. Who bears responsibility for the suffering and destruction in the occupied territories? Both sides. No one. “Some other bastard.”
The degree to which Nothing More to Lose is ambivalent about human meaning is the degree to which it is emphatic about nonhuman agency, intimating at both the narratological and the diegetic level that an administrative principle is at work in the world generated by and captured in these poems—though that principle is just beyond one’s reach, and is finally impervious to attempts to explain its internal law. This principle uniquely permeates the seemingly perpetual battle between Palestinians and Israelis in all its distinctive iterations. In the world found in Darwish’s poems, intention is relatively clear and disruption is certain—in acts of organized or chance violence, in random power cuts and the transgressing of truces—but the moment of any given disruption is unknown, as is the endpoint of the struggle. This suggestion that there is some structure, some guiding principle, some motivation organizing the irregularity of the conflict is precisely what makes the lived experience of it absurd.
Indeed, Darwish both evokes and revivifies the preposterous, entirely logical, and profoundly dark last words of Beckett’s novel The Unnamable: “ . . . I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” It’s hard to read Nothing More to Lose and not also think of the work of authors equally cogent in addressing the distorted and ambiguous reality of the administered world like Bulgakov, Genet, Kafka, Camus, Jakov Lind, Miguel Mihura, not to mention Fanon, all of whom wrote brilliantly in response to the oppression of individuals and groups and the suppression of socio-political freedoms. In the world of Nothing More to Lose, and in the world of the Palestinian people, the maxim is that the rules will change—though the fact that unpredictability has become predictable does not dilute its power to inflict trauma. Darwish address this with defiance and pathos in “The Gas Chambers”:
I don’t have a grandmother who died in the gas chambers
My grandmothers died like most do:
The first did not have the patience
to witness the first intifada;
the lungs of the other failed her
once the second subsided
Grandmothers, you didn’t suffer enough
for us to be saved
How horrific was the Nakba?
How harrowing to be a refugee?
These are but small pains
for niggers like us
I amuse myself by writing this down
in the gas chamber
The relativism involved in making comparisons between the Jews of the Shoah and Palestinians under the Israeli occupation is questionable, if not specious. Yet Darwish is conscious of this. Indeed, Yehuda Amichai, A.B. Yehoshua, and Paul Celan came to mind in my reading, as much as Nazim Hikmet or Badr Shakir al-Sayyab. While the frustration of the oppressed is nearly ever-present in this collection, so too is a Whitmanian empathy:
There is no place that resisted its invaders except that I was of one 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.
Darwish writes with originality and with adroitness. The collection’s title poem is only one of a number of remarkably engaging poems: “hear the bodies as they’re thrown, listen / to their breathing on the bed / of the Sea of Galilee / listen like a fish / in a lake guarded by an angel.” But unfortunately, Darwish just as often expresses the maudlin and obvious, as in “but the nightmares, always / are your only sheets,” from “A Hotel Room,” or from “Like These Trees”: “ . . . imagine trees swaying with you / and an air that welcomes your fall / you who lived like these trees / without land / without roots.” Throughout the collection translator Kareem James Abu-Zeid’s achieves the exceptional, approaching Darwish’s poetry with a great deal of technical ambition and providing a spare, luminous translation. Though I do not read Arabic fluently, my experience reading Arabic poetry in translation puts me in mind of such dexterous and illuminating translators of Arabic into English as Khaled Mattawa and Sinan Antoon. Abu-Zeid recreates the vital gaps and conflicts in identity that any translation should foreground. Poets in Palestine, writing amid the dominating political instability, are looked to for guidance and ideas by the larger public far more often than in the US, and a reader engaging Abu-Zeid’s translations is immediately aware of a difference in the poetic roles and contexts.
Palestine, such as it is—the occupied territories and the Palestinian people (including, importantly, the Palestinian diaspora)—composes a rootless body that defies clear definition, a body which is abundant, which exceeds borders, but which is not confused. It is a body always liminal, between death and life, sovereignty and subjugation, boredom and terror. Yet it is intensely connected to the world and others; it is historically, culturally, and socially contextualized. It is the very definition of what both Bakhtin and Merleau-Ponty considered the “grotesque body,” a term which is not only not pejorative, but which both thinkers privileged: absurd, hybrid heterogeneous bodies which therefore cannot be addressed productively by the administered world, by a system which is averse to ambiguity.
Darwish captures this intersection of simultaneous interconnectedness and heterogeneity when he begins “Life Limping Toward Me”: “I’ll become a hunchback / after three misguided years in front of my computer / I’ll become impotent / after seven years of immoderate misadventure,” and ends the poem: “My Lord: Is this life that limps toward me / or a supermarket of deformities?” Why three years in front of a computer? Because there is little else to do when it’s unsafe to go outside and when jobs are scarce. Why impotent? It hardly bears answering. Even the most comfortable of political activists knows the feeling, if not the seeming fact, that their actions have little to no impact, or at least not the intended impacts. Even Darwish’s specific lack of periods throughout the text is indicative of exceeding frontiers and fluid boundaries. How, then, does one capture a body, a people, a nation, a reality that is, in its essence, highly ambiguous and contradictory, and whose borders are not permeable by force, but under duress? “In Hell” offers one potential answer: you put the system inside the body, rather than addressing the body itself:
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
Reality itself is, of course, fragmentary and never homogenous, and Nothing More to Lose captures this by placing the body in the context of interiors and intrusions suffered, conveying the intricacy of daily life and of politics which usually produce frustration and a spectrum of violence, but which, in art—when we are lucky—give rise to compelling and important work. The dynamic range of atmospheres, emotions, ideas, and perspectives with which Darwish engages in Nothing More to Lose does much to do justice to the complex, liminal body Palestine.