Sunday, 7 August 2011
Mahmoud Darwish: The Butterfly's Burden
by Mahmoud Darwish, translated by Fady Joudah
344pp, Bloodaxe, reviewed by Fiona Simpson, The Guardian
"It is tempting to describe Mahmoud Darwish's writing life through geography and history," opens the translator's preface to this remarkable book, which assembles the first three volumes Darwish published on his return to Ramallah after a 26-year exile. Yet to do so, as The Butterfly's Burden demonstrates over its 300-odd pages, would be to give an incomplete account of a world-class poet. This most public of Palestinians is the master not of reductive polemic but of a profoundly lyric imagination, one that draws together the textures of daily life, physical beauty - whether of landscape or of women - longing, myth and history. Using poetry complex with personal experience, he has recreated an entire society's sensibility.
Darwish's peers in this most demanding of tasks - the butterfly's burden of his title - have emerged at key points in their own national narratives. It is impossible to read these "memories about / tomorrow" without thinking of Derek Walcott, Yehuda Amichai - or Yannis Ritsos, whose influence Darwish acknowledges in "Like a Mysterious Incident", a poem set in the house of another antecedent, Pablo Neruda. In half-remembered, half-poeticised dialogue, Ritsos tells the newly exiled Darwish: "It is the mysterious incident, poetry, / my friend, is that inexplicable longing / that makes a thing into a specter, and / makes a specter into a thing. Yet it might also explain / our need to share public beauty ..." The insight may be Ritsos's, but the diction, with its slippery clausal relations, is pure Darwish. This is writing in which the relations between things - between places, ideas and even speakers - are continually challenged and remade.
If that definition of poetry is at the same time an evocation of exile, it should come as no surprise that Darwish is also a great love poet: one for whom longing is always more than romantic desire. The Stranger's Bed, the first book in this volume, explores even the most intimate of gestures in imagery resonant with the exile's desire for Palestine: "in your closed up gardens // Out of jasmine the night's blood streams white" yet "I touch you as a lonely violin touches the suburbs of the faraway place" ("Sonnet V"). Longing is the note that bridges these two moments - of achieved and still-unsatisfied desire; of the actual and the imagined. Indeed, the extraordinary plasticity of Darwish's imagery allows him to create a continual interplay between the figures of home and beloved, presence and absence: "[...] take me so that my self is serene / in you, and that I reside in the serene land". Much more than simply a vocabulary for personal isolation, this symbolic oscillation is, as in the oldest poetry, a form of sympathetic magic which enables Darwish to imagine, not a remedy, but a healing: "No blood on the plows. A virginity renewing itself. / There is no name for what life should be / other than what you've made of my soul and what you make ..." ("The Stranger's Land/the Serene Land")
Elsewhere, the tensions between difference and similarity are neither articulated nor explained but entered into. Many of the love poems in both The Stranger's Bed and Don't Apologize for What You've Done, the third collection here, are written in a woman's voice. In a return to Galilee, where the poet was born, the making of "a poem, a myth creating reality" is pictured as a feminine art: "I'll enter a woman's needle in / one of the myths / and fly like a shawl with the wind" ("Not as a Foreign Tourist Does"). "Reality" can and must be remade; and Darwish, writing from embattlement, knows that to refuse the status quo he must refuse fixity. The existence of alternatives is not merely desirable but necessary: both philosophical and political fact. A sense of intrinsic mutability becomes not the fear of death, but an engine for survival: "On my ruins the shadow sprouts green". Keeping things in flux, refusing to let them fall into place as circumstantial givens, is the political act this poetry carries out. "Because reality is an ongoing text, lovely / white, without malady", as A State of Siege (2002), a book-length poem of the second intifada, points out.
Translating writing of this ambition - its radical, willed instability as well as its beauty - requires a delicate and thoughtful ear. Fady Joudah is a Palestinian American who has himself achieved distinction with an award-winning first collection. These fine translations will consolidate his reputation. They also allow us to hear - in their fidelity to offbeat punctuation and lineation, to nuances of quotation and allusion - something of the formal innovation of the original. Darwish has not only remade a national consciousness; he has reworked language and poetic tradition to do so. Lines in which a woman's breasts become doves, or apples, remind a western audience of the Bible. For a reader with knowledge of Arabic verse, they are part of that rich tradition. Darwish's fluency in all three local Cultures of the Book, his ability to move among them, is part of his refusal of the deadly stasis of standoff. Beauty, he shows us in this indispensable collection, is a necessary, always-renewed truth: "The southerner carries his history with his hands, like a fistful of wheat, / and walks upon himself, confident of the Christ / in the grains: Life is intuitive ..."