Tuesday Poem: Mural - Mahmoud Darwish

On the anniversary of Chernobyl, this seemed very appropriate. Many of those eventually evacuated weren't allowed to take any personal possessions at all, though most did.  One woman even smuggled out her cat!  Many later died from their exposure to radiation.

Death, wait while I pack my bag: a toothbrush, soap, a razor, cologne and clothes.
Is the weather mild there?
Does the weather in white eternity change?
Does it stay as it is in both autumn and winter?
Will one book be enough for me
to kill the no-time, or will I need a full library?
What language do they speak there . . .?

Death, O my shadow who leads me, O my third person,
emerald and olivine’s irresolute color,
blood of a peacock, sniper of the world’s heart,
sickness of imagination, have a seat.
Leave your hunting gear at the window and hang your heavy key chain on the door.
Mighty one, don’t gaze into my veins looking for some fatal flaw.
You are stronger than my breathing, stronger than medicine, and the strong honey of bodily love. . .

Death, wait.
Have a seat and a glass of wine, but don’t argue with me.
One such as you shouldn’t argue with a mortal being.
As for me, I won’t defy the servant of the Unseen.
Relax.  Perhaps you are exhausted today,
dog-tired of warfare among the stars.
Who am I that you should pay me a visit?
Do you have the time to consider my poem?
Ah, no.  it’s none of your affair.
You are charged only with the earthly body of man,
not with his words and deeds.

O death, all the arts have defeated you, all the Mesopotamian songs.
The Egyptian obelisk, the Pharaoh’s tombs, the engraved temple stones, all defeated you, all were   victorious.
You cannot trap the immortal.
So do with us and with yourself whatever you wish.

I wish to live.  I have work to do on this volcanic bit of geography.
Ever since the days of Lot, until the apocalypse of Hiroshima,
devastation has always been devastation.
I want to live here as if I am, forever,
burning with lust for the unknown.
Maybe “now” is much more distant.  Maybe “yesterday” is nearer
and “tomorrow” already in the past.
But I grasp the hand of “now” that History may pass near me,
and not time that runs in circles, like the chaos of mountain goats.

from 'Mural', included in Unfortunately it was Paradise
published by University of California Press
Copyright the Estate of Mahmoud Darwish

Mahmoud Darwish is the poet laureate of the Palestinian diaspora, but his work goes much wider and has a universal relevance. These are extracts from a very long poem, ‘Mural’, contained in his selected poems called Unfortunately, It Was Paradise.  ‘Dreams,’ he asserts, ‘are our sole utterance.’ Art is more powerful than war, oppression, suppression and human stupidity.  In the poem he contemplates the role of the artist and the difficulty of testifying in a world where the ‘victim’ is sometimes pressured into changing ‘his testimony and where ‘the actor and audience’ have ‘disappeared from view’.

‘At the door, I sat wondering: Am I he?
This is the language, this sound is the color of my blood.
Yet the author is not ‘I’.
If I come but don’t arrive, this ‘I’ isn’t me.
If I talk but don’t say anything, this ‘I’ isn’t me.
Obscure inscriptions translate themselves: ‘Write to be.  Read to find’.’

Written in 2000,  before 9/11 changed everything, before the current Syrian atrocity, Darwish reflects on an older conflict.
‘In the shattered amphora, the women of the Syrian coast
moan on their endless trail and burn under the August sun.
Before I was born, I saw them on the footpath to the fountain.
I heard the water in their pottery mourning them . .'

The poet asks, ‘Who is next after Babylon?’  Darwish uses the Palestinian experience as ‘a metaphor for the loss of Eden , for the sorrows of dispossession and exile’.  Influenced as a young man by the Hebrew poet Yehuda Amichai, Mahmoud Darwish is a poet of international significance, like Neruda, Lorca, Eliot, or Yeats, and is disgracefully unread in the west.  He is incredibly lyrical, (a random line from ‘The Raven’s Ink’ - “O bell of dusk with the dark voice!”)  but often uses that lyricism to contrast with the brutality of political reality. "All the birds followed/ My hand to the barriers of a distant airport./ All the wheatfields/ All the prisons/ All the white graves/ All the borders/  All the waving handkerchiefs/ All the dark eyes/  All the eyes/ Were with me/ But they crossed them out of the passport."

In this collection the older Darwish faces his own death.  ‘What does life say to Mahmoud Darwish?/ You lived, fell in love, learned, and all those you will finally love are dead?’  But the poet’s answer is one of survival through art.  ‘Until my heart stops, I will slog over this endless, endless road . . .’ Darwish’s heart stopped suddenly in 2008, aged 66, in exile in Houston, Texas.

My favourite translator of his work is Abdullah al-Udhari, born in Yemen and a contemporary of Darwish.  Al-Udhari read classical arabic at London University and edited TR - an anglo-arab literary magazine. There is a brilliant selection of Darwish’s poems in Modern Poetry of the Arab World, a slim paperback translated by Al-Udhari.   Many of Darwish’s poems have been set to music, notably by the Palestinian singer Reem Kelani. (Mawwaal - ‘Variations on Loss’ from the CD Sprinting Gazelle) Here she is singing with Jewish musician Gilad Atzmon.   A film has also been made of his love affair with a Jewish woman,  "Write Down, I Am an Arab" by the female filmmaker Ibtisam Mara'ana Menuhin, herself an Arab woman married to a Jewish man.  Made in 2014, it contains wonderful footage of Mahmoud Darwish’s life and work.  This has English subtitles.


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