your indomitable self
the obvious roads!
(“The Coastal Road”)
If poets and their art provide us with tools necessary for living, then Mahmoud Darwish may be the hammer and chisel in poetry’s chest, feared by some for his capacity to tear down the walls of comfortable myths, and lauded by others for his ability to carve a crystalline beauty from the Alhambraic stones of the amorphous present. His most recent book in translation, Butterfly’s Burden (2007), which we had the honor to publish at Copper Canyon Press, evidences a poet who to the end was uncompromising in his faith that language might hold good, that it can hold its own against the forces that seek to dehumanize nations, and that independence resides in the individual, “indomitable self.” His later poems seem to demonstrate not only a resistance to forces at work against the Palestinian people and their culture, but also a resistance to the attempts at pigeonholing him as a symbol for the Palestinian cause. These poems stand in opposition to being mischaracterized in the binary terms convenient to political rhetoricians. Throughout his life Darwish avoided the obvious roads, including their bridges.
If uncertainty’s weight is sometimes unbearable, imagine how it must have been for Darwish, and continues to be for others like him who have lived through or were born into a situation where the known is no longer reliable and the beloved things we most desire, including our own self-determination, are just out of reach. The universal cries of joy and anguish, of frustration and conviction common to the oppressed found a singular voice in Darwish, regardless of nationality. It’s only natural that he should be claimed by a nation, and it was equally natural for him to avoid any reductive reading of his work. His unwillingness to compromise his desire for self-determination likely kept him off the list of Nobel laureates—a recognition he greatly deserved as perhaps the most widely recognized and read of living Arabic-language poets—at the same time that it garnered him an increased following beyond the Middle East.
Although he has been embraced (and pilloried by the right wing) as the national poet of Palestine, such a designation would never be sufficient enough, for he wanted more than that great responsibility. In the end he wanted to write a book of love. His passing is a loss not only for the Levant, nor just for Palestinian culture, but also for everyone who dreams of the beloved and believes in the possibility of language. In the end, the poems remain: “With language you overcame identity, / . . . with language you took revenge / on absence.”