Tuesday, September 23, 2008


The Butterfly’s Burden
Mahmoud Darwish. Tr. Fady Joudah

Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry is as crucial a gift to his people and the Arab world as Wole Soyinka’s is to Nigeria or Derek Walcott’s is to the West Indies, yet he is not as well known in the US as his former contemporaries are. For these reasons, and more, this translation by Fady Joudah acts as a conduit inviting the reader of English to take a journey into the consciousness and history of the Arab and Palestinian people—but as with every major poet, it is a gift to also participate in the poem offered up as mirror to humanity, a reflection counter to the intransigent realities of myth, identity, exile, love, loss and language—realities all too often passively accepted. This mirror resists, for example, the West’s conjecture about Syria and reflects it as “…Damascus: / [where] speech returns to its origins.” Though this offering is Darwish’s, it has been made possible by Joudah, and so we must take up the offer, history demands it; but it is ultimately the reader’s journey, for “the land expands as much as your dream’s measure.” And the rewards, as one might expect from a major poet, are not merely those of an innovative aesthetic, or an evocative line, or even some sage bits of wisdom, but language as a force for shifting paradigms.

Yes, one is welcome to take pleasure from the raw canvas: “…she lifts her dress off her calf cloud by cloud;” or, from the poem “Like a mysterious Incident” delight in the surprise of language: “When poetry is obstinate I sketch / a few traps on the rocks to hunt the grouse”—or even become startled by the self-deprecating tone from A State of Siege:

This rhyme was not
necessary, not for melody
or for the economy of pain
it is additional
like flies at the dining table

But surely the poet is there to light the way to something beyond the force of his craft; his lexicon is large, it contains with it, for example, the brilliance of “anemones,” “lapis,” “Jahili poetry,” the subtle execution of tropes: conceit, absence, persona and metonymy, as well as offering a dialectic about myth, war, identity, language and love. How to get one’s head around the scope of Darwish’s work is its own Odyssey, but Joudah has been diligent enough for the reader to get more than just an approximation, but the ability to discern from his artistic rendering, the natural progression and relation it poses to other works of Darwish’s oeuvre.

The author’s rich metaphors, use of enjambment and the fluidity of his style, one imagines, would make it difficult to translate from the Arabic. Yet, it is testament to Darwish and his translator that the “twinning” of metaphor and cadence, of “prose and poetry” of “experience and exile” are consistently and accurately presented throughout the three volumes of this book, so that the reader can trace the newly rendered English lexicon backwards and forwards along its cyclical path. The reader also has the benefit of gauging and comparing the physical structure of the translations in their original Arabic side by side with the English translation. Throughout these three volumes, in particular, Don’t Apologize for What You’ve Done, the themes are presented from slightly different positions in a more discursive line, and as an aggregation of specific treatments where the reader is asked to intuit the whole. Though discrepancies in diction and rhythm might arise, this is the nature of translation; and yet, Joudah must be commended because, with the aid of his poet’s ear, he has not yielded to caprice, but rather been sincere in his effort to understanding Darwish’s lexicon complete.

Regretfully, this reviewer must stop short before adequately delving into any of Darwish’s poems, but the journey remains: to Syria, or Andalus, Egypt or Tunisia, in discussion with the poet, the soldier or the lover, from “your “I” to your else / and your vision to your steps”—a place for the necessary imagination. Wherever these poems begin or end, they are also a celebration of “longing,” the first longing of Sumer—“that inexplicable longing / that makes a thing into a specter, and / makes a specter into a thing.” And we are thankful for it and for Darwish’s continual orbiting.

Reviewed by Zaid Shlah

Note: The Sacramento Poetry Center will be hosting a public memorial reading for the late poet Mahmoud Darwish at 6:00 PM on Sun. Oct. 5. Anyone is welcome to read works by Darwish or material related to his life as a writer. This reading is part of an international effort to organize readings in tribute to the life and work of Darwish. This international effort has been spearheaded by Ulrich Schreiber of the The Berlin Literature Festival.

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