If I Were Another

by Mahmoud Darwish (translation Fady Joudah)
Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2009
Reviewed by Matt Soucy

10 stars

“I remember only the road.”

darwish cover

Mahmoud Darwish has been Palestine’s de facto poet laureate for decades.  A new posthumous collection of poems, If I Were Another, selected and translated by Fady Joudah, provides readers with a carefully chosen intellectual continuum of Darwish’s thought through the last 18 years of his life. As is evident in every line of every poem, Darwish was a poet who never stopped evolving, and his two near-death experiences (1984, 1999) become points of reference and reflection for greater art and landmark poetic accomplishment.

Joudah is an accomplished poet in his own right, and has already received acclaim for his translation of Darwish’s Butterfly’s Burden.  In presenting these later works, which investigate the pain, anxiety and complexity of exile, Joudah has clearly taken pains to carry through the density of Darwish’s rolling, ever-changing lines. The result is a highly readable book of poetry, even for someone like me, with only an American-level understanding of the Palestinians’ struggle for a peaceful homeland.  

If peace is stillness, then the reader of If I Were Another is made to see how it is impossible in Darwish’s world.  There is constant flux, so much so that a reader might occasionally feel disoriented and disembodied. Every time Darwish seems to stand on something solid, some truth or moment, it is immediately overwhelmed, overcome and discarded. Darwish’s notions of self, his images of gardens, grass, animals, skies and oceans come from a fundamentally unique perspective embodied in mystery, fundamental sympathy and constant contradiction. In the love poem “Rita’s Winter,” for example, romantic passion – the urge to blend with another person – is matched with the omnipresent fact of individualism:

                 Rita sleeps in her body’s garden
the berries on the fence of her nails light up the salt
in my blood. I love you. Two birds slept under my hands…
The noble wheat wave slept on her slow breathing
a red rose slept in the hallway
a night that isn’t long slept
and the sea in front of my window slept to Rita’s cadence
rising and falling in the rays of her naked chest
so sleep, Rita, in the middle of me and you and don’t cover
the deep golden darkness between us
sleep with one hand around echo and the other
scattering the solitude of the forests
sleep between the pistachio shirt and the lemon seat
like a mare upon the banners of her wedding night…
The neighing has quieted
the beehives in our blood have died down, but was Rita
here, and were we together?

Romantic passion is all the more urgent when one recognizes that two bodies can never truly merge. Independence is central in Darwish, much as it is in Whitman: it is an essential stopping point, the only conception that allows for understanding of, or relationships with, others and the world. There are undeniable echoes of Whitman in the book-length poem “Mural,” one of the only great poems published so far this century. Like Whitman, Darwish identifies that things are defined by their contradictions:

I come from there. My here leaps
from my steps to my imagination…
I am who I was and who I will be,
the endless vast space makes me
and destroys me

Here cannot exist without there, light cannot exist without dark, life and death are two words for the same phenomenon. What remains is self: the single poet attempts speaking for all, and finds that his own profound limitation – his intrinsic smallness – might be what allows him to do so:

And the poet says: Take my poem if you want,
there’s nothing in it for me besides you,
take your “I.” I will complete exile
with the messages your hands have left for the doves.
Which one of us is “I” that I may become its other?

And later,

I found myself as present as a filled absence.
Whenever I searched for myself I found
the others. Whenever I searched for the others I found
only my stranger self in them,
so am I the one, the multitude?

Contradictions form a metaphysical whole, and allow for transcendent oppenness – “I” am profoundly isolated, individual as any human, including “you,” and on these terms, you and I are one. Like Whitman (“Do I contradict myself? / Very well then….I contradict myself; / I am large….I contain multitudes”), Darwish finds the impossible contradiction that the singular individual is component of a singular universe. The individual, through essential singularity, speaks to all-encompassing unity built upon the pairing of contradictions. Call the result yin yang, universe, self, even deity.

But Darwish expands upon the Whitman model with his unrelenting focus on the concept of exile both political and metaphysical. His obsession with contradiction presents exile in the metaphysical; life cannot exist without death, for example, so when one is alive, one is exiled from death – when one is dead, exiled from life. Darwish drives home with frightening diligence and accuracy how very little one knows about oneself or the directions one’s life will take. There is a constant movement in our lives; our level of control over it is minimal, and we are never capable of any sort of genuine “return.”  This is undoubtedly an exile theme, raised to the level of the human condition:

There isn’t enough life to pull my end towards my beginning.  The shepherds took my story and infiltrated the grass that grows over the beauty of ruins. They overcame forgetfulness with trumpets and radiant rhymed prose, then bequeathed me the hoarseness of memory on farewell’s stone and didn’t return…


But exile is meant literally as well. Darwish is very interested in the concept of naming, or labeling, a person or thing (“Mural” opens with a birth: “This is your name / a woman said / and disappeared in the spiraling corridor”). Yet to be named one thing is to be branded, and to not be named another thing; to be native of one country is to not be native to another – and to be exiled from a homeland can mean being stripped of whatever identity you thought that you had. Darwish obsessively navigates this balance: identities are in some sense accidental or arbitrary, but this does not make them meaningless. One name might be as good as another, and the same would be true of national identity, if not for the violent, corruptive forces that impose their will upon whole populations of individuals and make it harder and harder to try and live a life, let alone discover a self.

Where Whitman’s terrestrial expanse tended to account for the promise of the then-nubile United States, Darwish stretches around the globe. His references to the West are not antagonistic; he represents another culture, not an opposition culture. He is often political, but is not dependent on being pro-Palestinian or anti-Western.  He comfortably references Sophocles, the Bible, the Koran, Saladin and more.  He is not stuck in the modern conception of a juggernaut “West” with all other cultures in some degree of orbit:

And if this autumn is the final autumn, let us move away
from the sky of exile and from others’ trees. We grow a little older
and didn’t notice the wrinkles in the flute’s timbre…the road lengthened
and we didn’t admit we were on the marching path to Caesar. We
          didn’t notice
the poem as it emptied its folk of their sentiments to widen its shores
and pitch our tent where the wars of Athens with Persia,
Iraq with Egypt, tossed us. We love the plow more than
we love the sword, we love the autumn air, we love the rain.

(“We Will Choose Sophocles”)

There may be some subtle suggestion in Darwish’s frequent referencing of Rome, but poems like “We Will Choose Sophocles” show cross-cultural interest. The poet’s access to all cultures and none adds to the feeling of permanent exile:

Where is the road to anything? I see the unseen clearer than
a street no longer mine. Who am I after the stranger’s night?
I used to walk to the self along with others, and here I am
losing the self and others. My horse on the Atlantic coast disappeared
and my horse on the Mediterranean thrusts the Crusader’s spear in me.
Who am I after the stranger’s night? I cannot return
to my brothers near the palm tree of my ancient house, and I cannot
          come down
to the bottom of my pit. O the unseen! There is no heart for love…no
heart for love in which I can dwell after the stranger’s night…

(“Eleven Planets and the End of the Andalusian Scene, part vii: Who Am I After the Stranger’s Night?”)

This confusion of constant exile manifests itself in the construction of Darwish’s poems. Nearly all are at least several pages long (often much longer), cyclical and self-referencing.  Each poem’s structure draws out of the reader what Darwish intends to communicate: confusion that is at turns blissful, and at turns devastating.  In Part 1 of Exile, titled “Tuesday and the Weather is Clear,” he writes:

I walk lightly and grow older by ten minutes,
by twenty, sixty, I walk and life diminishes
in me gently as a slight cough does.
I think: what if I lingered, what
if I stopped? Would I stop time?
Would I bewilder death? I mock the notion
and ask myself: Where do you walk to
composed like an ostrich? I walk
as if life is about to amend its shortcomings.
And I don’t look behind, for I can’t return
to anything, and I can’t masquerade as another.

Repetition, refrain, rhetorical question and (in many other cases) sprawling lines sychronize with the notion that space and time are fused, immeasurable, mutating.  One is always in a state of exile. At many points in If I Were Another, the setting becomes a nothingness which is only an extension of the speaker and his present company, who could be a friend, father, Death, or another self.  “Dense Fog Over the Bridge” shows Darwish’s constant identity crisis in which he is all other people, not himself, himself again, no one, everyone, and on:

I said: Don’t bet on the realistic,
you won’t find the thing alive like its image
waiting for you. Time domesticates
even the mountains, which become higher, or lower
than what you knew them to be,
so where does the bridge take us?
He said: Have we been that long on this road?
I said: Is the fog that dense on the bridge: how
many years have you resembled me?
He said: How many years have you been me?
I said: I don’t remember.
He said: I remember only the road.

The flux of existence is ceaseless, personal, and universal.  One thing remains fixed in Darwish’s centerless world and that is poetry.  Darwish seems to say that, for right or wrong, poetry is the song we instill in life.  Passively waiting for inspiration from the world is pointless. One must actively push to imbue life with value; if doing so is delusional, it presents our greatest delusion:

If the canary doesn’t sing,
my friend,
blame only yourself.
If the canary doesn’t sing
to you, my friend,
then sing to it…sing to it.

(“Tuesday and the Weather is Clear”)

Where other recent translations of “Mural” have comes across as strained, even claustrophobic, Joudah’s translation allows private access to the fluidity and expanse of one the great artistic minds of the modern era. Mahmoud Darwish’s late poetry, spilling over with hard beauty and visceral philosophy, is essential.