In the Presence of Absence

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Photo by Eamonn Mccabe

In the Presence of Absence
By Mahmoud Darwish
Translated by Sinan Antoon
Archipelago Books, 2011

Mahmoud Darwish’s later poetry is a gathering of ghosts. “My friends pass by me, / My friends die suddenly,” is the refrain of a poem from “Psalms,” in the collection To Love You or Not To Love You. That was in 1972, when Darwish was still young, before the years of Beirut, two intifadas, and a civil war between Hamas and Fatah. There is a bass line of elegy that runs throughout his poetry. It begins with the angry laments of “Flowers of Blood,” written in memory of those massacred at Kafr Qasim in 1956, and continues through poems that commemorate the deaths of fellow poets, activists, and intellectuals — Rashid Hussein, Izz al-Din Qalaq, Edward Said. These losses lend Darwish’s mature work its characteristically autumnal tone, a kind of counterpoint to the fiery poems of his youth. It was Said who described his friend’s later verse as a literature of belatedness, addressed to the question of “what happens after the ending, what it is like to live past one’s time and place.” Or, as Darwish puts it in his new book, “An elegy is an encomium that arrives a lifetime too late.”

In the Presence of Absence was the last volume Darwish published before his death in the summer of 2008, following open-heart surgery. It is a summary work, revisiting and revising the central dramas of his fifty-year career. It is also the fruit of his investment in the elegy. Darwish takes two lines of the seventh century poet Malik bin al-Rayb as his epigraph: “Do not go! they say as they bury me / But where, if not faraway, is my place?” The lines come from al-Rayb’s most canonical poem, a self-elegy he is said to have composed after being bitten by a poisonous snake. The ritha’ al-nafs or self-elegy is a distinct genre of Arabic verse, with roots in the pre-Islamic period. This is not a poetry of posthumous address. The speaker does not claim to speak from beyond the grave (there is little evidence the pagan poets believed in an afterlife). The self-elegy is instead an occasion for last words, a poem composed in the shadow of death.

Darwish’s work honors these conventions and then moves swiftly beyond them. He called In the Presence of Absence a nass, a text, rather than a diwan, a collection of poems. There are episodes of verse, but most of the work is composed in densely figurative prose. It opens on a scene of eulogy. The speaker addresses the poet amid a crowd of mourners. “Let us then go together, you and I,” he says, echoing Eliot’s “Prufrock.” “You, to a second life promised to you by language… I, to a rendezvous I have postponed more than once with a death to whom I had promised a glass of red wine in a poem.”

The rest of the work extends this fiction of the funereal oration. It is written entirely in the second person, which lends it an appropriately strange feel in English. The addressee is Darwish the poet, who will die and then live on in his works; the speaker is Darwish the man, who will die with no assurance of resurrection. The glass of wine alludes to an earlier long poem “Mural,” which includes a dialogue between the poet and death. (Darwish wrote it in the wake of a difficult surgery; there were many surgeries.) The poet postpones the inevitable by inviting death to a drink and worrying him with questions about the afterlife — how is the weather? What language do they use? Should he bring something to read? — all while preparing an escape. This allusion to his own work is the first of many, setting in motion a dialectic of poetry and experience, literature and life, in which each claims priority over the other. All these echoes give In the Presence of Absence its peculiarly intimate feel. As readers, we are listening in on the poet in colloquy with himself. “I prolong my address,” Darwish writes near the end, “like a poet reserving the last stanza to contemplate his past diversions.”

The first chapters are a kind of biography, or the opening scenes of a bildungsroman. They begin with the poet’s childhood in Birweh, evoked in what Darwish calls “the idiom of an innocent earth.” The sensual simplicity of these passages recalls Jabra Ibrahim Jabra’s The First Well, another memoir of Mandate-era Palestine. The poet masters the alphabet — “Rub one letter against another and a star is born. Bring a letter close to another and you can hear the sound of rain” — and listens to the folk epics of Antara and al-Muhalhil. He learns to play with some animals and fear others. But this idyll is quickly shattered. A harrowing section recounts Darwish’s flight into Lebanon during the Nakba and the villagers’ subsequent attempts to return. “Everything here is a painful reminder of what had once been there,” Darwish writes. “What wounds you most is that ‘there’ is so close to ‘here.’” The family eventually reestablished residence in Galilee, but after years of living under martial law and house arrest Darwish flees Israel for good in 1970. The landscape of his work opens up to include the cities of exile: Beirut, Tunis, Paris. But with the exception of the Lebanese capital, where Darwish lived for close to a decade, these places are almost indistinguishable. The decor of exile is one pattern in minute variations: “How many paintings have you hung? How many beds have you abandoned for others to sleep in afterward? How many drafts and beginnings have you forgotten in other drawers? How many photographs of women were lost in the folds of books you never read?”

The last chapters of his book recall the post-Oslo period. Darwish returned to Ramallah after some twenty-five years with a feeling that mixed “the tourist’s curiosity, the visitor’s sadness, and the returnee’s joy.” An especially memorable passage evokes Darwish’s self-consciousness during his first visit to Gaza, “city of misery and might”: “You walk down the alleys ashamed of everything: your ironed shirts, the aesthetics of poetry, the abstractness of music, and a passport that allows you to travel the world.” And yet the stations of this life — exile, prison, migration, return — trace a recognizably Palestinian itinerary.

The conceit of the eulogy, in which an ordinary man takes stock of a famous poet’s career, also allows Darwish to regard his own legend from a distance. He was a star before he turned twenty-five: a fixture at Galilean poetry festivals and author of “Identity Card,” an iconic work of Palestinian nationalism. His poems were soon sung by the Arab world’s greatest musicians, and his readings attracted thousands. But fame brings its own estrangements. In a moving episode from In the Presence of Absence, Darwish describes a return trip to Galilee to visit his aging mother, the same trip in which he was allowed to attend the funeral of his former comrade, novelist Emile Habibi. “She ululates and sings you songs, calling you by your full name. She sees you as a knight returning from the myth’s journey. You ask her to stop spinning glory from the rhythms of deprivation and distance. For you are only her son and she is only your mother. You embrace each other in front of handheld cameras.”

One benefit of the self-elegy, with its division of the speaker from himself, is its ability to capture this peculiarly modern sense of a life lived in front of cameras, a life in which all private acts are invested with public significance. Darwish often complained that even his most intimate works — his love poems, or domestic lyrics — were interpreted as political gestures. But this is what it means to be a national poet. During the visit with his mother he asks if she liked “I Long for the Bread of My Mother,” a short poem he wrote in prison during the sixties and which has become one of his most-quoted works. Darwish’s mother smiles shyly and says only, “May God be pleased with you.”

Darwish was haunted by his own most successful performances. He feared they might harden into a canonical style, that he would be reduced to his legend. Robert Lowell, who also knew about early stardom and the pressures of reinvention, called this “the impoverished life of myth.” But how does one escape the expectations of critics and admirers? Midway through In the Presence of Absence, Darwish tells of meeting a sculptor in Paris who offers to make a small statue of him for a keepsake. Darwish demurs. A tombstone is all the memorial he wants. The other man presses him, “Why are you against the statue?” “Because I want to keep moving,” Darwish finally explains, “And I don’t want anyone to break me. I am the one who does that. A statue is incapable of self-criticism.”

A desire to keep moving, a commitment to rewriting and revision: these are the tools Darwish used to break free from the prisons of habit. Indeed, for all his mastery of the medium, Darwish’s career was a series of experiments. Some are more successful than others, but none are dashed off. The mixed prosody of In the Presence of Absence shows that his experiment was ongoing. Here, prose is pushed to extremes. It is relentlessly figurative in a way that English readers may find bewildering. In the book’s final chapter, Darwish offers a list of personal keywords: “My memory is a pomegranate. Shall I open it over you and let it scatter, seed by seed: red pearls befitting a farewell that asks nothing of me except forgetfulness?” Some of the playfulness here is unavoidably lost in translation: nathara means both “to scatter” and “to compose in prose” — a pun Darwish uses throughout the work — and the distinction between loose and linked pearls is an old Arabic trope for the difference between prose and verse. What seems like a baroque metaphor is in fact a commentary on the relationship between history (or memory) and prosody. “Poetry is the archive of the Arabs,” runs the old saw. The rhythms of Darwish’s prose are also heavily marked. His sentences are almost liturgical in their balanced yet onrushing momentum. One of the models for this highly metaphorical, richly cadenced style is the Qur’an. And it is a measure of Darwish’s ambition as a poet that his imitation is equal parts homage and rivalry (although, theologically speaking, the holy book is strictly inimitable). All of which makes Sinan Antoon’s translation especially heroic. I cannot think of another text by Darwish so difficult to render into English as this one, yet Antoon’s rendering is both elegant and faithful — an homage in its turn.

“The poet is the one perplexed between prose and poetry.” This is another mock definition from Darwish’s list of keywords. But perplexity is not the same as paralysis. It is easy to forget, given the elegiac tone of this work, that it was not Darwish’s last. He wrote another volume of poems — including “The Dice Player,” one of his best — though he did not live to finish the edits or send it to the publishers. Right up to the end, he was weighing alternatives, planning tomorrow’s experiment. “I have had more than enough of the past,” Darwish wrote in one late poem, “but not enough of tomorrow.”