The first impression that sprang to mind upon reading the first few pages of this collection of Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry is the impossibility of quantifying the sense of nostalgia that knows its roots in love. There is no need to search for Palestine’s mention in this collection – the omniscience pervades in every word chosen by the poet to impart Palestine and love as inseparable. In the context of the poet and his poetry, to exclude one is to annihilate the other.
“I Don’t Want This Poem To End” is a collection of Darwish’s poetry translated into English and published for the first time. It facilitates an understanding of the poet who was claimed by the Arab world as a poet of resistance, without allowing him the possibility of articulating his own definition. Palestine is never absent in Darwish, yet the impositions of labels to the point of exploitation risked stifling the poet’s expression to emerge from its source: the profound and eloquent language of a man deeply intertwined with Palestine and exiled from his homeland.
To impose definitions upon the poet is to throttle expression. In his contribution titled “Translator Reflections”, Mohammad Shaheen, who is also the translator of this collection, shifts away from the mainstream image of Darwish by showing that what might seem contradictory in the poet’s own aspirations for his work, is an evolution on the personal, political and linguistic levels.
Shaheen writes: “The anthology aims to show that the shift from the simplicity of the early poetry to the complexity of the later one is not an act of betrayal, on the poet’s part, of the poet of resistance, but rather an ambition the poet had to develop his poetry.”
Shaheen also quotes Edward Said’s view of Darwish’s poetry as one that transforms “the lyrics of loss into the indefinitely postponed drama of return”. To differentiate between what Shaneen terms “factual consciousness” and “possible consciousness” in Darwish’s work is to negate the poetic journey and sever the ties between one form and the other.
Elias Khoury’s introduction to this collection describes in minute detail the search for Darwish’s unpublished manuscripts, giving the reader a vivid insight into the poet’s ambience. Of Darwish, he declares: “This man is not just a poet; he breathes words, he makes rhythm part of the circulation of his blood, his heart throbs with images, it is as if he were painting with rhythm.”
One striking reflection by Khoury is the following: “The poet of Palestine became the poet of the Arabs because he took us to Palestine in order to return it to us.” Within the context of this English translation of Darwish’s poetry, it is worth noting that, according to Shaheen, Darwish had “no wish” for his poetry to be translated. Quoting the poet’s words: “I write in Arabic and there is no requirement that my poetry should be read in another language.”
Darwish is right – there is no requirement. However, there is also no impediment. If Darwish, through his poetry written in Arabic, was able to extend the politics of nostalgia and return, the translation bequeaths such a treasure to a global audience at a time when Palestine’s isolation has also inversely rendered it an international obligation.
The personal experience of history and memory mingles with the collective in this poetry collection, to construct the dream of return. In the poem “To a lost love” Darwish writes: “And I shall believe that a small window/ In my homeland was/ Summoning me and recognising me.”
In “The Flowers of Blood” Darwish imparts the collective memory of the Kafr Qasim massacres, remembering the victims who were murdered by Israeli soldiers after an intentional delay in communicating a curfew order. He writes: “The executioner’s sword taught me to walk on my wound.”
The physical separation from Palestine caused by exile is another recurring theme. It is not only longing, however, that Darwish imparts. The personal experience of exile which becomes infused with the identity of the poet brings out the contrasts between living in exile and the longing of return. While the former is a lived experience that asserts itself continuously and explicitly: “And you and I are travellers… and refugees, you and I.” The longing of return is a powerful abstract which is only impeded by politics regarding its fulfilment: “Who remembers words when they illuminate a homeland/ to one that has no door?”
Darwish’s consciousness with regard to exile is powerfully expressed in “This Is My Autumn, All of It”. His awareness of the cyclical questions which call for an understanding from within prompts many impacting metaphors: “I looked for myself, and the question sent me back to a/ landless land.” Possibility mingles with elusiveness, creating an infinite expansion of identity, belonging and emotion, as the poet states: “That I may open the window to the window in myself.”
Of particular note is the prose poetry, “Four Private Addresses”, which illustrates Darwish’s powerful observations of life, love and exile. Each reading presents a new perception and understanding of exile as a philosophical concept. It is not only the poet who has experienced exile. Every human being carries a personal exile shaped by experiences. In mundane details there is always an underlying profound sentiment that encourages not only understanding but connection – the awareness of continuity and how it shapes our experience of the phenomenon.
The book also includes a letter which Darwish wrote to his brother from prison, describing the humiliation inflicted upon political prisoners by Israel and how it debased Palestinian resistance. “On Exile”, an essay by Darwish included in this anthology, narrates the complexity of exile particularly due to its expansion in experience and emotion. He writes: “The distance between internal and external exile has never been visible enough.”
Reading Darwish’s poetry is also a particular journey into the power of observation and memory. This is affirmed by Darraj, who narrates the last meeting with the poet and says of Darwish: “He would joyfully recall details, and then, encouraged by harmless satisfaction would dwell lovingly on the details of those details.”
In an interview with Shaheen, which is also part of this anthology, Darwish explains the dynamics of poetry and identity, refuting the notion that his poetry should be read solely “from the perspective of the Palestinian cause”. However, he also states that there should be no dispute with regard to his “dual loyalty – to poetry and to Palestine”. Perhaps there is no clearer assertion of this loyalty as explained by Darwish than his verse from “Songs for the Homeland”: “You will remain as our love wishes I see you.”