Monday, March 20, 2006


Claribel Alegria

Claribel Alegria was born in Nicaragua in 1924, but her family went into political exile in El Salvador the following year. She herself left El Salvador in 1943 to attend college in the United States and lived variously in Mexico, Spain, and various South American countries. Much of her early work dealt with the harsh political realities of Central America and led, among other things, to her being exiled from El Salvador. Finally, in the early 1980's, after the Sandanista National Liberation Front with which she was politically associated overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua, she returned there to help in the rebuilding of her birth country and to record the history of the overthrow of Somoza's dictatorship; in this, she was assisted by her husband Darwin Flakoll, a U. S. citizen who had been a journalist and served in several diplomatic posts in South America. He also translated some of her fiction and poetry into English. Her 1999 volume Saudade (Sorrow) dealt with his death and the profound sense of loss she felt, themes that continue in her most recent volume Soltando Amarras (Casting Off) published in 2003; both are intensely personal works which in many ways contrast strongly with her earlier more political and social works.

One of the central themes of her political and social poetry is the belief that she has a responsibility to provide a voice for those who don't have a voice, who have lost or been denied a voice in the political struggles:

"Nocturnal Visits"

I think of our anonymous boys
of our burnt-out heroes
the amputated
the cripples
those who lost both legs
both eyes
the stammering teen-agers.
At night I listen to their phantoms
shouting in my ear
shaking me out of lethargy
issuing me commands
I think of their tattered lives
of their feverish hands
reaching out to seize ours.
It's not that they're begging
they're demanding
they've earned the right to order us
to break up our sleep
to come awake
to shake off once and for all
this lassitude.

(Translated by D. J. Flakoll)

Frequently, she reveals the political conflicts in context by showing us a broader, detailed portrait of everyday life; in "Documentary," for instance, she follows the coffee -- El Salvador's chief export -- from harvest to preparations for shipment:


Come, be my camera.
Let's photograph the ant heap
the queen ant
extruding sacks of coffee,
my country.
It's the harvest.
Focus on the sleeping family
cluttering the ditch.
Now, among trees:
dark-skinned fingers
stained with honey.
Shift to a long shot:
the file of ant men
trudging down the ravine
with sacks of coffee.
A contrast:
girls in colored skirts
laugh and chatter,
filling their baskets
with berries.
Focus down.
A close-up of the pregnant mother
dozing in the hammock.
Hard focus on the flies
spattering her face.
The terrace of polished mosaics
protected from the sun.
Maids in white aprons
nourish the ladies
who play canasta,
clelbrate invasions
and feel sorry for Cuba.
Izalco sleeps
beneath the volcano's eye.
A subterranean growl
makes the village tremble.
Trucks and ox-carts
laden with sacks
screech down the slopes.
Besides coffee
they plant angels
in my country.
A chorus of children
and women
with the small white coffin
move politely aside
as the harvest passes by.
The riverside women,
naked to the waist,
wash clothing.
The truck drivers
exchange jocular obscenities
for insults.
In Panchimalco,
waiting for the ox-cart to pass by,
a peasant
with hands bound behind him
by the thumbs
and his escort of soldiers
blinks at the airplane:
a huge bee
bulging with coffee growers
and tourists.
The truck stops in the market place.
A panorama of iguanas,
strips of meat,
wicker baskets,
piles of nances,
dogs, pupusas, jocotes,
acrid odors,
taffy candies,
urine puddles, tamarinds.
The virginal coffee
dances in the millhouse.
They strip her,
rape her,
lay her out on the patio
to doze in the sun.
The dark storage sheds
The golden coffee
sparkles with malaria,
A truck roars
out of the warehouse.
It bellows uphill
drowning out the lesson:
A for alcoholism,
B for battalions,
C for corruption,
D for dictatorship,
E for exploitation,
F for feudal power
of fourteen families
and etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
My etcetera country,
my wounded country,
my child,
my tears,
my obsession.

(Translated by D. J. Flakoll)

She also presents detailed portraits of the life of the common people:

"Flowers from the Volcano"

Fourteen volcanos rise
in my remembered country
in my mythical country.
Fourteen volcanos of foliage and stone
where strange clouds hold back
the screech of a homeless bird.
Who said that my country was green?
It is more red, more gray, more violent:
Izalco roars,
taking more lives.
Eternal Chacmol collects blood,
the gray orphans
the volcano spitting bright lava
and the dead guerrillero
and the thousand betrayed faces,
the children who are watching
so they can tell of it.
Not one kingdom was left us.
One by one they fell
through all the Americas.
Steel rang in palaces,
in the streets,
in the forests
and the centaurs sacked the temple.
Gold disappeared and continues
to disappear on yanqui ships,
the golden coffee mixed with blood.
The priest flees screaming
in the middle of the night
he calls his followers
and they open the guerrillero's chest
so as to offer the Chac
his smoking heart.
No one believes in Izalco
that Tlaloc is dead
despite television,
The cycle is closing,
strange the volcano's silence
since it last drew breath.
Central America trembled,
Managua collapsed.
In Guatemala the earth sank
Hurricane Fifi flattened Honduras.
They say the yanquis turned it away,
that it was moving towards Florida
and they forced it back.
The golden coffee is unloaded
in New York where
they roast it, grind it
can it and give it a price.
Siete de Junio
noche fatal

bailando el tango
la capital
From the shadowed terraces
San Salvador's volcano rises.
Two-story mansions
protected by walls
four meters high
march up its flanks
each with railings and gardens,
roses from England
and dwarf araucarias,
Uruguayan pines.
Farther up, in the crater
within the crater's walls
live peasant families
who cultivate flowers
their children can sell.
The cycle is closing,
Cuscatlecan flowers
thrive in volcanic ash,
they grow strong, tall, brilliant.
The volcano's children
flow down like lava
with their bouquets of flowers,
like roots they meander
like rivers the cycle is closing.
The owners of two-story houses
protected from thieves by walls
peer from their balconies
and they see the red waves descending
and they drown their fears in whiskey.
They are only children in rags
with flowers from the volcano,
with Jacintos and Pascuas and Mulatas
but the wave is swelling,
today's Chacmol still wants blood,
the cycle is closing,
Tlaloc is not dead.

(Translated by Carolyn Forche)

Not all of her work is political and social, however. She is fascinated particularly with Greek mythology oand over the years has written a large number of poems -- many of them dramatic monologues -- bringing to life such figures as Medea:


Those are not tears
streaming from my eyes
only the dry sobs
that haunt my night.
I murdered my own sons
they whom I most loved --
or do I love you more, Jason?
Jason's sons
his happiness
his pride
I was the avenging arm
I buried our dreams
dreams that danced
like joyful embers
shedding warmth on my face.
Jason abandoned me
because of him, I killed them
I shout your name
I howl
I clutch my dead sons
to my bosom
I rock them I sing to them
I have nothing left
only the serpents are left
the wingerd serpents
that pull the chariot
carrying me to my exile
exile more cruel than death.
I murdered my sons
I see their shadows
frowing before my eyes
my sons' bodies
their luminous bodies
defying oblivion.
I am left without their voices
without their games
without their loving play
I shall moan and weep forever
and wandering
in the desert
my song is of death
and of triumph
I did it for you
I did it for your love
the love you gave me
transforming me into a goddess
until suddenly one day
you tore me out by the roots.

(Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden)

The whole idea of memory is important in her work; here in one of her intensely personal lyrics, she reviews the "electrical instants" of her life:


In the sixty-eight years
I have lived
there are a few electrical instants:
the happiness of my feet
skipping puddles
six hours in Macchu Pichu
the ten minutes necessary
to lose my virginity
the buzzing of the telephone
while awaiting the death of my mother
the hoarse voice
announcing the death
of Monsignor Romero
fifteen minutes in Delft
the first wail of my daughter
I don't know how many years
dreaming of my people's liberation
certain immortal deaths
the eyes of that starving child
your eyes bathing me with love
one forget-me-not afternoon
and in this sultry hour
the urge to mould myself
into a verse
a shout a fleck
of foam.

(Translated by D.J. Flakoll)

Love is a subject she also deals with, often through striking metaphors:

"Two Wings in Flight"

We were a careless
two wings in flight
that folded into one
in repose.

(Translated by Carolyn Forché)

She also deals with the ambiguities of old age:

"It's Time Now to Give Up"

It's time now
to give up,
my exhausting,
and exhausted body,
give me the right to escape.
There was a time I loved you
you were fresh
Ifeel sorry for you
you are bent and stooped
and you creak with every step
you're stiff
and you've grown a belly
but despite your ills
and your quiet moans
you still want to live.
That love for life
that inflames you
does not let you
leave me.

(Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden)

Finally, she reveals the loss of a love one:

"The Ache of Absence"

Oh how my fingertips ache
when I hold out my hand
and don't find you.

(Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden)

Saturday, March 11, 2006


Gyorgy Petri

Gyorgy Petri (1943 -- 2000) was the leading Hungarian poet of his generation. Educated at the Lornd Eotvos University in literature and philosophy, he was strongly influenced as well (as were most Eastern European intellectuals) by the Czechoslovakian "Prague Spring" of 1968, the attempt to reform Communism into a more legitimate workers' state, as well as the crushing of that intention by the Soviet military backed by other Warsaw Pact countries in August of that year. Consequently, his work reveals a great deal of cynicism, bitterness, and harsh irony. Although his early work was published by state-controlled publishers in the early 70's, when they wanted to heavily censor his work beginning with his third collection, he refused to allow its publication through those publishers and turned to underground samizdat publication instead, risking state censure and worse. Finally, after the fall of Communism at the end of the 1980's, he could publish his work openly, and he became enormously popular, winning a number of prestigious literary awards during the 1990's, as well as travelling abroad. He died at the age of 57 in 2000 of throat cancer.

"Electra" is a poem typical of his political work; Mycenae is clearly the Hungary of the communist dictator Janos Kadar (who governed Hungary from 1956 to 1988) and Aegisthus is unquestionably Kadar:


What they think is it's the twists and turns of politics
that keep me ticking; they think it's Mycenae's fate.
Take my little sister, cute sensitive Chrysosthemis --
to me the poor thing attributes a surfeit of moral passion,
believing I'm unable to get over
the issue of our father's twisted death.
What do I care for the gross geyser of spunk
who murdered his own daughter! The steps into the bath
were slippery with soap -- and the axe's edge too sharp.
But that this Aegisthus, with his trainee-barber's face,
should swagger about and hold sway in this wretched town,
and that our mother, like a venerably double-chinned old whore,
should dally with him simpering -- everybody pretending
not to see, not to know anything. even the Sun
glitters above, like a lie forged of pure gold,
the false coin of the gods!
Well, that's why! That's why! Because of disgust, because it all sticks in my craw,
revenge has become my dream and my daily bread.
And this revulsion is stronger than the gods.
I already see how mold is creeping across Mycenae,
which is the mold of madness and destruction.

(Translated by Clive Wilmer and George Gomori)

One of his best-known poems is the epigrammatic couplet "To Be Said Over and Over Again":

I glance down at my shoe and -- there's the lace!
This can't be gaol then, can it, in that case.

(Translated by Clive Wilmer and George Gomori)

In "Night Song of the Personal Shadow," Petri gives a voice to one of the numerous government agents who were set to follow and spy on him:

The rain is pissing down,
you scum.
And you, you are asleep
in your nice warm room --
that or stuffing the bird.
Me? Till six in the morning
I rot in the slackening rain.
I must wait for my relief, I've got to wait
till you crawl out of your hole,
get up from beside your old woman.
So the dope can be passed on
as to where you've flown.
You are flying, spreading your wings.
Don't you get into my hands --
I'll pluck you while you're in flight.
This sodding rain
is something I won't forget,
my raincoat swelling
double its normal weight
and the soles of my shoes.
While you
were arsing around
in the warm room.

The time will come
when I feed you to fish in the Danube.

(Translated by Clive Wilmer and George Gomori)

One of Petri's best poems, I think, is "Christmas 1956"; it is at one level a persoanl recollection of the last Christmas Petri would have experienced as a child, but the piece is made more complex by the fact that that year -- 1956 -- was also the year the "Hungarian Revolution" occurred, a revolution in which the Hungarian people called for the withdrawal of Soviet forces and the institution of a more genuinely socialistic government, and the Soviets responded by sending in the military to crush the nascent rebellion (just as would happen again in Czechoslovakia in 1968). Petri draws implicit parallels between his personal situation and the political environment which is just beginning to take root, the much more harsh and repressive dictatorship of Kadar; there is strong irony in the fact that he receives as his gift a Monopoly game which no one can play, among other elements in this complex work:

"Christmas 1956"

On the twentieth, at a certain moment
(6:45 A. M.), I, a child of ill omen,
born between Joe S. and Jesus,
become thirteen. It's my last year
Of Christmas being a holiday. There's
plenty to eat: the economy of scarcity
was to my Gran as the Red Sea: she crossed over
with dry feet and a turkey. There's a present too --
for me: I control the market still -- my one
cousin a mere girl, only four, and I
the last male of the line
(for the time being). Wine-soup, fish, there's everything,
considering we've just come up from the shelter --
where G. F. kept flashing a tommy-gun
with no magazine ("Get away, Gabe," he was told,
"d'you want the Russkies after us?").
Gabe (he won't be hanged till it's lilac-time)
comes in wishing us merry Christmas, there's no
midnight mass because of the curfew;
I concentrate on Monopoly, my present --
my aunt got it privately, the toyshops
not having much worth buying. My aunt has come,
in a way, to say goodbye: she's getting
out via Yugoslavia, but at the border (alas)
she'll be left behind, and so (in a dozen years
about) she will have to die of cancer of the spine.
Nobody knows how to play Monopoly, so
I start twiddling the knob on our Orion,
our wireless set, and gradually tune in
to London and America, like Mum in '44,
only louder: it's no longer forbidden -- yet.
The christmas-tree decorations, known by heart,
affect me now rather as many years on
a woman will, one loved for many years.
In the morning, barefoot, I'm still to be found
rummaging through the Monoply cards, inhaling
the smell of fir-tree and candles. I bring in
a plateful of brawn from outside, Gran
is already cooking, she squeezes a lemon,
slices bread to my brawn. I crouch on a stool
in pyjamas. There's a smell of sleep and holiday.
Grandad's coughing is what was the servant's room,
his accountant's body, toothpick-thin,
thrown by a fit of it from under the quilt,
Mother's about too, the kitchen is filling up
with family, and it's just as an observer
dropped in the wrong place that I am here:
small, alien, and gone cold.

(Translated by Clive Wilmer and George Gomori)

The bitterness and darkness which is found in these works is present in Petri's other works, as well, and extends to his attitudes towards the kinds of relationships that can exist between individuals:

"To S. V."

The bus was taking me
over the bridge and I looked
on into the tunnel. At
the far end of that pipe
padded with shadows, there were
vehicles hanging about --
in an unreachably distant
sandy sun-strip.

A long time since
we were last watching together --
looking out for occasions
to enrich our occasional
poetry with occasions of pain.
Filing away at lyric skeleton-keys
we gauge by sight
for a small circle of friends.

I amble on alone --
the prisoner of a dondition it's be
going too far to call loneliness
and deceiving myself to call independence -- on
among parched sights.
I walk down to the embankment looking for shade.
In glass-melting heat
the bus I have just got off
is crawling away somewhere.

An airless tent of chestnuts. But up there
already, the infant stars, as yet
tenderly spiked, herald the autumn.
The water's putrescent slate.
But at least it gets broken up
by a boat putting out from here.
A sight, a view: I've no one
to share it with.
Summer's fruits have ripened
in me and they taste soapy.

I could already tell we were in for a bad year
the morning after New Year's Eve.
In a city of iron shutters, all pulled down,
we slithered about on insidious snow
looking for soak-up soup or hair-of-the-dog.
We ended up drinking iodine-yellow beer
in a surgically tiled café. And time we stepped outside,
the street was wearing eyesore white.

Our weak brains stopped working.
Sailors on ships that are locked in ice,
as is well-known, will devour each other.
Just like the modern Theatre of Provocatiion --
it all degenerates, banter
into argument, teasing
into insult. Till finally the background
cracks the backbone of the situation.

(Translated by Clive Wilmer and George Gomori)

Love, too, has its limitations, although there are moments when it may offer more than other relationships, but even that is limited to some extent by the constant awareness of the separateness of individuals:


The idiotic silence of state holidays
is no different
from that of Catholic Sundays.
People in collective idleness
are even more repellent
than they are when purpose has harnessed them.

Today I will not
in my old ungrateful way
let gratuitous love decay in me.
In the vacuum of streets
what helps me to escape
is the memory of your face and thighs,
your warmth,
the fish-death smell of your groin.

You looked for a bathroom in vain.
The bed was uncomfortable
like a roof ridge.
The mattress smelt of insecticide,
the new scent of your body mingling with it.

I woke to a cannonade
(a round number of years ago
something happened). You were still asleep.
Your glasses, your patent leather bag
on the floor, your dress on the window-catch
hung inside out -- so practical.

One strap of your black slip
had slithered off.
And a gentle light was wavering
on the downs of your neck, on your collar-bones,
as the cannon went on booming

and on a spring poking through
the armchair's cover
fine dust was trembling.

(Translated by Clive Wilmer and George Gomori)

The relationship that exists between lovers, even when they are husband and wife, is at best ambiguous:

"Marriage Therapy"

I'm trying to withdraw myself from your life:
becoming soundlessly soft, liveing on toetips, shoeless,
turning the key silently in the door like a burglar.
I'm trying -- at the same time --
to stick to you like a toadstool to a tree,
sponge off you like mistletoe
(also known as "the sucker").
It's about time for me to grow up,
better late than never. On second thought,
maybe it's better never than ever.
Rain has been falling. By morning the sidewalk is slick:
it's either slushy-ice or mirror-ice. either we we can or we can't see ourselves.

(Translated by Michael Castro & Gabor G. Gyukics)

In a world of uncertainties, there's only one absolute: death.

"Credit Card"

We shouldn't rush things: not even annihilation.

No good ever came of haste.
Thus, we stay alive.

In other words, keep all options open;
exchange the one million pound bill of death
for the small change of life.

Or else, we don't make change
beyond our constant presence.
No one can break a nice
crispy death bill like this
with all its impressiveness.
We can live on credit.

The General Bank of Death
will cover all our expenses.
This way our balance is always
a moral zero.

(Translated by Michael Castro and Gabor G. Gyukics)

One can, however, accept the naturalness and inevitability of death and even desire it while still wanting a bit more of life first:

"Elegy and Disseration"

I'd like to shrink nowadays
It's better if one is proactive with
event that happen to him.
The desire for death is a synonym for a willing compromise.
Reducing size is not that bad at all;
one can fit in a baby kangaroo pouch, in a sportbag,
in an urn.
shrinking creates less difficulties for a person.
Though he must gravitate. But chalk that up to
Mr. Newton's account.

Above all and after all
I would rather shrink into myself.
(I throng inside me. I contract.)
No community, no party, no corporation, no caste.
Jst to present myself: what I am, that.
Morevoer: becoming. Be
any side of the dice.
Not a turn, but a twirl.
Be it! Whatever will ber, will be. Prevailing

I comprehend it as my own subevent.

I'd like to walk
on the "all bodies street" (Gyorgy Petri Boulevard),
beforehand I'd make
a good juicy beefstew,
just to eat a few more gristles and cartilages,
but first buy the ingredients for it
(calf, and maybe heartroot, oxtail)
and then take a walk in this
(perhaps the last)
spring with you, with you, with you
(Da capo el fine).

(Translated by Michael Castro and Gabor G. Gyukics)

Ultimately, though there is acceptance of death, there can be concern for those left behind:

"What a Shame"

What a shame to die this way,
just now, when things could be OK --
though even like this it's not too bad:
I'll go quietly, almost glad
to mix with water, leafmould, clay,
thawed snow, showers of a summer's day
and autumn leaves that smell like booze.
The quiet hill waits for my repose -
and say, Will the muses of my song
rest there beside me before long?
(I'd go there right away, but who
will care for Mari if I do?
And who will bring her flowers home
when I am gnawed at by the worm?)

(Translated by Clive Wilmer and George Gomori)

Sunday, March 05, 2006


Mahmoud Darwish

Mahmoud Darwish has long been recognized as the leading poet of Palestine, the poetic voice of the exiled Palestinian people. He was born in the Palestinian village of Birwe in 1942; Birwe was one of over 400 Palestinian villages occupied by the Israeli army in 1948. His family fled to Lebanon but returned to become "internal refugees" whose legal status was at best precarious, subject to Israeli military authorities. He was several times imprisoned and placed under house arrest in his 20s for reciting his poetry and for his activities as editor of the Israeli Communist Party's newspaper. In 1971 he left Israel (for 25 years, as it turned out), going first to Cairo, then to Beirut where he joined the Palestine Liberation Organization and became the editor of its literary, cultural, and scholarly journal Al-Karmel. He left Beirut following the Israeli invasion in 1982, living variously in Cyprus and Paris, among other places. He was chosen a member of the PLO Executive Committee in 1987, but resigned in 1993 over disagreement with the leadership regarding some elements of the Oslo Accords. After having been denied entry into Israel for a number of years, he was finally allowed to return in 1997 and settled in Ramallah.

His earliest poetry was largely traditional Arabic love poetry, but he soon turned to drawing upon the political and social situations he knew first hand; one of his earliest successful peoms (in the sense of becoming widely known among Palestinians) was "Identity Card," based on his own experiences as an "internal refugee" in Israel:

"Identity Card"

Put it on record.
I am an Arab

And the number of my card is fifty thousand
I have eight children
And the ninth is due after summer.
What's there to be angry about?

Put it on record.
I am an Arab

Working with comrades of toil in a quarry.
I have eight children
For them I wrest the loaf of bread,
The clothes and exercise books
From the rocks
And beg for no alms at your door,
Lower not myself at your doorstep.
What's there to be angry about?

Put it on record.
I am an Arab.

I am a name without a title,
Patient in a country where everything
Lives in a whirlpool of anger.
My roots
Took hold before the birth of time
Before the burgeoning of the ages,
Before cypress and olive trees,
Before the proliferation of weeds.

My father is from the family of the plough
Not from highborn nobles.

And my grandfather was a peasant
Without line or geneaology.

My house is a watchman's hut
Made of sticks and reeds.

Does my status satisfy you?
I am a name without a surname.

Put it on record.
I am an Arab.

Color of hair: jet black.
Color of eyes: brown.
My distinguishing features:
On my head the 'iqal cords over a keffiyeh
Scratching him who touches it.

My address:
I'm from a village, remote, forgotten,
It's streets without name
And all its men in the fields and quarry.

What's there to be angry about?

Put it on record.
I am an Arab.

You stole my forefathers' vineyards
And land I used to till,
I and all my children,
And you left us and all my grandchildren
Nothing but these rocks.
Will your government be taking them too
As is being said?

Put it on record at the top of page one:
I don't hate people,
I trespass on no one's property.

And yet, if I were to become hungry
I shall eat the flesh of my usurper.
Beware, beware of my hunger
And of my anger!

(Translated by Denys Johnson-Davies)

Although there are suggestions of a threatened violence in the conclusion of "Identity Card," by and large Darwish has avoided appeals to violence as a solution; this is apparent in another early poem, one which is based on a conversation between Darwish and a young Israeli friend following the latter's participation in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War:

"A Soldier Dreams of White Tulips"

He dreams of white tulips, an olive branch, her breasts in evening blossom.
He dreams of a bird, he tells me, of lemon flowers.
He does not intellectualize about his dream. He understands things as he senses and smells them.
Homeland for him, he tells me, is to drink my mother's coffee, to return at nightfall.

And the land? I don't know the land, he said.
I don't feel it in my flesh and blood, as they say in the poems.
Suddenly I saw the land as one sees a grocery store, a street, newspapers.

I asked him, but don't you love the land? My land is a picnic, he said, a glass of wine, alove affair.
--Would you die for the land?
All my attachment to the land is no more than a sotry or a fiery speech!
They taught me to love it, but I never felt it in my heart.
I never knew its roots and branches, or the scent of its grass.

--And what about its love?Did it burn like suns and desire?

He looked straight at me and said: I love it with my gun.
And by unearthing feasts in the garbage of the past
and a deaf-mute idol whose age and meaning are unknown

He told me about the moment of departure, how his mother
silently wept when they led him to the front,
how her anguished voice gave birth to a new hope in his flesh
that doves might flock through the Ministry of War.

He drew on his cigarette. He said, as if fleeing from a swamp of blood,
I dreamt of white tulips, an olive branch, a bird embracing the dawn on a lemon branch.
--And what did your see?
--I saw what I did:
a blood-red boxthorn.
I blasted them in the sand . . . in their chests . . . in their bellies.
--How many did you kill?
--It's impossible to tell. I only got one medal

Pained, I asked him to tell me about one of the dead.

He shifted in his seat, fiddled with the folded newspaper,
then said, as if breaking into song:
He collapsed like a tent on stones, embracing shattered planets.
His high forehead was crowned with blood. His chest was empty of medals.
He was not a well-trained fighter, but seemed instead to be a peasant, a worker, or a peddlar.
Like a tent he collapsed and died, his arms stretched out like dry creek-beds.
When I searched his pockets for a name, I found two photographs, one of his wife, the other of his daughter.

Did you feel sad?
I asked.
Cutting me off, he said, Mahmoud, my friend,
sadness is a white bird that does not come near a battlefield.
Soldiers commit a sin when they feel sad.
I was there like a machine spitting hellfire and death,
turning space into a black bird.

He told me about his first love, and later, about distant streets,
about reactions to the war in the heroic radio and the press.
As he hid a cough in his handkerchief I asked him:
Shall we meet again?
Yes, but in a city far away

When I filled his fourth glass, I asked jokingly:
Are you off? what about the homeland?
Give me a break
, he replied.
I dream of white tulips, streets of song, a house of light.
I need a kind heart, not a bullet.
I need a bright day, not a mad, fascist moment of triumph.
I need a child to cherish a day of laughter, not a weapon of war.
I came to live for rising suns, not to witness their setting.

He said goodbye and went looking for white tulips,
a bird welcoming the dawn on an olive branch.
He understands things only as he senses and smells them.
Homeland for him, he said, is to drink my mother's coffee, to return, safely, at nightfall.

(Translated by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché)

The body of Darwish's work is most particularly concerned with articulating the effects on the Palestinian people of the loss of their homeland:

"Athens Airport"

Athens airport disperses us to other airports. Where can I fight? asks the fighter.
Where can I deliver your child? a pregnant woman shouts back.
Where can I invest my money? asks the officer.
This is none of my business, the intellectual says.
Where did you come from? asks the customs' official.
And we answer: From the sea!
Where are you going?
To the sea
, we answer.
What is your address?
A woman of our group says: My village is my bundle on my back.
We have waited in the Athens airport for years.
A young man marries a girl but they have no place for their wedding night.
He asks: Where can I make love to her?
We laugh and say:
This is not the right time for that question.
The analyst says: In order to live, they die by mistake.
The literary man says: Our camp will certainly fall.
What do they want from us?
Athens airport welcomes its visitors without end.
Yet, like the benches in the terminal, we remain, impatiently waiting for the sea.
How many more years longer, O Athens airport?

(Translated by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché)

The homeland which now exists for Palestinians is that land found in memory and the imagination:

"We Walk Towards a Land"

We walk towards a land not of our flesh,
Not of our bones its chestnut trees,
Its stones unlike the curly goats
Of the Song of Songs.
We walk towards a land
That does not hang a special sun for us.
Mythic women clap:
A sea around us,
A sea upon us.
If wheat and water doe not reach you,
Eat our love and drink our tears.
Black veils of mourning for the poets.
You have your victories and we have ours,
We have a country where we see
Only the invisible.

(Translated by Rana Kabbani)

In a very real sense, the lost homeland of Palestine becomes what defines those who have lost her, and she becomes identified with the "beloved" of traditional Arabic poetry:

"On This Earth"

We have on this earth what makes life worth living: April's hesitation, the aroma of bread
at dawn, a woman's point of view about men, the works of Aeschylus, the beginning
of love, grass on a stone, mothers living on a flute's sigh and the invaders' fear of memories.

We have on this earth what makes life worth living: the final days of September, a woman
keeping her apricots ripe after forty, the hour of sunlight in prison, a cloud reflecting a swarm
of creatures, the peoples' applause for those who face death with a smile, a tyrant's fear of songs.

We have on this earth what makes life worth living: on this earth, the Lady of Earth,
mother of all beginnings and ends. She was called Palestine. Her name later became
Palestine. My Lady, because you are my Lady, I deserve life.

(Translated by
Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché)

For the Palestinian people, it is the fact of exile which is their defining characteristic:

"Without exile, who am I?"

Stranger on the bank, like the river . . . tied up to your
name by water. Nothing will bring me back from my free
distance to my palm tree: not peace, nor war. Nothing
will inscribe me in the Book of Testaments. Nothing,
nothing glints off the shore of ebb and flow, between
the Tigris and the Nile. Nothing
gets me off the chariots of Pharaoh. Nothing
carries me for a while, or makes me carry an idea: not
promises, nor nostalgia. What am I to do, then? What
am I to do without exile, without a long night
staring at the water?
Tied up
to your name
by water . . .
Nothing takes me away from the butterfly of my dreams
back into my present: not earth, nor fire. What
am I to do, then, without the roses of Samarkand? What
am I to do in a square that burnishes the chanters with
moon-shaped stones? Lighter we both have
become, like our homes in the distant winds. We have
both become friends with the clouds'
strange creatures; outside the reach of the gravity
of the Land of Identity. What are we to do, then . . . What
are we to do without exile, without a long night
staring at the water?
Tied up
to your name
by water . . .
Nothing's left of me except for you; nothing's left of you
except for me -- a stranger caressing his lover's thigh: O
my stranger! What are we to do with what's left for us
of the stillness, of the siesta that separates legend from legend?
Nothing will carry us: not the road, nor home.
Was this road the same from the start,
or did our dreams find a mare among the horses
of the Mongols on the hill, and trade us off?
And what are we to do, then?
are we to do

(Translated by Anton Shammas)

But Darwish's poetry reaches beyond the surface facts of Palestinian exile, especially in his later work where he explores the human experience, not just the Palestinian one, particularly in erotic and love poetry which probes the nature of love in a world in which we are all in a very real sense strangers and exiles:

"The Stranger Finds Himself in the Stranger"

We two are become one.
We have no name, strange woman,
when the stranger finds himself in the stranger.
What remains of the garden behind us is the power of the shadow.
Show what you will of your night's earth, and hide what you will.
We come hurriedly from the twilight of two places at once.
Together we searched for our addresses.
Follow your shadow, east of the Song of Songs,
herding sand grouse.
You will find a star residing in its own death.
Climb a deserted mountain,
you will find my yesterday coming full circle to my tomorrow.
You will find where we were and where, together, we will be.

We are two become one, strange man.
Go to the sea west of your book, and dive as lightly
as if you were riding two waves at birth,
you will find a thicket of seaweed and a green sky of water.
Dive as lightly as if you were nothing in nothing.
And you will find us together.

We are two become one.
We have yet to see how we were here, strange woman.
Two shadows opening and closing upon what had once been our two bodies.
A body appearing then disappearing in a body disappearing
in the confusion of unending duality.
We need to return to being two,
so we can go on embracing each other.
We have no name, strange woman,
when the stranger finds himself in the stranger.

(Translated by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché)

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