It is tempting to describe Mahmoud Darwish’s writing life through geography and history. His early poetry transformed the dispossessed land into the unattained beloved whose images inform the poet’s lexicon. The features of Palestine—its flowers and birds, towns and waters—became integrated in the poet’s witness to the string of tragedies, political and humanitarian, that have continued to afflict his people. Yet, over the decades, Darwish’s search beyond mere place never left him. Now, in his most recent poetry, translated in The Butterfly’s Burden, his writing stands clearly at the border of earth and sky, reality and myth, love and exile, poetry and prose.
The long, circuitous journey Darwish has undertaken since his family fled his native Galilee to Lebanon in 1948 (when he was six years old) can be viewed as an odyssey. Mahmoud Darwish returned with his family to Israel months after its creation, where he grew up as a present-absentee who didn’t return in time (from fleeing) to be recognized as an Israeli Arab. When he left for Moscow in 1970, he had already published four volumes of poetry and had known the Israeli prison system firsthand. His long life of exile had begun. One year later he moved to Cairo, and from there to Beirut. Ultimately, it was the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 that precipitated Darwish’s pursuit for the sovereignty of song. Leaving Beirut to roam the Mediterranean (Greece, Cyprus, and Tunisia) proved heart wrenching for Darwish, who seemed unable, outside of his own writing, to survive another glaring mirror of exile, of dispossession. His long 1983 epic of the Beirut invasion, Praise to the High Shadow (Documentary Poem), and his 1984 collection, A Siege to the Eulogies of the Sea, depicted his woe, and addressed many of his close friends who had been killed or assassinated:
My friends, do not die the way you used to die
I beg you, do not die, wait another year for me
just one more year
we might trade ideas for walking on the street
free of the hour and the banner ...
we have other tasks beside searching for graves and elegies
In 1986 Darwish had just moved to France and published two poetry collections and his artistically brilliant prose memoir of the siege of Beirut, Memory for Forgetfulness. In the first of these poetry volumes, he declared his aesthetic in the title It’s a Song, It’s a Song: “Nothing concerns it other than its cadence; a wind rising for itself to rise / and a fragility that checks in on the human within his relics.” It was “Time the poet killed himself,” he said in another poem from the same volume, “not for a reason other than to kill himself.” And pressing deeper, “Where is my humanity?”
The other collection from the same year, Fewer Roses, was less dialectic than its predecessor. Composed of fifty-one short lyrics (ten long lines each), Roses confirmed Darwish’s ripe resolve to shuffle cadence, voice, and dialogue, and to maintain a transformative, restless art, as though it were borne by gusts. Darwish had discovered the necessity for perpetual renewal of his poem: a song that anchors long enough to know itself, its reason for jubilance, before departing toward another reading, another writing. This conjuring of the phoenix from the latest, cooled-off ashes of exile would become a signal for an idea of return, a sublime aesthetic of resistance that Darwish would revisit in his work: a phoenix in search of its butterfly.
Around 1988, during the first Intifada, Darwish was a member of the executive council in the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Along with Edward Said, he was assigned the task of drafting a new charter toward peace. It was a prickly and odd time for Darwish, “for what is a poet doing there, there in the executive council?” he asked himself. In an essay titled “Before Writing My Resignation,” Darwish became uncomfortably aware how “the creative Palestinian is prohibited from the luxury of vacated and dedicated time for the sake of creativity, because this is bound to a direct cessation from patriotic activity. Yet prisoners grow flowers in their prison yards. And in front of the zinc huts mothers plant basil and mint. The creative person must create his flexible margin between the patriotic, the political, the daily, the cultural, and the literary. But what am I to do? What does a poet do in the executive council? Will I be able to write a book of love when color falls on the ground in autumn?"
Some time had to pass before Darwish would answer his question about a book of love. The first Intifada was another phoenix upon whose wings the poet soared higher and higher. This time Darwish was facing, as he had done before, a quintessential predicament for the poet: how to carry the “I” of the “we” without betraying one perception for the other. The result was two great epics of collective memory that display Darwish’s mastery of the long poem. In I See What I Want (1990), he captured what is mythic and visionary about return, oscillating between, on the one hand, the dream of “a stone scratching the sun” and, on the other hand, shedding “the skin of the earth” and flying “just to fly.” Eleven Planets (1992) expounded collective memory by invoking the voices of ancient and contemporary peoples. In it Darwish strewed the seeds of a universal voice—beginning with the Andalusian, sailing across the Atlantic to evoke the Native American, moving back in time to the Canaanite and the Greek, and ending with an Iraqi poet.
Perhaps it was what Darwish needed: to consume his self in the “we” of the “I” before leaping toward a new liberty. This emancipation came in 1996, following the bitter failure of the Oslo accords (over which he resigned from the PLO). He published his luminous, highly personalized account of place and nonplace: Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? is where the longtime courtship between self and other in his poetry crystallized into mystical union. That was the year the poet came home. After twenty-six years of exile from his native Galilee, he returned to Ramallah. There, he completed The Stranger’s Bed (1998), his book of love, the first of the three books translated in The Butterfly’s Burden. When, so soon after his return, The Stranger’s Bed appeared, many readers were ambivalent about—some alienated by—a book of love. Perhaps many expected a glorious eulogy for the new Palestinian state yet to come. They had often imagined his poetry as their love poetry, but here he was singing about love as a private exile, not about exile as a public love. Eventually readers embraced the book.
The Stranger’s Bed is a journey of, and through, voice. There is a delicate speech that gives birth to itself here. There is an “I” that overflows from the “you,” and a duality that merges beyond the narrow constructs of language. There is dialogue between masculine and feminine, prose and poetry, self and its others.
Not enough can be said about the metaphysics of identity in this book of love. An appeal to healing begins the collection: “We came / with the wind from Babylon / and we march to Babylon,” “Am I another you / and you another I?,” “Then let’s be kind.” The subtle dialogue between tone and cadence in poems such as “Low Sky” and “We Walk on the Bridge” ushers the tender musical exchange throughout the book, where even the mythic can be treated with “one cup of hot chamomile / and two aspirins.” And the sonnets—a stranger’s template for another’s vernacular—develop the spine that gives the book its sway as man and woman, poetry and prose, commune with each other. Duality (or the annihilation of it) becomes “the necessary clarity of our mutual puzzle.” In many respects The Stranger’s Bed is a conversation that, once begun, compels the reader through to its last utterance, uninterrupted, where the Familiar and the Stranger become “two in one.” Arabic love poetry is a primary wellspring here. Whether in the Jahili night, in Majnoon Laila and Jameel Bouthaina fourteen centuries ago, in a Sufi east or and Andalusian west, it has always had its roots in an exile that slackens the bind to “the gravity of identity’s land.”
One year after the publication of The Stranger's Bed, Darwish would have died from a sudden illness, had it not been for a lengthy stay in intensive care. Subsequently, he wrote his Mural (2000) as if it were to be his last work. In it he celebrated life: “Green is the land of my poem, green and high.” “All the arts have defeated you, Death.” “One day I will become what I want.” “And I want, I want to live.” Soon he began developing a more colloquial and conversational breadth in his writing. Then the terrible events of the second Intifada erupted. He was in Ramallah, and immediately found himself looking another Palestinian death in the eye, living another siege.
Comprising lyrical, journal-like entries, A State of Siege (2002) is witness not only to human suffering but also to art under duress, art in transmutation: “Our losses,” Darwish says, “from two martyrs to eight ... / and fifty olive trees, / in addition to the structural defect / that will afflict the poem and the play and the incomplete painting.” It is difficult not to draw a parallel to twenty years ago, when the siege of Beirut exalted the poet to search for what's beyond the siege. “Besiege your siege” was his famous cry in 1983’s Documentary Poem. Now he repeats the same words as a quiet but resolute one-line address “To poetry.” In the end, it was “the butterfly light, in / this tunnel’s night” that guided the poet out.
Similarly, the forty-seven short lyrics of Don’t Apologize for What You’ve Done (2003) are yet another incarnation/incantation of the poet after the carnage, just as Fewer Roses was seventeen years earlier. These lyrics (“In the Lust of Cadence”), however, are more varied in pace, tone, and music, grouping more distinctly into twos and threes or more, in dialogue with one another. They begin by reintroducing the self, weaving through place and time, constantly looking for a new powerful center, as in the stunning pentad of death that begins with “They Don’t Look Behind Them.” After that, “Cadence” continues its colloquial leap, often with refreshing and playful attention to the daily and the ordinary. Darwish then concludes his “Lust” in a wonderful hovering over the body of his exile, through another pentad sequence that lands him, once more, into the twins of exile and experience, poetry and Iraq.
The beautiful poems that constitute the latter part of The Butterfly’s Burden epitomize, in their discursive and lyrical conversation, the rich, incessant metamorphosis in Darwish’s oeuvre. In them language is loosened from being “an adjective of place,” and this language wants “from the thing only the transparency of the thing.” In further contrast to the poems of 1984, language also takes “revenge on absence.” Yet, whatever the transfigurations may be in Darwish’s poetry, and however tempestuous the calendar of his writing life, reading Darwish has always the constant of passage through his private vocabulary. It probably would take pages to catalog the words that recur—and how they recur—in his poems: anemones and lapis lazuli, gazelles and clouds, almond blossoms and rivers, mirrors and windows, abyss and olives, endlessness and its infinite chores...