I won’t “review” the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s Mural, which contains the gorgeous 45-page title poem and a second, shorter poem, “The Dice Player,” both brought over into vigorous English by Rema Hammami and John Berger. “Mural” was written after Darwish underwent a life-threatening surgical procedure, and the poem bears the scars of that crisis; “The Dice Player,” his last poem, the poet read publicly in Ramallah just a month before his death on August 9, 2008. Both are powerful, but “Mural” is the more capacious, a sprawling meditation on poetry, mortality, identity, and tradition. Both poems share an urgent, questioning spirit that invests them with surprising turns and a tantalizing open-endedness. Darwish is nothing if not a poet of desire whose longings—personal, political, artistic—seem to demand honesty above resolution.
Here are a few excerpts, flagged at random as I read. All are from “Mural,” where Darwish’s taste for aphoristic questioning is frequently on display:
Am I a performer?
or the dupe who changed the lines to live the post-modern
when the writer deserts his text and both actor and audience leaves?
I sit behind the door and watch:
Am I him?
It’s my language
Its voice has the sting of my blood
but the author is someone else
I am not me if I come and don’t arrive
if I speak and don’t utter
I am the one to whom dark letters say:
Write to be!
Read to discover!
And if you wish to speak do so
with your opposites united in meaning . . .
and your transparent self the main verse
Perhaps something in myself rejects me
From where does poetry come?
Fro the heart’s intelligence
from a hunch about the unknown
or from a rose in the desert?
The personal is not personal
and the universal not universal
I suppose I am I supposed I’m not
The more I listen to my heart the more I’m filled with the words of the unseen
and lifted high to the treetops
I flyu aimless from dream to dream
Belonging to a thousand years of poetry
born in the darkness of white linen
I don’t know who amongst us was I
and who the dream
Am I my dream?
When the heart dries up
aesthetics become geometric
feelings wear cloaks
I have of memories only those necessary for the long journey
Days contain all they need of tomorrows
I saw myself like Christ on the lake . . .
But I came down from the cross because of my fear of heights
I don’t think it was me who wrote the poem
I just obeyed its rhythm:
the flow of feelings each affecting the next
meaning given by intuition
a trance in the echoing words
the image of myself taken from me and given to another
with no one to help me
and my longing for the source
It’s only fair to note that “Mural” has appeared in English already, translated by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché in Unfortunately, It Was Paradise: Selected Poems. That version, though, is distressingly pedestrian by comparison with the Hammami and Berger’s. The poem’s opening lines illustrate the difference. First, Hammami and Berger:
Here is your name
said the woman
and vanished in the corridor
A hand’s reach away I see heaven
a dove’s white wing transporting me to another childhood
and I don’t dream that I’m dreaming
Everything is real
I meet myself at my side
Now Akash and Forché:
This is your name, she said
and vanished into the spiral corridor . . .
I see a heaven within reach. A white pigeon’s wing lifts me toward
another childhood. I didn’t dream that I had been
dreaming—everything is real.
Clearly, I laid myself to rest and flew.
The dampening of Darwish’s intensity in the second example continues throughout the poem. I have no idea which version is more accurate, but only Hammami and Berger’s rises to the level of poetry.