A Critical Tribute to the Poet of Exile

By Lynne Rogers

Mahmoud Darwish: Exile’s Poet, Critical Essays

Edited by Hala Khamis Nasser and Najat Rahman

Olive Branch Press, 2008. 377 pp.

When the world’s most popular poet passed away in a hospital in Texas last year, the American media hardly noticed. Nevertheless, admired in Europe, particularly in France, one of his adopted homelands, and revered in Ramallah as the voice of Palestine, the prolific oeuvre of Mahmoud Darwish has been readily available in English thanks to his dedicated translators. Now a critical collection of 12 essays explores the evolution of Darwish’s poetry. In her forward, poet and editor Salma Khadra Jayyusi acknowledges both Darwish’s position as the poet of Palestinian identity--connecting the tragedy of his exile with the collective of the Palestinian people--as well as a modern poet who sheds “light on the universal experience of man.” In their introduction, Hala Khamis Nasser and Najat Rahman stress that “Exile, in one form or another, has always been at the heart of his creation,” and, “It is precisely the fragility of poetry that allows a space of possibility for those historically silenced.”

The first essay by Bassam K. Frangieh contextualizes Darwish’s poetry within the frame of modern Arabic poetry, identifying major themes and motifs, as these poets “give the people the vision that might change positively their social and political conditions.” Rahman’s essay looks at Darwish’s poetry after the Israeli siege of Beirut in 1982, a dramatic period of a second displacement for Palestinians, when Darwish’s poetic responses introduced the idea that “exile as perpetual,” and declared that “home is no longer constituted by land or people but by the possibility of a poetic gathering of voices.”

Faysal Darraj identifies several stages in Darwish’s evolution from a national poet to a poet “pleading for peace and reconciliation.” Sulaiman Jubran charts three stages in Darwish’s poetry by examining his use of the father. In a close look at his love poems, Subbi Hadidi, the Syrian critic whom Darwish characterized as the best writer on him, points out the “sociological concerns” and the predominate theme of “lovers who are strangers to one another.” In a very close reading of both form and format, Reuven Snir illuminates the paradigms of Al-Andalusia and biblical figures as Darwish converses with the past and other poets. Looking at Darwish’s deconstruction of biblical figures, Angelika Neuwirth highlights Darwish’s 1980 move to distance himself “from the martyr.”

The cosmopolitan Darwish spent his exile in both Arab and European cities, and Hala Nasser explains how he uses these cities metaphorically to reflect his yearning, his disillusionment, and his search for self. Sinan Antoon’s essay, almost a “p(r)oem” in and of itself, acknowledges Darwish as “one of a few poets still able to successfully inhabit the Arabic tradition, yet who always manages to take it to new horizons.” Antoon illuminates how the technical detail of language and the infrastructure of the collection “Do Not Apologize for What You Have Done,” voice Darwish’s defiant celebration of the journey. Jeffrey Sacks gives an informed summary of previous Arabic poetry critics Yumna al-Eid and Adonis as a preface to his own dazzling reading of the multiple sieges in Darwish’s “State of Siege.” For Ipek Azime Celik, Darwish re-presents the past as a “cultural product comprising heterogeneous anarchical components” and Stuart Reigeluth compares the repetition and return in Darwish with Mourid Barghouti, also a Palestinian writer. The collection closes with a frank 2005 interview with Darwish on his work.

In “Exile’s Poet, Critical Essays,” most of the scholars have been involved in translation, and they patiently explain the complexities of the original Arabic for the English reader, making this collection a valuable library addition and ideal for those who teach world literature in English. Admittedly, some essays are overloaded with jargon which may put off the purist poetry readers, but the heavy use of literary theory also testifies to the depth of Darwish’s talent as a poet who continually enriches. This academic collection, which grew out of a panel at Middle Eastern Studies Association conference, provides an array of secondary sources, some jewels of information in the endnotes and an extensive bibliography of cited works.

This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 15, no. 60 (2009)

Copyright (c) 2009 by Al Jadid