Darwish in Orbit: A Celebration of Longing

By Zaid Shlah

The Butterflys Burden
By Mahmoud Darwish
Translated by Fady Joudah
Copper Canyon Press, 2007

The poetry of Mahmoud Darwish is as fundamental a gift to the Arab world as Wole Soyinka’s work is to Nigeria or Derek Walcott’s poems are to the West Indies.  However, Darwish is not as well known in the U.S. as they are, which makes Fady Joudah’s  translation of “The Butterfly’s Burden” all the more important. It acts as a conduit, inviting the reader of English to take a journey into the consciousness and history of the Arab and Palestinian people. 

The poetry is offered up as mirror to humanity, a reflection that refutes the intransigent realities of myth, identity, exile, love, loss and language that are all too often passively accepted. This particular mirror resists, for example, the West’s conjecture about Syria, and instead reveals it as “…Damascus: / [where] speech returns to its origins.”  Though Darwish made this offering, Joudah brought it to us, and history demands we take it in. The reader’s rewards, as one might expect with a major poet, are not merely those of an innovative aesthetic, an evocative line, or even a few sage bits of wisdom.  The language itself is a force for shifting paradigms.

One is welcome to take pleasure from the raw canvas: “…she lifts her dress off her calf cloud by cloud,” or delight in the surprise of language from the poem “Like a Mysterious Incident”: “When poetry is obstinate I sketch / a few traps on the rocks to hunt the grouse,” or even become startled by the self-deprecating tone from “A State of Siege”:

          This rhyme was not

          necessary, not for melody

          or for the economy of pain

          it is additional

          like flies at the dining table

However, surely the poet is there to light the way to something beyond the force of his craft. His lexicon is large; it contains, for example, the brilliance of “anemones,” “lapis,” “Jahili poetry.” The observant reader will marvel at the subtle execution of tropes: conceit, absence, persona and metonymy, as well as a dialectic about myth, war, identity, language and love. Getting one’s head around the scope of Darwish’s work is its own odyssey, but Joudah’s translation is diligent enough for the reader to get more than just an approximation; rather, the reader gains the ability to discern the natural progression of Darwish’s poetry and “The Butterfly Burden’s” place within it.

The poet’s rich metaphors, the use of enjambment and the fluidity of his style would ostensibly make it difficult to translate from the Arabic. So it is testament to Darwish and Joudah that the “twinning” of metaphor and cadence, of “prose and poetry,” of “experience and exile” are consistently and accurately presented throughout the three volumes of this work. This way the reader can trace the newly rendered English lexicon backwards and forwards along its cyclical path. The reader also has the benefit of comparing the physical structure of the translations in their original Arabic in side-by- side translation.

In these three translated volumes, and in particular “Don’t Apologize for What You’ve Done,” Darwish’s themes are presented from slightly different positions in a more discursive line, and as an aggregation of specific treatments where the reader is asked to intuit the whole. Though discrepancies in diction and rhythm might occur, this is the nature of translation. Joudah must be commended because, with the aid of his poet’s ear, he has not yielded to caprice, but rather been sincere in his effort to understand Darwish’s lexicon completely.

Regretfully, this reviewer must stop short before adequately delving into any one of Darwish’s poems, but the journey remains: to Syria or Andalus, Egypt or Tunisia, in discussion with a poet, a soldier or a lover, from “your ‘I’ to your else / and your vision to your steps” – a place that beckons the necessary imagination. No matter where these poems begin or end, they are also a celebration of longing – “that inexplicable longing / that makes a thing into a specter, and / makes a specter into a thing.”


This review appears in Al Jadid, Vols. 13/14, nos. 58/59 (2007/2008)

Copyright (c) 2007-2008 by Al Jadid