If I Were Another
by Mahmoud Darwish

Reviewed by Jane Lewty


Published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2011   |   201 pages

In this unique and mesmerizing collection, Fady Joudah has illuminated the work of a writer who exceeds poetic communicability in his role as “an embodiment of exile, as both existential and metaphysical state” wherein “the ‘I’ is interchangeable with (and not split from) its other.” To absorb If I Were Another in its entirety is a rare experience, one that can only be matched by complete immersion in another person, cause, or idea. More specifically, the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish has the power to transfix and exhilarate, but the unquantifiable pain of knowing is always present as well. The reader cannot turn away from myth and history, or the ways in which it is channeled: myth, manifesto, lyric beauty, symbol, voice, dream, metaphysics. If, as Darwish stated, “a poet is made up of a thousand poets,” then the task of his reader is to be just as malleable, to contribute to the exegesis of his work by not simply orbiting around it but allowing his voice to speak to, and for, one’s smallest and largest concerns. Through a discourse of exile that blends the pre-biblical past with an ever-shifting present, Darwish is a voice for the Palestinian people, whose land is interchangeable with, and celebrated in, its language.

Darwish’s earlier books, I See What I Want (1990) and Eleven Planets (1992), display this eliding, transfiguring self: the singular to the collective, the private to the public, interior reflection to historical narrative. Uniting the two modes is an intuitive, musical utterance that is ever aware of its own circular rhythm: “Be patient, be patient and you will hear echo’s reverberation,” “Hero, bloodied with long beginnings, tell us: how many times will our journey be the beginning?”

Joudah notes recurrent images throughout Darwish’s canon, such as wheat, wells, doves, anemones and more. They serve as signposts to the whole but also point to the “dissembling/reassembling” or the poet’s subversion of language that constantly strives to disclose truth in its reiteration. Even though “the poem takes us/through the needle’s eye to weave, for space, the aba of the new horizon,” Darwish constantly acknowledges that “[e]xtreme clarity is a mystery” and, therefore, all the poet can really say is “I am distant from what I speak.” In the poem “In exodus I love you more” he writes, “soon/you will lock up the city. I have no heart in your hands, no/road carries me, and in exodus I love you more.”

Darwish’s masterpiece, Mural (2000), a tripartite poem that engages with death—as illusion, fact, concept, metaphor, and visceral experience—cannot be overestimated as a seminal work of the twentieth century. The voice of the poet is quotidian, shifting and morphing into its “others” in the search for the “I,” the “horizontal name” and that which it symbolizes: “I am the prey and the arrow/I am the words, the one who commemorates,/I am the muezzin and the martyr.” The repeated phrases “One day I will become what I want” and “I seem to be and not be” portray the wandering space of near-death as akin to the “unknown” of exile, how the “temporary body [of a man, of a people] absent or present” is always hoping to say “mine,” whether it be a name scratched on a coffin or a lost land. Irrespective, the poet must realize that “now that I have been filled/with all the reasons of departure/I am not mine/I am not mine/I am not mine.”

In building on Edward Said’s remark that Darwish was a playwright at heart, Joudah describes his development of the long poem as a “lyric epic sui generis,” amassing “a private lexicon of sorrow and praise” driven by metaphor into a collage of speech. His late style is exemplified in Exile (2005), a four-part sequence wherein the wandering self, the “I” is discovered once again, though embodied by the pre-Islamic Arab poet Tarafah Ibn el-Abd, who offers “imagination’s return to the real” and, once again, a return to one’s beginnings. The language of Darwish’s late style is more informal, colloquial and expository: “New York, November, Fifth Avenue,/the sun a shattered metal saucer,/I said to my estranged self in the shade/Is this Sodom or Babylon?” The “congestion of symbol with its opposites” is replaced with a directness born of wisdom and experiment. Throughout, an agile mix of registers allows for satire and wit alongside stark, all-encompassing fact: “[t]he shadow . . . at times it has the scent of garlic/other times the scent of blood,” but a mere two lines later, we are reminded that “every place/far from God or his land is exile.”

The legacy of Darwish is such that comparisons should not be lightly made; however, referring once again to the idea of his reader and the anxiety of knowing or not knowing, the plays of Samuel Beckett come to mind. When Krapp hears his own voice describing the fire in him that is now lost, or when Molloy talks of the dream silence full of murmurs and says he will go on without being able to, we understand that this is a muted moment of epiphany, an elegy to life only experienced when loss or death is truly faced. Reading the lyric intensity of Darwish’s work is at once revelatory in its portrait of humanity but also shattering in the sense that we are not there yet. We have to read and re-read in order to feel every nuance of sensibility, and—whether or not we have experienced loss—to say, with the poet, “I don’t completely know myself” nor do I comprehend my place in the world.

Joudah describes If I Were Another as the “culmination of an entire life in dialogue” with itself and its selves. It is also an elegiac opus that defines the nature of elegy—the circular rehearsal of trauma, self-abnegation and questioning, detachment, praise, and the search for consolation. If a work of mourning includes those facets, and many more, then translation may also be termed a site of memory, or as Darwish says, bringing forth “myself a second time around.” With generosity and brilliance, Joudah has raised the voice of a poet who speaks for the dispossessed across centuries and millennia of event, and who will continue to do so.

Jane Lewty recently completed her M.F.A in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She also served as a postdoctoral fellow at University College, London, and assistant professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa. She is the co-editor of Broadcasting Modernism (University Press of Florida, 2009), and Pornotopias: Image Apocalypse, Desire (Litteraria Pragensia, 2009) Her reviews, essays, and poetry have appeared in several magazines and anthologies.

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