A Fortnightly Review.
By MANASH FIRAQ BHATTACHARJEE.
PALESTINIAN POET NAJWAN Darwish’s new collection, Exhausted on the Cross (New York Review Books , 2021), picks up from where he left off in Nothing More to Lose (NYRB, 2014). The journey of the refugee poet exiled in his homeland (unlike the famous European emigrant poets of the twentieth century, who fled from dictatorships to America), plumbs new depths of despair as the poet describes his precarious and fragile relationship with home and history. Experience is often registered as a stupor, a feeling of “nonexistence”, rather than an affirmation of being. The poet feels robbed of his own world.
Kareem James Abu-Zeid’s translation adds an easy, flowing quality to the terseness of Darwish’s language. Reading the book in the backdrop of recent Israeli airstrikes on Palestinians in Gaza, the grief and hopelessness in these poems hits you with fresh intensity.
Darwish is not at home anywhere in the world. I am tempted to say he is at least at home in his poetry. But I am not too sure. Reading Darwish, one feels that for him poetry is the safest place to record his woes. Safest, because only in poetry are you one with your voice, as poetry alone understands you, and where you can abandon yourself without the necessity to be true to anything except your heart. I am, nevertheless, not sure if the poet is completely at home in poetry. For Darwish, home and poetry are different things. He is exiled in poetry.
In a short poem, “Without”, declaring an existential loneliness of his being in the world, bereft of familial ties, Darwish writes: “I lived without” — in a void, deprived of the anchors that sustain life. It is a negative expression of freedom, which is measured against what one doesn’t have, of living with absences and losses: a suffocating loneliness of freedom.
Darwish transports this loneliness to the figure of Christ. In the title poem, “Exhausted on the Cross”, the poet draws his symbolic cultural ancestry with Christ who was also a refugee, his fate similarly chased by history.
Najwan writes: “We drag histories behind us / here / where there is neither land / nor sky.” History appears in a double sense, as real and symbolic. The word drag evokes the image of Christ dragging the cross along, the way Palestinians drag the burden of historical fate. Space has shrunk and disappeared from the horizon, and below one’s feet.
Immediately after, Darwish dissociates from the figure he invokes: “You loved no one / and no one ever abandoned you / and death never ate from your hands. / You cannot know our pain.” Christ did not suffer the pangs of either companionship or abandonment. He did not face the ordinary vulnerability of death. Lack of these experiences debars Christ, according to the poet, from understanding the plight of Palestinians. This existential difference is further intensified in another poem, where Darwish writes,
Christ was a fedayee, just like you,
but he was condemned and crucified
in the sea of a single day, while you –
your cross is raised with every dawn.
This is a provocative interpretation. The aim of political violence associated with the fedayee finds no equivalent correspondence in Christ, who risked his life for an idea nonviolently. Darwish perhaps associates them through the element of sacrifice. It is also true that the act of crucifixion treats the messiah as a dangerous figure.
On the question of identity, the late Mahmoud Darwish, Palestine’s most illustrious poet (and no relation to Najwan Darwish), had made a counter-affirmation in his signature poem, “ID Card“, where he represented himself as a Palestinian who is reduced to a legal fiction, an Arab refugee with a peasant ancestry facing prejudice and persecution.
Najwan Darwish does not find much hope left in affirming one’s identity just politically. He draws the figure of the Palestinian refugee as someone who is more complex and bleak at the same time, complex due to a cultural inheritance that is both Islamic and Christian. Bleak in the sense of having one’s home stolen by the devious designs of settler colonialism.
“I know I’ve got nothing left – ”, Darwish writes in the poem, “Thieves”, “all my food was eaten by thieves”. Thieves are both metaphor and reality.
The thieves also enforce a self-questioning on the Palestinian. In “A Question”, Darwish asks his people, “If you are not, / then who is?” The question is suggestive and layered, with the poet asking it even of those among his people whom he disapproves. The question is existential: If you do not think much of yourself, if you are self-erasing and self-abasing, then what will become of you, and us? Do you have less pride than the thieves?
The permanent condition of destitution where your home has been stolen from you, and your presence is daily eroded by bulldozers, has terrible consequences for language. In”The Sea”, Darwish offers us the gnawing paradox of that condition: “Hope delivered to despair, / despair delivered from hope.” The heart is a lonely sea surrounded by despair, holding on to the last tree of hope. Darwish’s people face what the French writer, Christian Salmon, writing in Le Monde Diplomatique in 2002, called “the first war to be waged with bulldozers… war in the age of agoraphobia, a fear of open spaces, seeking not the division of territory but its abolition.” These Israeli bulldozers are relentlessly tearing down olive trees and Palestinians homes alike. The intention is not simply to destroy lives and livelihood, the material objects of existence, but to also erase the memory of a people, and sever their ties with the land. Darwish ends the poem “From the Rubble” with an ironic sense of defiance, “Fate wrecked us, / but still we emerge from the rubble / with satisfaction on our faces.”
The poet registers frequent bouts of hallucination. “On a Train to Aswan”, he writes, “I am not dead yet, / so why are the mourners here?” There is fear that death might arrive in advance. The more palpable fact is that mourning has an overwhelming presence in the lives of Palestinians.
In “Sometimes I Wake Up”, Darwish writes: “Sometimes I wake up from sleep / to find a thousand years have passed.” Or take these lines in “Enough”: “I have so many friends / sleeping in tombs from different ages – / at night I tell them stories, / more often than I should.”
To find oneself in an unrecognizable time suggests a state of nightmare, where time refuses to pass, yet also appears radically distant. A thousand years passes in one night. Familiar people from other times visit you in your sleep. Time is not disembodied and abstract. Time runs in the body. The body, in turn, wants to leap out of the oppressive time of the present. Under the condition of exile, you feel deprived of the present that is territorialised. We become migrants in sleep. Dreams help us cross borders. It is a metaphysical solace of the refugee condition. Dreams are the only refuge. There is no exit. Darwish is caught within the land of his memory.
In his meditation on time in the poem “Burnt Norton”, T.S Eliot weaves the meaning of the present and its various patterns, where the past and future converge. The present is our only time. Eliot writes: “Only through time time is conquered.” Only through the present are other times available to us. For Octavio Paz, the present is the “meeting place” between different times, and “the source of presences”. Darwish raises a different question in his poetry: what if the present is a time out of joint, a time out of reach? How to record the present in exile?
Memory is the return of the dead, and sleep is a river of time that returns the dead to us. Darwish wants his friends who died to be alive enough to hear him. Since language is a struggle against forgetting, the present must keep alive its ties with the past. Exile disrupts the relationship between memory/time and language. It makes you feel alone in the world. In the poem, ‘The Boy of Olives”, Darwish writes, “My story is I have no story… I’m merely words / a boy recited / on the Mount of Loves.”
The arcadia of peace and belonging that thrived on childhood whispers and confessions lie forever broken. The poet’s boyhood memory has blurred beneath the collective condition of overwhelming loss.
Darwish divides his life between Jerusalem and Haifa, after his family was exiled thirty years before he was born. In “A Song for Mount Carmel”, a mountain range, Darwish writes, “My Haifa’s my exile /and the sea’s still in chains.” Darwish’s Haifa is the Haifa he carries in his heart. His Jerusalem is another Jerusalem, where gods lived happily in the same neighbourhood, until their ties were disrupted by settler colonialism.
In the face of erasures that are political in nature and involve his fate and that of his people, Darwish must assert the most ancient proof of being on earth: the word. He says in a poem, “Write a single word / before you leave.”
Does this word echo Osip Mandelstam’s “blessed word” that would be pronounced in a city after St. Petersburg, after it was resurrected to its old glory? Darwish would like a new sun to rise in Haifa and Jerusalem that shall return him to the past before they were robbed from his people.
But the word he demands from his people right now is the singular, unrepeatable word of the witness. “Write it,” Darwish says, “the one that shuns you / and slips from your embrace.”
The most reluctant word, the one that is trying to escape, is the one that is nearest to describing one’s difficult existence on earth. Darwish exhorts his people to register it on the blank page. If you are defeated by the designs of history, you must remain undefeated in language.
Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is a poet and writer. He is the author of The Town Slowly Empties: On Life and Culture during Lockdown (Headpress, Copper Coin, 2021). His poems have appeared in World Literature Today, Rattle, The London Magazine, New Welsh Review, Mudlark, Acumen, Hobart, Glass: A Review of Poetry, and other publications. His first collection of poetry, Ghalib’s Tomb and Other Poems (2013) was published by London Magazine Editions.