The politics of poetry

Allan M. Jalon writes about books and culture for publications including the San Francisco Chronicle.

PALESTINIAN culture hasn't traveled easily to this country. Earlier this year, a show by Palestinian visual artists received dozens of rejections from American venues before getting a few invitations. In 2002, when the Al-Kasaba Theatre of Ramallah brought vignettes about daily life under Israeli occupation to New Haven, Conn., headlines erupted: Some Jews denounced the play as a Trojan horse for anti-Israel propaganda, demanding onstage panel discussions, while others embraced it as fine art.

Poetry rarely spurs that kind of controversy. Still, there's such a thing as provocative timing, and Copper Canyon Press shows it by publishing Palestinian poets Mahmoud Darwish's "The Butterfly's Burden" and Taha Muhammad Ali's "So What," works that sometimes feel like they could have been the narration for gruesome images broadcast from the Middle East in recent months:

When the fighter planes disappear, the doves fly

white, white. Washing the sky's cheek

with free wings, reclaiming splendor and sovereignty

of air and play. Higher and higher

the doves fly, white, white. I wish the sky

were real (a man passing between two bombs told me)

That's from Darwish's "A State of Siege," a stunning 2002 poem in short fragments that appears in "The Butterfly's Burden," a selection dating back to 1998 and translated by Fady Joudah. Darwish is well known for a long career at the crossroads of poetry and politics. In fact, this is the second book of his poems to appear in English this year, the first being "Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone?" translated by Jeffrey Sacks.

Ali, whose "So What" is Copper Canyon's expanded version of a book published in Israel, was born in 1931 and is well known to Palestinians, but his international career is only now being nurtured by Jewish, Arabic and American poets and editors. The book declares, one senses, the arrival of a Palestinian Robert Frost with a poetic-political sensibility. Somebody gave "So What" the right title. It's the name of the single, wonderful short story that follows the poems. It's also the title of the famous Miles Davis track, with which Ali's work shares a conversational, weary-yet-unyielding tone.

The cover shows a photograph of Ali's somber, lined face, the face of a man who writes:

I do not consider myself a pessimist,

and I certainly don't

suffer from the shock

of ancient Gypsy nightmares,

and yet, in the middle of the day,

whenever I turn on the radio,

or turn it off,

I breathe in a kind of historical,

theological leprosy.

The poem has a wittily grim title: "Postoperative Complications Following the Extraction of Memory."

Given Darwish's bombs and Ali's bursts of radio news, the faces both poems conjure bristle with the shock of unabsorbed loss. Yet the poets are like relatives with very different personalities. Darwish insists on a metaphorical, ego-driven, self-questioning complexity. Ali's poetic ego is more receptive than imposing, able to absorb complexity like clay. The simultaneous publication of Darwish's and Ali's books (each presents facing Arabic and English texts) offers a chance to compare a poet of the people with a shrewdly modest people's poet.

In fact, Darwish is seen as an unofficial national poet. Many Palestinians accept him as the one who translates their experiences for a larger world, one whose heroic view (assertively antiheroic too, conveyed by the image of a butterfly's fragile embrace of the "burden" of the book's title) reflects the arc of their history. He left, returned to and departed again from Al-Birwah, his hometown east of Acre, which was destroyed in the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. Jews celebrate that as the year in which Israel became a modern state, the moment of nationalist salvation. Palestinians -- including Darwish, in a speech one can find online -- call it "the catastrophe."

Darwish became active in the Israeli Communist party, the Rakah, and was also involved later (as editor of the party's newspaper) in its split between Arabic and Jewish members. He went to Moscow and spent time in Israeli prisons. The 1982 Israeli siege of Lebanon, his adopted home, started him on a wandering life; today he divides his time between Paris and the Middle East.

Palestinian poetry is often militantly political and rhetorical. But, as shown by English translations in Salma Khadra Jayyusi's eye-opening "Anthology of Modern Palestinian Literature," it can also be personal and lyrical. The doves Darwish often describes are birds of peace, but his images of clouds, ash and roads are full of ambivalence, one senses, between militancy and a conception of artistic neutrality.

Another Darwish poem, "The Coastal Road," is about "a road that leads to Egypt and Syria," a road of "conflict over anything," of "agreement over everything," a road on which "my ghost screams at me

Though he's 11 years older than Darwish, Ali has a similar story. The town he left, amid the 1948 conflict, was called Saffuriyya. The owner of a souvenir shop, he lives in Nazareth, according to an introduction by Gabriel Levin, who has translated "So What" with Peter Cole and Yahya Hijazi. Ali is free of Darwish's overt burden. Instead, he's the self-effacing, understated witness whose poetry feels a lot like prose, stories more than songs. He occasionally summons an alter-ego named Abd el-Hadi, who in one poem confesses to being morally changeable. Sometimes this character dreams of vengeance and is "about to explode," but "no sooner does the laughter of a child" reach him than he becomes a tender "fool" who talks to everyone and "takes the world to the hair of his chest like his daughter ..."

In "Abd el-Hadi Fights a Superpower," he goes on trial, it seems, as a terrorist. The poem is the defense by his lawyer, who explains that his client is such a fool that "were he to encounter / the entire crew / of the aircraft carrier Enterprise, he'd serve them eggs / sunny-side up, / and labneh [a kind of cheese] / fresh from the bag."

One touchstone of Abd el-Hadi's literary pedigree is Kafka's K., the everyman overwhelmed by injustice. Another is the Candide-like wanderer in Israeli-Arabic writer Emile Habibi's pioneering 1972 comic novel, "The Secret Life of Saeed the Ill-Fated Pessoptimist." "So What," Ali's concluding story, is about a poor boy who longs for a pair of shoes and defies reason itself to own them. It is almost as good, in its version of the folkloric sense made modern, as Bernard Malamud's best work. If Ali's other stories (he has published several in Arabic) are this good, his poems deserve a respectable but lesser status in his oeuvre.

Maybe these two books will expand awareness of literary roads that many readers in this country haven't traveled. "We hope to humanize the news from the Middle East," Copper Canyon officials announced as they promoted an American reading tour by Ali this fall, after an awful summer of violence in the region that was enough to make even the toughest pessoptimists lose the second half of their bifocal view. *

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