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Unfortunately, It Was Paradise: Selected Poems
University of California Press, 2003
208 pp., $26.95
Without an Alphabet, Without a Face: Selected Poems
Graywolf Press, 2002
216 pp., $16.00
Alienation and isolation, yes, but martyrdom and exile are not major themes in English poetry. With the spectacular exceptions of Byron, Shelley, and Ezra Pound, our poets have been perhaps émigrés or tourists but certainly not Dante at the table of strangers. Martyrs are even harder to find. There's James Graham, Royalist martyr, who wrote a metrical prayer on the eve of his execution, John Brown, and of course all those Irish ballad heroes in the Roddy McCorley vein. Nameless martyrs and poets without a country are largely a 20th-century bequest.
The Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish and the Iraqi socialist Saadi Youssef both write from exile, from inside the Middle East, that land where knowledge of the other goes just so far, and no farther. Darwish is exiled from an exiled nation; Youssef's Iraq is, for all its scars and ruins, one of the oldest places on earth. Both poets have been recently collected in English; neither poet is comfortable to encounter.
Unfortunately, It Was Paradise, a selection of poems by Mahmoud Darwish, was translated from the Arabic by a small committee: Munir Akash, the American poet Carolyn Forché, with Sinan Antoon and Amira El-Zein. It contains work from five of Darwish's books published since 1986 (he's published 20 as of 2000), plus three poems written earlier in his career.
I have no sense from the introduction what Darwish's poems are like in Arabic. Judging from the translations, they are classically rhetorical, singing of love and loss (the beloved often the land itself) often in several voices. The longer poems are held together with periodic repeated lines, sometimes varied. Rather than describe the formal aspects of his verse, Carolyn Forché dwells upon the poet's hugely popular espousal of the "poetry of resistance," which she characterizes as an attempt to restore the Palestinian homeland through language. She places him in a poetic class with Federico Garcia Lorca, Pablo Neruda, Osip Mandelstam, Yehuda Amichai, and C.P. ...