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from the April 2021 issue

Najwan Darwish’s Poems Turn Self-Doubt into Inner Resolve in “Exhausted on the Cross”

Reviewed by Kevin Blankinship

A feeling of resignation haunts the verses of this celebrated Palestinian writer, but weariness becomes an improbable source of strength in his work.

Do Palestinian authors speak for their people, or for themselves? Should they write about politics, and if so, how? These dilemmas face many “resistance poets,” but especially Najwan Darwish, who burst onto the world stage in 2000 with his first collection, Kaan yaduqq al-baab al-akhiir (He Knocked the Final Door), and who had his English debut with a volume of selected poems in translation, Nothing More to Lose (NYRB Poets, 2014). Since then, he has been translated into ten languages and garnered praise from writers and critics like Issa J. Boullata and Raúl Zurita. Given such a meteoric flight, some might ask: what about Darwish’s poetry is universal, and what about it is local?

One glimpses the answer in his second collection to be published in English, Exhausted on the Cross, which came out this past February in Kareem James Abu-Zeid’s translation. It’s quieter and more inward-facing than Nothing More (also translated by Abu-Zeid for the NYRB). Politics takes on a broader meaning: from a mundane breakfast of oil and bread to the opulence of medieval Baghdad, Darwish’s capacious vision affirms the plight of his people, but is never confined by it. To steal a phrase from American epigrammatist J.V. Cunningham, the poet appears “weary but composed,” drawing on self-doubt as a source of strength. In sum, he speaks for Palestinians even as he speaks for himself.   

True, a tone of resignation does echo in many poems. No doubt this comes from “the tedium of endless occupation,” as Abu-Zeid says in his translator’s afterword. But Darwish trades the cynicism of Nothing More for a hopeful assent to what life under occupation brings. In the poem “A Short Story About the Closing of the Sea,” he peers through the eyes of a boy named Tayseer, who desperately wants to swim at the Port of Gaza. “When the curfew’s lifted, we’ll take you to the sea,” his family tells him. But in an absurdist turn, the curfew finally lifts, only to have his family say, “The sea’s closed now, go to sleep.” Unfazed by the uphill struggle, this little Sisyphus is still holding out by the end of the poem, “eyes gleaming with all the world’s promises.” One imagines Darwish himself sharing the sentiment.

Still, the exhaustion lingers, and it leads to self-reproach when Darwish feels powerless against it. The poem “In Shatila” imagines an old woman amid the squalor of a refugee settlement. The poet can’t bear the sight anymore, so he smiles and turns away. Then he asks a furious question to himself:

How could you smile, indifferent

to the brackish water of the sea

while the barbed wire wrapped around your heart?

How could you,

you son of a bitch?

Paradoxically, when Darwish succumbs to the weight of reality, he starts to wonder if he himself is real. In the poem “Equivocation,” he says, “I don’t have a brother. / My parents never had another child—/ in truth, they never had any.” In another poem, “The Boy of Olives,” he writes, “my story is I have no story; I’m just words.” Darwish’s self-doubt shrivels and shrinks him until he becomes his own ghost, a prospect that recalls words from the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (no relation):

I gaze like a balcony upon what I want

I gaze upon my specter

coming

from

a distance …

The self-effacing, self-effaced side of Darwish is just one of the apparitions that haunt Exhausted. Others include the ghost of a friend in “A Shadow from Martinique,” and that of Iraqi poet Abdel Amir Jaras, encountered while Darwish thumbs through faded notebooks. There’s a magical realist quality to these poems, as in “The Appearances of Taha Mohammad Ali,” where Darwish reads verses by a Palestinian poet of his grandparents’ generation and wonders how he came to be “wiping my grandmother’s tears from my cheeks.”

But turned another way, the poet’s doubts about reality—especially his own place in it—make him into a force of nature, expanding outwards in all directions until he’s no longer distinct from anything else. He becomes a Whitman-like container of multitudes: now a slave in ancient Egypt, now the bohemian poet Abu Nuwas, now a soldier in disguise.

Other times, it is Darwish who stays put and the world that comes to him. In “Four Meters,” he describes a square room:

In it you could find the northern face of the Caucasus

and the green shadows of Ararat, and all those graveyards

I always avoided, not wanting to know the names on the

                 tombs

At these moments of strength diffused outward, Darwish takes on a mystical quality, filling up the universe and fading into it at the same time (and not without some onomastic irony; his family name is the Arabic way of saying dervish).

In fact, it is Darwish’s identity with another mystic that best seems to capture his stance in Exhausted and his overall public role. In a prose poem called “A Story from Shiraz,” he describes the legendary fourteenth-century encounter between Turco-Mongol warlord Tamerlane and Persian Sufi poet Hafez. Tamerlane is troubled by a verse from Hafez that says he would give up Samarkand and Bukhara—the two grandest capitals of the realm—for just two beauty marks on the face of the beloved, who in a mystical context stands for Deity. The world-conqueror summons Hafez, worn down and dressed in rags, and asks how he could so easily give up worldly extravagance.

The poet, surrounded by carnage and burning streets, flashes a knowing smile. “The extravagance of which you speak has put me in my present state,” he retorts, exposing Tamerlane’s sweeping conquests for the hellscape that they are. Darwish takes this faraway moment of wry defiance as a badge for Palestinian opposition. “You’re still resisting,” ask the invaders, “in such a wretched state?” To which Darwish/Hafez replies:

   We’re still able to respond,

   and we’re still smiling

   and laughing

   and taking you unawares,

   you—

   the defeated entourage.

With an honest if disquieting turn, the poet no longer seeks martial victory because he knows it’s impossible. Ruination is assured, and the best Darwish can do now is conquer his own despair by maintaining composure. “Who’s the bravest in defeat?” he asks in the poem “In Defeat.” “Who’s the foremost in falling back?” With what strength he can summon, he raises his defeated banner—the title of another poem—and claims the dignity in turmoil that is all he and his people have left.

Here is the force behind the book’s governing symbol of crucifixion, a favorite trope of 1950s Arabic modernist poets (like Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and Salah Abd al-Sabur) for its embodiment of collective suffering. In “They Awoke You at Dawn,” dedicated to one Rasmea Odeh, Darwish imagines Christ as a Palestinian freedom fighter (fedayee) and the dedicatee as being hoisted onto her cross day after day. In the poem that gives Exhausted its title, he prays for an end to Palestine’s crucifixion-like anguish. But Darwish is no mere spectator—in the opening line, he places himself on the gibbet with his people:

The ones hanging

are tired,

so bring us down

and give us some rest.

And in “To This Very Moment,” he makes the connection sublimely complete:

   I can hear them pounding in the nails,

   their joy boundless…

   I’m sleeping in the shade

   while they,        

   in the swelter of the midday sun,

   continue to crucify me.

Yet rather than labor under delusions of self-sacrifice, Darwish does not endure for his people, but with them. The plural pronoun—“bring us down, give us some rest”—is paramount. His crucifixion is their crucifixion, just as his salvation is theirs, too. In seeing his own fate tied to Palestine’s, he understands that resignation and self-doubt, once a reason to question his own role and even his own reality, have come full circle and turned into a source of inner resolve.

In the end, given the nature of literary history, Darwish will be remembered for poems that speak directly to the politics of the Palestinian struggle. But to ignore everything else—and there is much more—does him a real disservice. As fellow countryman and artistic forebearer Mahmoud Darwish wrote in the Summer 2000 issue of Banipal, the same year that Najwan Darwish published his first work: “Poetry is born of the first astonishments at life, when nascent humanity wondered at the first mysteries of existence. In this way, the universal is, from the very beginning, local.”

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