"If I Were Another" by Mahmoud Darwish [BTBA 2010 Poetry Finalists]
If I Were Another by Mahmoud Darwish. Translated from the Arabic by Fady Joudah (Palestine, FSG)
This guest post is by Brandon Holmquest—poet, translator, and editor of CALQUE. Brandon is devoted to the reception and promotion of international poetry, so I’m really glad he was able to serve on the panel this year. And write up a couple books!
Translation has a lot of unintended consequences, like most human endeavor. Obviously it brings a given work, or the work of a given writer, to a new audience. At times, in doing so, it carries with it a literally “foreign” concept of poetry itself or, in the case of Mahmoud Darwish, of the poet as a social institution. It’s all well and good to say Darwish was “the national poet of Palestine,” but even a cursory examination of that statement reveals complications. For one, Palestine is not technically a nation at all, so how does that work, exactly? And so on.
Questions of this kind are germane to Darwish’s work, especially the late work. He was well aware of his role in Palestinian culture, as a representative, spokesman, voice, etc. He took that role and its responsibilities very seriously. Over time, this had a marked effect on his work, for example in his serious attempt to speak for and to all levels of Palestinian society, the doctors as well as the refugees, which lead him away from opacity and towards story-telling, parables, and other such devices.
This same phenomenon can be seen in the work of other poets who shared Darwish’s circumstances, writing to and for a people undergoing a difficult history. Zbigniew Herbert in Communist Poland, Nicanor Parra in Pinochet’s Chile. In such cases, what it means to simply be a poet is very different from anything we’ve experienced in this country in a very long time, perhaps since Whitman.
An American poet picking up Fady Joudah’s translations encounters this very quickly. Translation foregrounds the content of such work. All of these poems might well have been written in one or another complicated form. In Arabic, they may be in quantitative verse and rhyme like the devil himself. In English, they read like so:
If I were another on the road, I would not have looked
back, I would have said what one traveler said
to another: Stranger! awaken
the guitar more! Delay our tomorrow so our road
may extend and space may widen for us, and we may get rescued
from our story together: you are so much yourself . . . and I am
so much other than myself right here before you!
Well constructed, somewhat conservative free verse, which is pretty vanilla stuff in contemporary English-language poetics. The kind of poems people can “understand.”
And our hypothetical American poet either writes Darwish off, which would be stupid, or s/he takes a deep breath and starts to rethink some things, and maybe as a result that poet’s idea of the possible, the valid and the poetic expands.
Because, really, fifty million Elvis fans just can’t be wrong. And once that happens, things get very interesting very quickly. Once one accepts Darwish’s self-evident validity as a poet who says things, the next thing is to wrestle with what it is he’s saying.
It is here that If I Were Another becomes very valuable. It is a collection of Darwish’s very late work, very well and elegantly translated. As such, it contains some of his most intellectually and emotionally nuanced work. Poems you meditate over, argue with, or simply contemplate; poems that make statements in compact, associative and/or Aesopish way impossible for prose. Poems that, even in Joudah’s English, sound like pure Darwish.