The most celebrated contemporary Arab poet—he once drew 25,000 people to a reading—the 61-year-old Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish has been a bane to the Israeli authorities ever since, as an eight-year-old schoolboy, he read a poem of lamentation on the second anniversary of the Jewish state’s founding. Exiled for 25 years and now living in the West Bank, Darwish writes with an intensely elegiac and bittersweet focus on the exile’s interiority, whose country “is a country of words.”
Though he is quoted by intifadans, he writes first and foremost as a poet, not as an ideologue. What renders his writing political is the way that it resonates against the oppression created by an occupying government, which may limit an abject populace, but is helpless before Darwish’s imagination, where “a door is a door yet I can walk out within me,” allowing the poet to “achieve the rightness of butterflies.”
Darwish chose to return to his embattled homeland, one increasingly bereft of its rightful inhabitants and their homes. (His own village was bulldozed by the Israelis.) Unfortunately, It Was Paradise offers poems, rooted in ancient traditions, that map his voyage as a Palestinian and poet—equally problematic identities. In both, absence, the exile’s shadow, remains a visceral presence, “piling up its chosen objects/and pitching its eternal tent around us.” His poems may seem drenched in irredeemable nostalgia, but they are themselves exiled from self-pity by the poet, “distant even from my distance.” With a brilliant detachment that is anything but clinical—the contradictory appanage of the true poet—his lyrics are resolutely clear-eyed: “I am the dreamer’s speech, having forsaken body and soul/To continue my first journey to what set me on fire and vanished.”
Like a biblical prophet, Darwish carries on a dialogue rare in contemporary poetry; it’s one we are privileged to eavesdrop on, thanks to his fluent translators: “O Self, what shall I be after you?/Where is my body—behind me or before you?/Who am I, O you? Create me as I created you./Bless me with almond oil and wreathe my head with cedar.” Deserving of more prominence in a literary scene still accustomed to Eurocentricity, Darwish is to be read with urgency, in the night, when nothing else moves but his lines.