A River Dies of Thirst: Diaries

Mahmoud Darwish

Translated from the Arabic by Catherine Cobham
Saqi Books, 2009
£10.99, (165 pages)

Kate Daniels

I am only him
and he is only me
in different images.

So wrote the Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, in his last collection published before his death in 2008. Written during the summers of 2006 and 2007, this diwan appeared in Arabic under the title Athar al-Farasha (The Butterfly Effect), but has been rendered in English translation as A River Dies of Thirst. The idea of a ‘butterfly effect’ finds its provenance in Chaos Theory, and refers to a small change in one place within a larger, more complex system, which can then give rise to effects—often dramatic—in other localities. As a metaphor for the regional and global impact of the loss of Palestine, and for the death of this major poet of both local and international renown, it seems regrettable that this volume’s original title was not retained.

The question of titles, of course, was problematic for Mahmoud Darwish: his unwitting designation as the ‘national poet of Palestine’ forever privileged his legacy vis-à-vis the national struggle, a fact underscored by Ruth Padel in her introduction to this translation, where she forges a (commonly cited) connection between Darwish and the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. As Padel is careful (and correct) to remind us, however: ‘All great poets belong to a community of readers far outside the particular categories of their time and society.’

A River Dies of Thirst bears the subtitle Diaries, and may be read as a scrapbook chronicling the twilight of a great literary and political life. Containing 126 discrete entries, among them short prose poems, snatches of free verse, ruminations, aphorisms and confessions, it foregrounds the voice/s of a poet who is ‘philosophising without a philosophy’; a poet engaged in a soon-to-be-ending internal dialogue, whose reflexive articulations shift endlessly from the ‘I’ to the ‘he’, from the ‘me’ to the ‘him’.

Taken as a whole, this diverse—and highly fragmented—collection presents an often startlingly narcissistic contemplation of the self. As if to underscore the inescapability of this, Darwish retorts with embittered piquancy: ‘What do we need the narcissus for, since we are Palestinians?’ His multiple entries are beset by rhetorical questioning, chiefly as to the meaning and nature of the poet’s existence. In ‘A Longing to Forget’, Darwish queries: ‘Where am I?’; similarly, a short fragment of prose poetry is titled: ‘What Is It All For?’ Existence is weighed against non-existence, and what remains of the poet’s life appears to be coloured with a foreboding of death.

Strikingly, A River Dies of Thirst contains a series of dialogues, the most conspicuous being the constant, dualistic interchange between Darwish the social, constructed self and Darwish the ‘inspired’ creator (‘My Poet/My Other’). Cartesian contemplations of mind versus body also abound; in one text, the poet ponders: ‘Had my mental existence split off from my physical one?’ In yet another, with a clear nod to Descartes, he pronounces: ‘Nothing proves that I exist when I think.’ Consciousness and imagination are interdependent, Darwish describing his imagination as ‘a faithful hunting dog’, while one is mindful of Jungian theory with Darwish’s references to his ‘shadow’, which he leaves ‘hanging on a thorn bush’ while out on a hillside walk one day. Dualism is also salient in his short poem ‘Half and Half’, in which the poet calls out to his ‘ghost’: ‘Watch out, my other self!’

Existential themes are familiar literary terrain for Darwish, whose personal narrative was, at various junctures, representative of the particularities of the post-’48 Palestinian experience, taking in the many (and evolving) identities of refugee, ‘present absentee’, exiled intellectual and roving ‘citizen of the world’. Other themes that are in keeping with his broader literary output are nostalgia, memory, love and death, each of which is treated with an almost unbearable gentleness, betraying the fragility, fatigue, indifference and ennui that come with the knowledge of a foreshortened future. In ‘I Walked on My Heart’, we hear the poet’s heart protest with a weary recalcitrance: ‘I have tired of identifying with things’, while in ‘The Mercy Bullet’, the poet appeals to a killer to ‘cure’ his broken body and spirit.

Opening against the backdrop of Israel’s war on Lebanon in 2006, the collection also alludes to regional conflicts in Gaza, the West Bank, Iraq and Afghanistan. Furthermore, it engages—as Darwish has always done—with the ethics of occupation and the meaning of political violence. Key is Darwish’s recasting of the relevance and value of heroism (‘heroism too has its sell-by date’), which no longer consists in the rhetoric and grand narratives of nationalist discourse, but in the life-affirming resonance of the poetic metaphor. Exemplifying his view that all poetry is an act of resistance, Darwish shows us that resistance can be as much a part of a love poem (this collection contains eight such texts), as it is a part of a political anthem or a hero’s eulogy.

For readers who are partial to Darwish’s early poetry, there is much to satisfy in this volume. Texts on nature and natural phenomena appear in abundance, summoning up the time-honoured motifs of sky, sea, trees, birds and butterflies, the hills and valleys of the West Bank landscape, seasonal change, prickly pears, gazelles and olive trees. There is also a handful of explicitly political texts, among them ‘The Wall’, a sardonic comment on Israel’s so-called Separation Barrier, and ‘Routine’, in which the ghastliness of death and the destruction of Arab homes is presented via the bloodless drone of a meteorological report: ‘Low pressure area. Northwesterly winds, heavy showers […] Today the autumn clouds let thirty martyrs fall in the north of Gaza.’

There is also the auto-critique of ‘If We Want To’, where Darwish reminds the Palestinians: ‘We will become a people, if we want to, when we learn that we are not angels, and that evil is not the prerogative of others’, and of ‘A Shameful Land’, in which he takes a swipe at the clichéd mythologizing of his literary peers (his past poetic persona no doubt included here), with the wry observation that Palestine is ‘a land yellow in summer, where the thorns carve notches in the surface of the rocks to pass the time, even if our poetry says the opposite, and supplies it with anthologies of descriptions of paradise to satisfy the hunger for beautiful things felt by those seeking to preserve their identity.’

His free verse poem ‘The Return of June’, which memorialises the 1967 war with Israel, pairs poignantly with ‘If Only People Envied Us’, a reflection on the Palestinian tragedy arising out of the Nakba of 1948. Of this collection’s political content, the most provocative text is unquestionably ‘From Now On You Are Somebody Else’, a shame-filled lament at the eruption of fratricidal fighting between Hamas and Fatah. Here, Darwish lambasts the warring political factions with the warning: ‘Identity is what we bequeath, not what we inherit, what we invent, not what we remember.’

As ever with Darwish, A River Dies of Thirst also invites us to consider the meaning and nature of poetry and the process of poetic production, demonstrated most clearly in ‘As If He Were Asleep’, ‘That Word’, ‘If It Were Not for Sin’, ‘The Essence of the Poem’ and ‘The Second Line’. Darwish was a practitioner who preferred to exist in a self-imposed isolation, a poet for whom fame proved ‘a many-windowed prison’, and for whom the devastating judgements of his critics are evoked in ‘Assassination’: ‘The critics kill me sometimes / they want a particular poem / a particular metaphor.’

His isolation, we understand, afforded contentment and a degree of self-containedness, the latter being enhanced by the poet’s advancing age. For Darwish, maturity brought wisdom, exemptions and absolutions, a fact most apparent in the prose poem ‘The Pretty Girls’ Neighbour’, where he surveys the beauty of a group of young women, yet seems reconciled to his loss of desire and envy. In ‘A Shawl Made of Silk’, he solemnly informs the reader: ‘The poet no longer suffers from love.’ As we grow in awareness of Darwish’s diminishing health, we note the extent to which this shapes his daily activities and rituals. In one text, he tells us: ‘He walks because the doctors have advised him to walk, with no particular goal’, while in another, he reports absentmindedly that ‘he took a beta blocker’.

In thematic terms, the overwhelming preoccupation of A River Dies of Thirst is with the struggle between the instincts of life and death, which is perhaps indicative of Darwish’s growing awareness of his mortality. In what amounts to a reworked Romantic sensibility, he appears more than once to foreshadow his own end, predicting it with uncanny accuracy: ‘I believed I’d died on a Saturday’ (the very day on which he, indeed, died). In other texts, Darwish’s wistful, and often regretful, recourse to the conditional (‘If Only I Were a Stone’, ‘If Only the Young Were Trees’, ‘If I Were Someone Else’, ‘If I Were a Hunter’), speak of his renegotiating of his past, his coming to terms with his present reality, and his tentative fantasies for his future.

Readers familiar with classical and modern Arabic poetry may detect a tendency to intertextuality in this volume, the poet alluding to the Romantic prose poems of Khalil Gibran, the khamriyya genre (classical Arabic Bacchic verse), and to the great poet-exemplars of Arabic’s ‘Golden Age’, Abu Nuwas and al-Mutanabbi. We may also speak of a tendency to intratextuality, located, for example, in Darwish’s revisiting of the Nero motif, employed to evoke archetypal (and here, undifferentiated) despots and autocrats, used allegorically in one of his earliest poems, ‘On Man’. In a similar vein, allusions to titles of previous poems include ‘We Arrived Too Late’ and ‘A Gun and a Shroud’.

Darwish’s death, premature as it was, marked the demise of the foremost Arab poet of his generation. This has led, amidst the elegies and outpourings of grief, to a great many competing claims on the man, what he wrote, and for whom. Undoubtedly, these very last printed words of Darwish will be scrutinised by scholars and devotees alike for insights into the psyche and life of this most private of poets. What is evident is his position at the heart of a global literary community: his texts detail exchanges with Sa‘di Yusuf, Derek Walcott, Mark Strand, and other poets. What is also apparent is his cosmopolitanism; we read of his visits to Cordoba, Paris, Cairo, Beirut, Rabat, Haifa, and other cities. We are even privy to the minutiae of Darwish’s daily routines, as in his poem ‘A Coloured Cloud’, a meditation on washing the dishes. Above all, we sense the power of the relationships Darwish forms between himself and the most everyday of objects and things that make up his world.

Tellingly, one concludes a reading of A River Dies of Thirst with a great sorrow—a ‘broken’ or ‘heavy heart’, no less. It is as though, through the fragmented entries of these ‘diaries’, Darwish transfers to us the turmoil and oppositionality of his emotions, prefiguring the profound confusion and loss experienced by his readers on his passing. A River Dies of Thirst is a fine, posthumous translation of the original Arabic collection, deftly demonstrating Darwish’s playful experimentation with form to the end, and serving as a heartfelt tribute to this most singular of Arab poetic voices.


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