State of Siege

It is, I believe, worth reminding us every so often of the scandal the major lack of translations of poetry (& other literary writing) in the US represents. This lack, I have noticed over the years, is especially glaring when it comes to contemporary Arab literature. So one of the first things I do when I get to Europe is to hit my favorite bookstore (Toulouse’s Ombres Blanches, better than any Paris bookshop at this point) & to check what’s been published in translation from Arabic. I am usually able to pick up (besides a number of Maghrebian books) one new book, or even two, a year by the Palestinian poet Mahmood Darwish (who may in fact be one of the least sparingly translated into English, given his status as a major star). This year it is a poem called Halât bisâr in Arabic and Etat de Siège (State of Siege) in Elias Sanbar’s French translation. It is a 90-page work composed of fragments written while Darwish was holed up — confined, more accurately — in Ramallah during January of 2002. Here are a couple of these fragments, quickly — all too quickly — translated from the French version:

* * *

at death’s threshold, he said:
I got nothing left to lose.
I’m free next to my freedom
and my tomorrow is in my hand…
soon I’ll enter my life,
I’ll be born free, without father or mother,
and will choose azure letters for my name.

* * *

here, at smoke level, on the staircase of the house,
no time for time.
like those who rise toward God,
we forget pain.

*

pain,
mistress of the house who doesn’t stretch her washing line in the morning
satisfied with the cleanliness of this flag.

* * *

no homeric echo here.
the legends knock on our doors when we need them.
no homeric echo of anything whatsoever…
here, a general is searching for a state that sleeps
under the rubble of a Troy that is yet to come.

* * *

the soldiers measure the distance between being
and nothingness
with the tank’s gun sight…

*

we measure the distance between our bodies
and the shell… with our sixth sense.

* * *

[to a poet]
each time absence abandoned you
you found yourself implicated in the solitude of the gods.
so be the wandering “inside” of your outside
and “the outside” of your inside,
be present in absence.

* * *

[to poetry]
besiege your siege.

*

[to prose]
from the dictionary of the law
pull your proofs toward a real
proofs have destroyed
and explain your dust.

*

[to poetry and prose]
fly away together
like the two wings of a swallow carrying blessed spring.

* * *

our cups of coffee. the birds. the green trees
throwing blue shadows and the sun which junps from one
wall to the other like a gazelle…
the water of the clouds and their infinite shapes
in what little sky there remains for us
and other things remembrance of which has been pushed back to later
show that this morning is strong is splendid
and that we are the guests of eternity.

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