Blesok no. 40, January-February, 2005
The Poetics of Exile
On Bogomil Gjuzel's, The Wolf at the Door, Xenos Books,
and Mahmoud Darwish's Unfortunately, It Was Paradise, UCP
Homeland want to deceive us into thinking that they–and we–last forever. The work of Mahmoud Darwish and Bogomil Gjuzel approaches the question of home from an existential poetics of exile. Exile poetics iliustrate how the ephemeral estrangements of life configure the dimensions of the fixed and the eternal. Though each writer's personal formation differs significantly from the other, the Palestinian Darwish and Macedonian Gjuzel stand as poetic siblings who frustrate notions of time, language, myth, identity, and home in order to exhort the reader to become someone else, become something greater. Darwish and Gjuzel offer up the conflicting existential imperatives of nurturing and devastating the sense of home offered by homelands. They ask: where is the homeland without borders? This is powerful stuff, and crucial reading for the global citizen of the 21st century.
Though Macedonia managed to avoid internal conflict during the 1990s, when some of the poems in the collection The Wolf at the Door (Xenos Books, $15) were written, Gjuzel's poetry invokes the mythic proportions of the region's turbulent recent history. Steeped in Greek wythology, and conscious of the contemporary existential challenges posed by the many-headed hydra we call “balkanization,” his work seems both ancient and postmodern. The Wolf at the Door shifts between prose poems and verse offerings, rewriting both ancient and modern mythologies from the perspectives of such fugures as Pandora, Judas Iscariot, the eagle who must eat Prometheus' liver, and a doubting Thomas twin of Jesus. In “The End of the Century,” he writes:
Perhaps after our Fall, even God
expelled Himself from Paradise,
shut Himself within himself,
to be born and be given, birth to.
And perhaps we only kindled the fire
but did not vanish… we return
to the nothingess the glow
Gjuzel's heresy pays homage to deities who form themselves in the image of humans–beings who, like us, must return again and again to the womb of creation. Unfortunately, paradise is never enough.
The drive to embrace the glowing nothingness within explains a vital aspect of Darwish's work as well. In the long poem “Mural” he asserts: “In my death there is a certain life.” This realization leads to further difficult questions: “What might I be in death after my death? / What might I be in death before my death?” The fact of mortallity means poetry must embrace the dual prospects of life-in-death and death-in-life. For Darwish, answers to these questions may only be found through a poetics that frustrates the basic certainties of Cartesian logic: “As if I am. As if I am not.” As Gjuzel proclaims “You are your own well of time, / concentric circles on a boundless surface / And this noose is only the first”, so Darwish suggests that death must be sounded out to plumb the depths of life.
Darwish's wonderfully titled Unfortunatefy, It Was Paradise (University of California Press, $16.95) should prove essential for readers who wish to sample the later work of one of the world's most arresting poetic voices. His notoriety stems in part from his affiliation with the Palestine Liberation Organization, although his poetry persistently transgresses the politics of identity often concentrated on when discussing his work. The anxiety of home is certainly understandable in light of assertions–such as that once proffered by Israel's former prime minister, Golda Meir–that Palestinians as a people do not exist. Nevertheles, Darwish's poetic response to the apparent non-exsitence of his people and his homeland has been, in a sense, to embrace it: “Here, in this no-here and no-there, I am free.” His work persistently strives to articulate a home beyond those delineated by national boundaries. As some of the poems intimate–titles such as “Another Road in the Road,” “Another Damascus ni Damascus,” and “The Stranger Finds Himself in the Stranger”–Darwish strives to peel off the sedimentary layers of words in the hopes of arriving at an alternate notion of what lies within the boundaries imposed by names. His poetry consistently aims for universality as it invokes the personal struggle of Palestinian who has spent decades in exile.
The central question of Unfortunately, It Was Paradise lies in continuously reworking the question “Who am I?” Darwish may not always envision himself as the “I” of the poems–it could be Palestine, it could be the voice of the refugee, and it could be you. Sometimes the “I” resides in the riddle of a non-place, a no person's land: “I am from here, I am from there, yet I'm neither here; nor there.” Sometimes we find the “I” in that which may be realized in some future time somewhere else:
I am another.
Fig groves, with their beautifully dressed girls are not yet ripe.
The phoenix has not yet given birth to to me,
No one is waiting there.
I came before time and also after time.
But there is no one to share what I see.
I am what I see. I am the distant one.
Often Darwish sees the “I” uneasily reflected in someone else; he alludes to the future of yesterday and Heraclitus:
Am I another you, and you another I?
–This is not the path to the land of my freedom.
I will not be an “I” twice.
When yesterday has taken the place of my tomorrow,
And I have become two women.
I will be neither eastern nor western…
Poetic freedom for Darwish lies somewhere in between the myriad answers to the manifold challenge to locate oneself and one's homeland. The process of continually dissolving and reconifiguring the boundaries of identity testifies to his embrace of poetry as the most liberating response to the impasses of politics.
Darwish engages metaphor in a way that is non-metaphorical–metaphor as the homeland of the actual, one might call “My language will be a metaphor for metaphor. In a series of interviews entitled Palestine As Metaphore Darwish explains having found “a passage from the relative in the absolute, an opening for me to inscribe the national within the universal, for Palestine not to be limited to Palestines but to establish its aesthetic legitimacy in a greattcr human sphere.” There is a home for humanity in some future language–” I will say: Let me fall into the lap of the letter Nun”–but it is a home where we become, à la Kristeva strangers to ourselves. Perhaps the concluding lines of the poem “I Belong There” best express Darwish's existential, linguistic, and geographic paradoxes: “I have learned and dismantled all the words in order to draw from them a single word: Home”. Language's undoing is our doing, then, its homelessness our home.
Gjuzel also articulates the need to devastate in order to create: “Sledgehamer as word / generator, piledriving / fractures in paper–gaps.” Only after we've laid waste to structural foundations and the leters themselves “will language be made new. / Only then will the world be built again.” Both writers display such reverence for life and the written word–even when that means tearing down the foundational structures of language–that one comes to believe the paradoxical must indeed lie in the realm of the possible.
Darwish, born in 1942, has enjoyed international renown for a long time, though he is less known in America. Gjuzel, born in 1939, has the relative disadvantage of linguistic happenstance: very few people translate Macedonian, while he has proven himself a commited translator of English literature into his native language. Perhaps the fact that The Wolf at the Door has an introduction by Charles Simic, and the translations of the Unfortunately, It Was Paradise have been given a collective harmony with the help of Carolyn Forché, will allow these poets to find a broader American audience. Both books have helpful commentaries and notes that explain various historical, cultural, and myhtological refferences: these informative guides elucidate the historical weigth each writer gives to the contemporary poem.
The work of both Darwish and Gjuiel illustrates that exile may be experienced both within and without the disputed boundaries of one's homeland. Certainly the poetic styles of each writer are singular, and yet it is truly fascinating to see how those consciously “in between” identities converse with the past and with us. Perhaps we were unaware the conversation was taking place. Without it, however, our lives would remain far too located, too far entrenched in worlds settled and firm.
In this way, Darwish and Gjuzel define the shaky parameters of the global poetry of exile and longing embodied in the work of poets such as Paul Celan, Giuseppe Ungaretti, and Bei Dao. These particalar three have responded to the problem of home with poetry that, for me, becomes increasingly enigmatic with each reading. Though Darwish Gjuzel use more words per poem, they do not necessarily explain more: the “spaces between words” are there, probing the nature of home's deception. They endeavor to rewrite the world in order to refashion truth as a starting point for something greater, something beyond its fixed boundaries. Witness Gjuzel's 1980 poem “True Ithaca,” which updates the Homeric call to home:
There is no more whom (or what)
to set off for. And even if I never
return, my home will be
all the places on my way.
And that true Ithaca, in which they will bury me,
will be the Ithaca that proved me true.
From the beautiful margins of nobody's land, Darwish and Gjuzel have composed bodies of work that begin with truth and then destroy it for something greater. There are no better poets to read while we wait for the phoenix to rise again.
Published in Rain Taxi, No. 29, Spring 2003