Death and displacement in the lyrics of the Palestinian national poet.
A River Dies of Thirst:
by Mahmoud Darwish
translation by Catherine Cobham
$16.00 List Price
In "Fame," one of the prose poems from A River Dies of Thirst, the last collection he published before his death in 2008, the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish noted sardonically that "fame is the humiliation of a person deprived of secrets." Darwish knew fame well; he had been acclaimed from the moment his poems first appeared, in 1960, when he was only nineteen. For the rest of his life, he would be celebrated as "the Palestinian national poet" and "the voice of his people." One of the ironies, if not the humiliations, of such a role is that the poet whose words promise liberation may find himself ever more narrowly constrained. Awakened expectations can build the strongest of cages.
Darwish baffled those expectations as often as he satisfied them. His 1998 collection, The Stranger's Bed, published after his return from exile, disappointed his readers; no rallying cry, it presented an impassioned sequence of love lyrics, including six magnificent sonnets, a form seldom used in Arabic. His later work evinces a pronounced inward turn. Darwish may have felt humiliated by fame, but he was hardly "deprived of secrets." His last books transcend lifelong political allegiances to confront a higher politics: the secrets of life and death, including what early Sufis—a surprising influence—called "God's secrets."
Darwish rightly considered Mural, his long poem of 2000, his masterpiece. This stubborn interrogation of himself—or rather, of an unknown and perhaps unknowable self, as obdurate as it is elusive—strikes me as one of the few genuinely great poems of recent decades. Strangely
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