Poetry Project Newsletter
In the Presence of Absence
Trans. Sinan Antoon
(Archipelago Books, 2011)
review by Michael Allan
Appearing in 2006, just two years before his death, Mahmoud Darwish’s In the Presence of Absenceemerges at the threshold of prose and poetry, offering at times memoir, lyrical meditation and self-eulogy. But to understand the book solely within the framework of Darwish’s life is to miss its rich appeal to ethical, literary, political and philosophical registers. All at once, Darwish evokes contrasts between the literal and the figural, the metaphoric and the embodied, the life, the nation and the poet, and Sinan Antoon’s remarkable translation enables the historical and philological resonance to come alive in English. “It is challenging to translocate this celebration to another language,” Antoon writes in his introduction, “but it had to be done. It is one of the most beautiful books I have read in Arabic.” In the Presence of Absence speaks with the intimacy of a whispered conversation between friends, the poet and his reader, but the power of Darwish’s words position his work as a literary monument, at the convergence of life and death, with an eye to the poetic afterlife and language.
The book is one of three extended prose poems written by Darwish and now available in English. The scholar Ibrahim Muhawi translated both Memory for Forgetfulness/Dhakirah li al-nisyan(University of California Press, 2005/1982) and more recently, Journal of an Ordinary Grief/Yawmiyyat al-huzn al-‘adi (Archipelago, 2009/1973), and Antoon’s translation completes the trilogy. In each of these three works, Darwish’s words address you, the reader, with delicate care as a fellow traveler on a journey through a world of language. At the same time, his words ring with world-historical importance and are cast against the backdrop of specific events: Beirut in 1982, Palestine after the 1967 war, and the specter of the poet’s death. Across the Arab world, Mahmoud Darwish’s name bespeaks in almost metonymic relation to the Palestinian people and to the power of language, memory, exile and poetry. And yet, for all of the explicit situations in his writings (echoes of Deir Yassin, Beirut, Tunis, Haifa and Damascus, and allusions to the contours of the Arabic language and the meter of classical Arabic odes), there is an incredible richness that saturates the pages, bleeds beyond the particularity of the Arabic language, and extends Darwish’s audience across the globe.
Separated into twenty sections, In the Presence of Absence defies simple classification and weaves into its pages a range of materials: citations of classical Arabic poets, segments composed in classical poetic meter, and poetic prose reflecting on memory, love, and longing. The book is at times lyrical in its mode of address and at times more dominantly narrative. In certain passages, Darwish reflects on the intersection of the world and words: “White letters on a blackboard inspire the awe of dawn in the countryside. Like water poured slowly into a jar that never fills, you absorbed the incomplete form and its sound together by torturing the throat and subjugating it to the power of signs and the mouth to what the eyes take in.” And at other moments, he poses questions: “I asked you: What does this mean? You said to me: Meaning might need another time to ripen in the earth’s salt. It might need another poet free of the Trojans and Greeks, a poet who gazes into an abyss from above without falling in, and the abyss becomes a lake.” The depth, scope and resonance of Darwish’s words come alive thanks to Antoon’s graceful translation. This accomplishment promises that Darwish will continue to live beyond his death, his words flourishing in the imaginations of English-language readers.
Michael Allen is an Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Oregon.