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Review of In The Presence of Absence from Review of Contemporary Fiction

from Daniel Garrett, Review of Contemporary Fiction – “In The Presence of Absence,” a review of In The Presence of Absence

In a culture that considers itself practical, prides itself on commerce, and considers philosophy suspect, it becomes easy to question—with fear and doubt—whether art offers anything more than entertainment value. Luckily, art itself—such as In the Presence of Absence, the prose poetry of the great Mahmoud Darwish—gives an answer: consciousness, emotion, geographic and natural detail, and metaphor are used to create both authority and meaning; and poetry gives us both existence and its illuminating interpretation. Mulberry trees, tobacco leaves, a hand cut while slicing an apple for a girl, school, exile, prison, autumn, hospital, rain, family, and more are found in Darwish’s poetry in prose. In the Presence of Absence is a song for the dying poet’s own spirit, both farewell and praise—Darwish knew an elegy is praise that arrives too late—and we are witnesses to his revelation that our knowledge of self and other is incomplete, allowing for both individuality and relationship. Darwish (1941–2008) was a Palestinian poet whose circumstances compelled him to be superb. No ordinary language could match his experience of childhood exile, troublesome return, and prison, as well as friendship, love, and sensuality. “Do not search for the Canaanite in you to prove that you exist,” Darwish advises, before reviewing that same history, ancient and modern, in a work that acknowledges contradictions, dualities, and oppositions active in terrain leveled “according to the dimension of a sacred myth armed to the teeth.” The catastrophe has taught him that there are at least two people in jail: the jailed and the jailer. Darwish distinguishes between a “coy heroism” of rhetoric and ritual, and a “stoic heroism” of simplicity, of quiet acts of love, creating a poetry that brings together exile and all of existence.

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