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Review: Midnight and Other Poems, by Mourid Barghouti

Glyn Pursglove, Acumen 63, January 2009

Of course, one of the most valuable and prolific publishers of translations in recent years has been Arc. Of their recent books, one I have found of particular interest is Midnight and Other Poems. by Mourid Barghouti, translated by Radwa Ashour.

A Palestinian born in 1944 near Ramallah, he has lived in exile since 1967 (at present he is based in Cairo). As Ruth Padel writes, in an excellent Preface to the volume, Barghouti's poetry of loss, which avoids the slightest excess of rhetoric or self-importance, evokes a lost heritage [which] is the whole world's loss, every human being's loss. There is, indeed, a quality of the universal to much of Barghouti's work, even if (and perhaps because) he concentrates on concrete particulars.

A lengthy introduction by Guy Mannes-Abbott is of greatest value for its quotations from interviews with Barghouti, as in his observation that I once said that a poet should have some hot water and liquid soap and a sponge to wash words like we do greasy dishes. So I would like every abstract noun to be broken down into what it means in concrete terms in the real world. The freshness of a word does not come from its being poetic, it comes from being precise. We have to be precise. Creative writing is a critical process. And that describes very well the effect of Barghouti's best work.

This present volume - which is again bilingual - is made up of the substantial long poem Midnight (English and Arabic texts occupy almost 140 pages) and a selection of shorter poems. In Midnight, a lengthy meditation on the experience of exile, emotions are complex, anger balanced by tenderness, despair by yearning, all expressed in a litany of images:

You'll see the coffles on the Silk Road
carrying their loads of khaki
stuffed with the living and the dead,
helmets riddled with bullets
and helmets retaining their sheen
Geraniums shamelessly parade their wantonness
On balconies.

A little chameleon turns its neck right and left
like a haughty fashion model.
That stood motionless like toy horses made from sugar,
Raise children's laughter to the highest window.

The whole volume makes an excellent companion to Barghouti's marvellous prose memoir, I saw Ramallah (of which Bloomsbury published the UK edition in 2004).