This winter, as I opened Mourid Barghouti's bilingual collection Midnight and prepared to consider each poem for review, Israeli forces launched an aggressive and prolonged attack on the Palestinian areas in Gaza. The offensive was of a scale that shocked witnesses worldwide, and resulted in civilian losses grotesque even by the standards of this sixty-odd year struggle. Large-scale protests were held in major cities around the world, and the attack dominated news time, trumping even Mr Obama's preparations for office. Well over a thousand were killed, the majority civilians: women, seniors, and far too many Palestinian children. While these poems need no introduction or contextualization to communicate with force, the escalation of these events and their eruption into global attention made this unsettling and difficult reading.
Administered territories, collective punishment, self-defence: the vocabulary of Barghouti's ex-homeland set the stage that now receives the poems of Midnight. They arrive as exiles, refugee shards from a non-state. And yet, as readers we receive them not as refugees but as works - not mere expressions of a crisis but living things whose life-cycle and reach extend beyond the back-story of their author. They are almost defiantly up for critique. We can only receive them as they were written: line by line, with attention, with an eye for the details.
The biography of Barghouti spans the life of the Israeli-Palestine conflict, and bears its marks: exile, denied access, violence, a confusion of labels. The poet seems to occupy a status continually outlined by negatives: Not-Palestinian (the identity given to scores of Palestinians following the nakba of 1967), stranded for decades in Budapest; prohibited from entering Egypt, Lebanon, and the Territories. He remains stateless to this day.
As poet, he finds both exile and portable homeland in language. His memoir, I Saw Ramallah, sees writing as a form of displacement, or first exile, in itself, a sentiment that echoes back down the corridors of literary history: Milosz, Celan, Brodsky, Joyce. Perhaps it is among these ranks that he finds a place - and in the intimate relationship with things in this world and the mysterious perseverance of laughter that his poems express.
Despite the poems' birthplace in epic conflict and epistemic placelessness, they take as their focus the very small. This is poetry of place, conveying a sense of rootedness intensified by difficulty and rift. The poems of this collection, from the long, narrow spiral of the title poem to the devastatingly simple pieces that follow, are joined by plain-spoken, close-up street view that takes up objects at hand in the language of the everyday. We find examples of each of these demonstrated throughout his collection, in lines like these from Midnight:
The metal, the cries, the wood,
the bed sheets of chamomile flower prints
ready to release their fragrance,
the corpses, the yearnings, the arithmetic notebook,
the tremblings of the witnesses, the taste of gunpowder,
all vanished as if they were uncontested facts.
A single button
on a remnant scrap of fabric.
Barghouti named this approach with his pivotal 1980 collection, Poetry of the Pavement. In his introduction to Midnight, Guy Mannes-Abbott recalls a conversation in which Barghouti shed light on the significance of this style as direct address to two strong traditions in Arab verse, highly symbolic formalism and heavy handed political poetry:
you occupy the autostrat with your poetry, your bombastic tone, but give me the pavement! ... I am not in the mainstream - I need the pavement. You take the street - you've already taken it, it isn't mine. I'll be confined to this.
For Barghouti this approach demands attention to the economic language, the density of the poems, the importance of the trivial, small things, simple vocabulary, the slowness of perceptions.
In such spare verse, the demands placed on each word are great. And yet the task placed before both poet and poem is not, recalling Maurice Blanchot, to say the world, but rather, to say this object, this moment, just this, with precision and humility. Of the poem, Barghouti demands,
Can you oppose the muscles of this world
with an army of metaphors? Can you, with the eloquence of porcelain,
plead against their discourse of iron?
Yet behind the muscles and porcelain of the poem lie those of the poet: When a poem doesn't work, it's usually because you're not being clear and tough enough with yourself. Mannes-Abbott narrates a moment when, speaking through smoke in a bar, Barghouti rapped on the table, asserting This is poetry. Language is here - in the street, in the mud, in the shop, in the kitchen, in the market, the discussions, in everyday life. And you can make poetry out of this. His desire to clean, and revitalise language through its rigorous, wakeful and attentive craft is reminiscent of Frances Ponge's struggle to purify the French Language, making each syllable new, scraping knee-jerk combinations from the board and getting back to the bare sound and meaning of each word. In Barghouti's terms, I once said that a poet shoud 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.
The nested displacements of writing and nation surface richly in the shape-shifting You of the title poem, Midnight. The poem itself occupies a kind of vanishing point embodied by You - a shadow that passes between total resignation, crazed laughter, and the inexplicable returns of life, joy and the stillness of love among ruins.
The You is a poet - with or without the capacity to write - one who watches from a window into the past, one who draws a line in coal on kitchen walls, one who begs at traffic lights. The You, in all its forms, begins from ground zero. This zero is the zero of repeated defeats, the drone of catastrophe and loss. The ground zero is the lack of ground, the groundlessness of an unrecognised state, whose citizens bear the same tags:
and tomorrow, and tomorrow.
Tomorrow and tomorrow, and tomorrow.
The You, shifting from personal to collective and back, is one who,
armed with nothing but its beauty and the thrust of its wings,
enters the contest, sure of death.
It will die, it knows that it will die
- from the qualities of the killer and from its own qualities. The You, the listener, is Palestine, Palestinians, but also you, reading in despair, feeling the hours of a life tick by in a world seemingly dominated by vast, faceless insoluble histories.
To You the poet urges, in the face of relentless loss, to
Be aggressive as befits you.
Do not explain your intentions,
nor the mystery of your steps.
Be present, hidden
like electricity between two clouds.
And above all, over and over, to Give thanks for life! Woven through and emerging from this ground zero is a different resistance. Barghouti's poem is no song of hope or battle chant, but a recognition of what resists ingloriously: the capacity for life amidst the wreckage. The capacity, among those whom death passes over at the poem's outset, those left standing for a while, for joy, for laughter, for stupid, senseless life:
In an age of snares,
can still collect grain and fill the sky.
After all, the poet repeats as a refrain, you were born for joy.
The poem opens and closes in darkness. We are here, at age zero of a history in which time has stopped, but in which we keep counting nonetheless:
The spent half is night,
and the coming half is also night.
Have you ever thought of that?