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Review: Midnight and Other Poems, by Mourid Barghouti

Aamer Hussein, The Wolf, Issue 21, Summer 2009

At the beginning of the decade, a poet's memoir, I Saw Ramallah, introduced an important new voice to Anglophone readers. This voice was Mourid Barghouti's - Palestinian, exiled, cosmopolitan, lyrical and quietly searing, quintessentially of our time, yet marked indelibly by its particular experience. Introduced by Edward Said and exquisitely translated by novelist Ahdaf Soueif, the book was first published in Arabic in 1997 - and won the prestigious Mahfouz Prize - and in English by the AUC in 2000. But it was, perhaps, the growing sense of international crisis that brought the book to an international, rather than a specialist, audience as late as 2004.

It is one of the many ironies of our times that this important Arab poet, known for his dedication to the quotidian, the simple and the concrete, first become known to many for a prose work that, for all its beauty, was read primarily for its political content and only incidentally for its felicities. However, A Small Sun, a chapbook of Barghouti's poems translated by several hands including that of his wife, Egyptian novelist Radwa Ashour, had also been available to discerning readers since 2003. Barghouti's occasional public appearances in this had brought at least part of his poetic oeuvre to a wider international audience.

Now Midnight, a very generous volume of his poems that includes a long and massively ambitious poem along with earlier, shorter and simpler poems, fills the gap in our shelves. His translator is, again, Ashour, working this time on her own. The book is introduced by journalist Guy Mannes-Abbott and prefaced by Ruth Padel, both of whom ably place the poems and their maker in the context of contemporary poetics and politics.

A caveat, though. It would have been invaluable to have the perfectly bilingual Ashour tell us both of the linguistic choices she has made and of Barghouti's relationship to the Arabic and Palestinian canon. Arabic is a notoriously difficult language to translate, with syntax and aesthetic often at variance with, respectively, Indo-European grammar and Western aesthetics: the former can appear elliptical and the latter hyperbolic; even in its modernist and postmodernist manifestations, its connection with Anglophone poetic conventions may appear tenuous. (When faced with the task of reworking Darwish from a crib, one poet lamented: 'my version is both abstract and purple - what can I do with it?')

Barghouti, however, has been praised as 'clear, tough and ...beautifully disciplined in his sparing, sophisticated use of tragedy and loss' (Padel). His poetry is also starkly devoid of polemic, and when it confronts tragedy and loss it tends to veer from its tactile mode to elevated metaphor and elemental imagery, especially in the sequence of poems in which inanimate objects 'speak', including a threshold and a shipwreck:

The moonlight said:
I am the first of the homeless,
The eternal wanderer;
On the soldier's helmet,...

But the timelessness of these lines is immediately followed by the banal and even grotesque: On the false teeth of the part's general secretary.

Ashour's work is exemplary in its attempt to bring to us what Barghouti himself characterises as his concrete, physical use of language, especially in the short poems in which this quality is most evident.

...the defeated soldier lazily gets up,
Raising his broken toothbrush to his teeth

How Are You?

Or, later in the same poem:

...the mother throws a quick glance on the bed of her elder son,
made for the final time,
and empty, forever.

The tragedy is implicit, concealed in the plainness of the images. But words like 'exile', 'regret' and 'lonely' recur as often as do the bombs and guns and reminders of a world at war:

Give me your boots
Give me your belt
Give me your sweat-soaked socks
Give me the remaining half-page of your letter to your girl
Give me your melted machine gun
Your courage, your uncertainty, your regret
Your fleeting desire to escape
Your decision to stay on

But at other times, the effect is of an ancient, sorrowing grace that is, perhaps, lost to much contemporary poetic idiom:

...the tempest, like a busy seamstress,
stayed up late
to sew black clothes
And pile white snow
On the empty half of a widow's bed.

Though Ashour, probably reflecting Barghouti's Arabic voice, is admirably lucid and at times lapidary, there are frequent occasions when the reader is aware of entry into a doubly foreign idiom: of lush metaphor, and of a blighted land and its devastated, though courage-stricken, people. Inevitably, the question arises as to how much word-music is lost in these versions in the transition, from a language rich with vowels, glottals and guttural consonants, even when rhyme is conspicuously absent (and this reviewer's limited ability to read Arabic proves there is little rhyme in evidence in these poems), to the comparative aural terseness of English.

Notwithstanding Barghouti's own Spartan pronouncements about the directness and universality of his work, the poems lead us to remember that tragedy, too, is rooted in particular experience, and even when polemic or documentary depiction is avoided, their images speak the experiences of the dispossessed in tones that raise echoes (echoes we might bring with us from other, overheard narratives to our reading of the poems) far louder than those of the settled and sedentary. What might be lost in translation is compensated for by the insights we gain about the discipline and the excesses of another, and enormously rich, literary tradition.

Midnight, the grand long poem that opens the book, exemplifies this with its resonance's and its elisions. Succinct and sustained at times, at others rambling and oracular, evoking the polyphony and the silence of twentieth-century, the poem confronts the translator with an ordeal, but we can only laud Ashour for accepting the challenge of bringing its torn voice to us. Occasionally, the music of these voices sounds dispersed, distant; more often, it bears witness to the perseverance of fragility in chaos.

The soul retains its passion,
even on the cross,
the body has its dance,
even on the ropes.
The war enters into farce:
they bomb a butterfly!
It becomes even more farcical:
the butterfly has not died
but, with its fragility still intact,
has grown yet lovelier.
towering above the hubris of the general
And his science of war.
Here is half the triumph,
The butterfly,
armed with nothing but its beauty and the thrust of its wings,
enters the contest, sure of death.