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Review: Midnight and Other Poems, by Mourid Barghouti

David Morley (Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Warwick), Poetry Review, Vol. 99:2, Summer 2009

Growth-Rings in Poems

Antonio Machado claimed that In order to write poetry, you must first invent a poet who will write it. It might be a smart move to invent your translator while you're at it. Robert Frost's over-celebrated remark that Poetry is what is lost in translation may make poets of other languages feel unattainable, but what Frost went on to say was, it is also what is lost in interpretation, which makes attainability a little problematic. And it says more about the nature of poetry than it does about the process of translation, or of criticism for that matter. Few enough writers realise that good translation, like good criticism, is a vocation and its practice as thorny as original composition. Translation is always a negotiation which, to paraphrase Ngugi wa Thiong'o, moves beyond and around language. Some words are charged with particular meanings in the original language; that does not ensure those associations in another tongue.

It is not only the spectrum of meaning that is considered in excellent poetic translation. There are polyphonies of factors: the physical sound of the poem's internal movement; the speed, shiver and intent of word-notes, taken individually, within a line, and within a whole poem. And what about the meanings of the sounds of the words, the tongues and voices ringing and ringed in the grain of poetic lines, and the notion of locality in how a word is spoken and understood? (...)
Some poets argue that all writing is translated from silence. Midnight and Other Poems by the Palestinian writer Mourid Barghouti reads like a series of skilful resurrections, through language, of a silenced majority:

After the dust and smoke
have cleared from the house that once stood there
and as I stare at the new emptiness,
I see my grandfather wearing his cloak,
wearing the very same cloak -
not one similar to it,
but the same one.
He hugs me and maintains a silent gaze,
as if his look
could order the rubble to become a house (...)

Midnight is an ambitious sequence, a montage of images from the land of Barghouti's birth, and rewards being read aloud. One gets the feeling it is written to be heard, and can be considered part of a wider debate about language, land and dispossession, (...)