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Review: Midnight and Other Poems, by Mourid Barghouti

Apart from the translated work of Ahkmatova and Tsvetayeva -unreachable altogether if you can't read Russian - I must confess to feeling a bit luke-warm about poetry in translation. It seems to me almost impossible to carry the special resonance's (quite apart from the precise meaning - and the 'precise meaning' is in any case a tricky phrase when applied to a poem) of one language into another. So I wasn't looking forward to reading Mourid Barghouti. But once I opened Midnight I was more than pleasantly surprised: I was delighted.

Translation is a problem the poet himself is clear about. Guy Mannes-Abbott, in his excellent introduction to the collection, quotes Barghouti: I write in concrete, physical language. The words translate easily. My translators told me they are the same in each language. This is why it works. This is one reason why it works. The other is his concentration on the realities of life.

Mannes-Abbott tells us Barghouti knocked the table and said 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.

Midnight, the long title poem, is a sequence of visions and memories which come to a man watching through a window - voices in the dark...the sound of steps you want / and of the steps you do not want. It is a voice of exile - Barghouti is a Palestinian, and he knows the fragility of statelessness from his own experience. Occupation, violence and oppression are the background of his narrative, though it would be a mistake to suggest that the poem is fundamentally gloomy: it is in fact full of energy, full of a kind of suppressed joy, an optimism that resists the challenge of fact. Delights and disasters are simply part of the sequence of visions that his narrator invites the reader to share:

Here is Death,
wearing padlocks as pendants,
his well-trained hounds at his heels;
his eternal belt
stuffed full of addresses.

His method is, as it were, the opening of windows for the reader. He's good at capturing things - moods, places, happenings - very briefly and accurately, and it's this direct, confident, economical presentation of experience that is so compelling and so readable. It's a poem to be read at a sitting - and indeed it is hard to put down. Strongly visual, concrete, surprising, it has a mesmerising quality that draws you into its world - and its world, though different from yours, is yet recognisably in all essentials your own. The words are simple; the ideas are huge, complex, resonating in the mind long after. You'll see faces that

look up to see only
hanging ropes
which topple imagination from its saddle,
or, with huge rubbers,
cancel thought...

...you'll keep seeing in the sand
the foot-prints of barefoot prophets
chasing the devils of metaphor,
and you will see the devils of your own times
as, with their dyed hair and Italian slices,
they play prophet
on golf courses, and in the corridors of banks
and on CDs.

You'll hear promises tailored to be neglected,
like a wedding dress, the day after.

Life itself is lost - and advertised for; thunder has its working hours, / then it pulls up its spotted blanket / and drifts off to sleep. It is a desperately sad poem, full of horror, but it is not gratuitous horror, and it is spiced by wit:

Even the most proficient of animal-tamers
will not persuade the jaws of this night to close

There is a playfulness, a wisdom, a spirit of determination - and a sense of destiny - but for [the nagging of] a hundred aches and pains... you were born for joy.

The other poems have the same gnomic energy; they're short, sometimes aphoristic, invariably witty, with all the freshness of language of Midnight. Here's Interpretations, to give you a sense of what you're missing if you choose not to buy this collection:

A poet sits in a coffee shop, writing.
The old lady
thinks he is writing a letter to his mother,
the young woman
thinks he is writing a letter to his girlfriend,
the child
thinks he is drawing,
the businessman
thinks he is considering a deal,
the tourist
thinks he is writing a postcard,
the employee
thinks he is calculating his debts.
The secret policeman
walks, slowly, towards him.

Midnight and other poems is the most powerful and interesting collection I have read for a very long time.