Academic journal article Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge

Darwish's Essentialist Poetics in a State of Siege

Academic journal article Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge

Darwish's Essentialist Poetics in a State of Siege

Article excerpt


The intersection of violence, national identity and literature has always been one of my intellectual interests, as has the plight and culture of Palestinians. The latter is due largely to the significant number of Palestinians that have migrated to my native Haiti since the first Intifada in 1987, and also because of the loss of a dear Haitian-Palestinian elder, Antoine Izmery, to political violence in October 1994. Additionally, my relationships with Palestinian writers such as Suheir Hammad and Ibtisam Barrakat have solidified my understanding of Palestinian literary traditions, and have led me to find a deep appreciation for Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish's work.

This essay is not about Palestinian history nor is it a comparative study of Palestinian poetry. Rather, it is about a writer who became dissident and exposed in his own relative historicity, his truth about Israel's occupation on the one hand, and his love for life and for his native land as a quintessentially locative human condition, on the other. In 1948, Mahmoud Darwish was six years old when his interrupted childhood brutally confronted exile. Thousands of Palestinians were forced to exile due to the systematic occupation by the Israelis. For Darwish, severance from the homeland gave birth to his poetry, and commenced a love affair with location and dislocation. Throughout Mahmoud Darwish's poetics is the linkage of individuals or occupied entities to the ideal of a universal struggle for freedom and liberty from oppression, and a link to the "beauty" of life and language through the creative process--thus affirming Wellek & Warren's notion that: "[t]he work of literature is an aesthetic object, capable of arousing aesthetic experience" (1984: 241). And it was Darwish's creative work and precise language that transcended his experience not only as a Palestinian writer, but also as a writer who aroused the universal, while managing the aesthetic transmission of the oppressive side of the human condition under occupation. In his prosaic memoir, Memory for Forgetfulness, Darwish writes in hauntingly surrealist manner:

   "He's looking for a pair of eyes, for
   a shared silence or reciprocal talk.
   He's looking for some kind of participation
   in this death, for a witness
   who can give evidence, for a
   gravestone over a corpse, for the
   bearer of news about the fall of a
   horse, for a language of speech and
   silence, and for less boring wait for
   certain death. For what this steel
   and these iron beasts are screaming
   is that no one will be left in peace,
   and no one will count our dead"
   (1995: 24).

What Darwish aroused first in the Palestinians and then in the rest of the world is the aesthetic value of an experience that is free from oppression. He also brought to the surface an aesthetic that spoke truth to power and exposed the experienced madness of occupation. "Poetry is a dangerous game. It sometimes drives people to find a substitute for absence. It happens to me sometimes. At such times, I feel a sense of dangerous repose, that what I have written has given me respite from inner torment, has liberated me" (Darwish, 1997 Documentary).

It has been established to the point of becoming cliche, that true poets, conscientious poets, are depositories of societal memories as well as witnesses to human conditions. In an essay written between 1944 and 1945, entitled Poetry and Knowledge, the young French-Martinican poet, Aime Cesaire, lucidly described the role of the poet. This description easily connects to the essence and the life of Darwish: "the poet is that very ancient yet new being, at once very complex and very simple, who at the limit of dream and reality, of day and night, between absence and presence, searches for and receives in the sudden triggering of inner cataclysms the password of connivance and power" (1990: 1vi). Mahmoud Darwish became the ancient and the new, the social chronicler of Palestinian emotions--emotions felt, or repressed, the whole gamut of human emotions in various states of siege and exile. …

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