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Palestinian Poet Laureate : SAND AND OTHER POEMS by Mahmoud Darweesh; translated by Rana Kabbani (Methuen: $14.95; 79 pp.)

December 20, 1987|James Ragan | Ragan, poet and author of "In the Talking Hours," directs USC's Professional Writing Program. and

If we adopt the view that the artist must "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable," then Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darweesh ranks as perhaps the most inspired of contemporary Arab poets.

A refugee at age 6, he relocated from his birthplace at Al-Birwa to Haifa, then to Beirut after repeated jailings, and finally to Europe. "Sand," his 11th volume, is a poignant chronicle of passage by a poet some call the heart and mind of the Palestinian people.

In the same way that Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai sees his own poetry as being "political by the nature of its affection," Darweesh, afflicted with the universal pain of exile, synthesizes bloodline nationalism with the sonorities of lyrical verse. Passion informs eloquence. As Darweesh says repeatedly in "Al-Mutanabi's Voyage Into Egypt," "My country is my latest poem."

Unlike the metaphor of shiftiness that the book's title exalts, "Sand" is a tribute to permanence, as monumental a study of nomadic identity as Seamus Heaney's "Station Island" is of Ulster's native-born one. For readers, a collective journey through Middle East dissolution; for Darweesh, a personal pilgrimage of endurance. The blessings of hope are not lost on the dead but endure in the living, he says in his long poem "Beirut." "Are we finished?/ No./ We will survive like ancient ruins do/ Like skulls we will keep shape."

In "Sirhan drinks his coffee in the Cafeteria," he laments the duality of refugee identity:

The killers bred in us the victims grew in us

blood like water.

And again in "The River Is the Stranger," irony, searing like a cut tongue, is soothed by lyrical images:

Alone in the small aloneness

Flowers on the water

Feet upon the water

Where shall we go,

Being wound and knife,

My small bird of exile?

Suffering self-incrimination, Darweesh offers the panegyric, "On Fifth Avenue he greeted me," for a poet, once victimized by political torture, now imprisoned by the sterile comforts of Manhattan:

From where will the heart pass,

Is there room, in this asphalt wood,

For the feathers of a dove?

He laments the inconstancy of the peacemaker, who lacking will, is freer "in the prison cells of Nazareth" than in the Fifth Avenue world of ambivalence where "dawn does not sting/ Nor any star burn in this crowding."

Reminiscent of Eliot "breeding lilacs out of the dead land" in bombed-out London, Darweesh's cruelest month remains "eternity" where sand is an "Endless place of thought:"

A shape and an idea of shape . . .

Oblivion killing blossom

Everything miraculous . . .

A country made of sand.

His wasted lands are Baalbek, Beirut, and Jaffa where the "details of war" desensitize not only the transgressors but the transgressed.

"We use art as a moral statement," South African Nadine Gordimer says, "not morals as an artistic statement." Darweesh uses poetry to lift morality out from under "the cloak of desolation." "We seek rhythm in a store/ But cannot find it." This at a time when so few poets seem to be searching at all.

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