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The politics of poetry

The Butterfly's Burden Mahmoud Darwish Translated from the Arabic by Fady Joudah Copper Canyon Press: 328 pp., $20

So What New and Selected Poems, 1971-2005 Taha Muhammad Ali Translated from the Arabic by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi and Gabriel Levin Copper Canyon Press: 198 pp., $20

December 17, 2006|Allan M. Jalon | Allan M. Jalon writes about books and culture for publications including the San Francisco Chronicle.

PALESTINIAN culture hasn't traveled easily to this country. Earlier this year, a show by Palestinian visual artists received dozens of rejections from American venues before getting a few invitations. In 2002, when the Al-Kasaba Theatre of Ramallah brought vignettes about daily life under Israeli occupation to New Haven, Conn., headlines erupted: Some Jews denounced the play as a Trojan horse for anti-Israel propaganda, demanding onstage panel discussions, while others embraced it as fine art.

Poetry rarely spurs that kind of controversy. Still, there's such a thing as provocative timing, and Copper Canyon Press shows it by publishing Palestinian poets Mahmoud Darwish's "The Butterfly's Burden" and Taha Muhammad Ali's "So What," works that sometimes feel like they could have been the narration for gruesome images broadcast from the Middle East in recent months:

When the fighter planes disappear, the doves fly

white, white. Washing the sky's cheek

with free wings, reclaiming splendor and sovereignty

of air and play. Higher and higher

the doves fly, white, white. I wish the sky

were real (a man passing between two bombs told me)

That's from Darwish's "A State of Siege," a stunning 2002 poem in short fragments that appears in "The Butterfly's Burden," a selection dating back to 1998 and translated by Fady Joudah. Darwish is well known for a long career at the crossroads of poetry and politics. In fact, this is the second book of his poems to appear in English this year, the first being "Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone?" translated by Jeffrey Sacks.

Ali, whose "So What" is Copper Canyon's expanded version of a book published in Israel, was born in 1931 and is well known to Palestinians, but his international career is only now being nurtured by Jewish, Arabic and American poets and editors. The book declares, one senses, the arrival of a Palestinian Robert Frost with a poetic-political sensibility. Somebody gave "So What" the right title. It's the name of the single, wonderful short story that follows the poems. It's also the title of the famous Miles Davis track, with which Ali's work shares a conversational, weary-yet-unyielding tone.

The cover shows a photograph of Ali's somber, lined face, the face of a man who writes:

I do not consider myself a pessimist,

and I certainly don't

suffer from the shock

of ancient Gypsy nightmares,

and yet, in the middle of the day,

whenever I turn on the radio,

or turn it off,

I breathe in a kind of historical,

theological leprosy.

The poem has a wittily grim title: "Postoperative Complications Following the Extraction of Memory."

Given Darwish's bombs and Ali's bursts of radio news, the faces both poems conjure bristle with the shock of unabsorbed loss. Yet the poets are like relatives with very different personalities. Darwish insists on a metaphorical, ego-driven, self-questioning complexity. Ali's poetic ego is more receptive than imposing, able to absorb complexity like clay. The simultaneous publication of Darwish's and Ali's books (each presents facing Arabic and English texts) offers a chance to compare a poet of the people with a shrewdly modest people's poet.

In fact, Darwish is seen as an unofficial national poet. Many Palestinians accept him as the one who translates their experiences for a larger world, one whose heroic view (assertively antiheroic too, conveyed by the image of a butterfly's fragile embrace of the "burden" of the book's title) reflects the arc of their history. He left, returned to and departed again from Al-Birwah, his hometown east of Acre, which was destroyed in the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. Jews celebrate that as the year in which Israel became a modern state, the moment of nationalist salvation. Palestinians -- including Darwish, in a speech one can find online -- call it "the catastrophe."

Darwish became active in the Israeli Communist party, the Rakah, and was also involved later (as editor of the party's newspaper) in its split between Arabic and Jewish members. He went to Moscow and spent time in Israeli prisons. The 1982 Israeli siege of Lebanon, his adopted home, started him on a wandering life; today he divides his time between Paris and the Middle East.

Palestinian poetry is often militantly political and rhetorical. But, as shown by English translations in Salma Khadra Jayyusi's eye-opening "Anthology of Modern Palestinian Literature," it can also be personal and lyrical. The doves Darwish often describes are birds of peace, but his images of clouds, ash and roads are full of ambivalence, one senses, between militancy and a conception of artistic neutrality.

Another Darwish poem, "The Coastal Road," is about "a road that leads to Egypt and Syria," a road of "conflict over anything," of "agreement over everything," a road on which "my ghost screams at me

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