Have a Good Time

May 6, 2010

Darwish on revolutionary poetics (via Oppen and Armantrout)

Much of the radical poetics I find interesting comes from the work of privileged white men and women: Stein, Williams, Oppen, Olson, Bernstein.  The revolutionary nature of this work relates only to what’s on the page, because none of these writers would claim to be a revolutionary subject in anything but the aesthetic field.  Oppen famously exited poetry for a few decades of politics with the claim in his essay “The Mind’s Own Place” that “There are situations that cannot honorably be met by art.”

I very much want this to be false due chiefly to my personal beliefs and commitments; for me radical politics without radical art feels insufficient, and radical art without radical politics feels false.  So I am intrigued by Palestinian novelist Ghassan Khanafani’s idea of “literature of resistance,” I am eager to find affinities between aesthetics and politics, and I was glad to find that the first section of The Palestinian Wedding: A Bilingual Anthology of Contemporary Palestinian Resistance Poetry is entitled, “Aesthetics of the Revolution.” The anthology starts with Mahmoud Darwish’s “The roses and the dictionary” which begins:

Be that as it may, I must…
The poet must have a new toast
And new anthems.

The poem is undated but we may imagine “Be that as it may” referring to any of a number of Palestinian national catastrophes–whether 1948, 1956, 1967, 1982, or 2008-2009–or merely the general condition of exile following the Nakba. It is a post-facto situation that implies a necessity, but the nature of the necessity is obscure.  In the wake of disaster, the personal imperative “I must” is unresolved and dissolves into ellipsis; Darwish shifts to the general and prescriptive “The poet must,” a shift from morality to aesthetics.

But aesthetics are not an alternative to morality, or to the problems that stymie the definition of a moral imperative.  Rather the moral imperative is fought on aesthetic lines.  “I must…/The poet must[…]” is as much a displacement of the moral question onto poetics as it is a claim that (at least for this speaker) the moral question can only be resolved by means of poetics.  The second stanza begins, “Be that as it may, / I must refuse death / Even though my legends die. / In the rubble I rummage for light and new poetry.”  “Light” and “new poetry,” found among the rubble, constitute the refusal of death, the moral work.  The literal rubble of war must be the root of both politics and poetics.

Darwish goes on to criticize a certain non-revolutionary poetics; perhaps like Oppen, aware of a time in which art seems dishonorable, Darwish asks:

Did you realize before today, my love,
That a letter in the dictionary is dull?
How do they live, all these words?
How do they grow? How do they spread?
We still water them with the tears of memories
And metaphors and sugar.

Since “today,” since the preeminence of rubble, a poetics built from the dictionary alone is “dull.”  Not only is such a poetics rejected aesthetically but it becomes impossible without an ethical sacrifice: its furtherance cannot be accomplished proactively but only through nostalgia (“the tears of memories”) and artificial sweetness.  Sentimentality alone isn’t fecund when resistance is demanded. The poem ends:

Be that as it may, I must reject the roses that spring
From a dictionary or a diwan.
Roses grow on the arms of a peasant, on the fists of a laborer,
Roses grow over the wounds of a warrior
And on the face of a rock.

The final stanza is an assertion of the Williamsian “no ideas but in things.”  Roses (a metonym for poetry) remain Darwish’s vocation, but they must come directly from “the arms of a peasant,” “the fists of a laborer.”  In short Darwish shares Oppen’s skepticism of the possibility (which is to say, the morality) of poetry in certain situations.  But for Darwish the political and the aesthetic solution are one and the same: an Objectivist kind of poetics that is built on the political conditions of real life and not on a poetry whose matter exists separate from the fractured world.

Along these lines, I am thinking of Rae Armantrout’s response to Ron Silliman’s suggestion that groups subject to “exclusion and domination” respond to that exclusion by reclaiming conventional forms of representation, and not by challenging those conventions with avant-garde or experimental writing.  Armantrout replies that the representation of women’s lives in fact requires disruption of traditional forms.  This isn’t precisely agreeing with Cixous about “ecriture feminine,” but simply noting that disruption, disjunction, contradiction, and unclarity are the reality to be represented for excluded and dominated groups.

Elsewhere Armantrout has said, “I think that if I didn’t ‘write against norms,’ I wouldn’t be writing at all.”  Manifestly, this is the case for Darwish.  Writing an Objectivist-style resistance poetry may not be the only way for poetry to emerge out of the rubble of Palestine; the second stanza alludes to the possibility of a poetry “water[ed] with the tears of memories” (and the anthology I’m quoting provides examples of such poetries).  But a poetry that finds its ideas in things, that begins with reality and not nostalgic sentimentalism, functions as an ethical and political response itself, alive to the concerns that Oppen raises in “The Mind’s Own Place.”

The roses and the dictionary

Be that as it may, I must…
The poet must have a new toast
And new anthems.
Traversing a tunnel of incense
And pepper and ancient summer,
I carry the key to legends and ruined monuments of slaves.
I see history an old man
Tossing dice and gathering the stars.

Be that as it may,
I must refused death
Even though my legends die.
In the rubble I rummage for light and new poetry.
Did you realize before today, my love,
That a letter in the dictionary is dull?
How do they live, all these words?
How do they grow? How do they spread?
We still water them with the tears of memories
And metaphors and sugar.

Be that as it may,
I must reject the roses that spring
From a dictionary or a diwan.
Roses grow on the arms of a peasant, on the fists of a laborer,
Roses grow over the wounds of a warrior
And on the face of a rock. (translated by A.M. Elmessiri)

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