Mourid Barghouti’s first full length collection to be published in the UK is a wonderful book, sprawling, elegiac and elegant. The translation from the Arabic by Barghouti’s wife, Radwa Ashour, is mellifluous and adept, full of lovely felicities in the English, which make the poems come alive in the language they were not written in.
Barghouti, a Palestinian, the author of a memoir I Saw Ramallah, which has drawn praise from Edward Said and John Berger, has undergone exile not only from Palestine, but also from Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon. In the current book, the theme of exile predominates, but this is never agitprop poetry. And neither is the nostalgia stiflingly melancholic; the breadth of the approach adopted in this collect prohibits it; and the opening lines of the long poem ‘Midnight’ which begins the book, prohibit it, too:
That’s all you can do:
dump it in the dustbin,
the whole calendar,
return its present to the past,
as if the past twelve months
had departed with the final bell,
leaving their joys
to you alone,
and their aches and pains to oblivion.
And when Death overlooks ‘you’, ‘in a fit of irresponsibility’, not only does he leave you with joys, but the people he has taken, have gone ‘shrouded in banners/where winds go to sleep’. They are gone in the glory of their memorial, which may or may not be political, but they have also gone with the forces of nature which cannot be denied; neither can the joy that returns again ‘slowly and shyly’ even under these circumstances. That joy is not the joy of insensitivity, or relief, but it is not clouded with survivor guilt either. The poet/narrator is, time and again, profoundly sensitive to the fragility of the small pleasures that carrying on can bring.
Barghouti has a particularised sense of the archetype of the sufferer: the mourning mother; the returning dead; the moon in its silent witness. This takes Barghouti into larger gestures than is perhaps usual in poetry in the ‘English’ tradition:
In the paralysed body,
the muscle of imagination inflicts bruises to the jaws
of whomever it pleases,
bruises that will never heal.
In the palace of obedience
there remains one last locked room
where someone makes ready
the guns of mutiny.
And occasionally Barghouti’s use of the repeated ‘you’ seems grating, almost hectoring.
‘Midnight’ is conceived in a series of consecutive movements that somehow overlap each other, and move the reader along with them, in the writing’s repetitions and parallelisms. The group of individual poems that end the book can be much more direct. In ‘Interpretations’, ‘a poet sits in a coffee shop, writing’ observed by an old lady, a young woman, a child, a business man and a tourist who each have their own interpretations of what the poet is writing; however, ‘the secret policeman/walks, slowly, towards him’. In ‘It’s also fine’, Barghouti pleads for the opportunity ‘to die/with a white pillow, not the pavement, under our cheek’. In the poem ‘In the neighbouring room’, we are ‘next to/the interrogation room/packed with the stupidity of screams’.
But even this engaged poetry is shot through with lyricism and plangent detail.