I recently read two books that both blew me away, both in their intense beauty but also the absolute importance of both of these texts. At this particularly apocalyptic moment in time, one both absent of and brimming with hope, these texts offer important perspectives and I can’t recommend them enough. I want to say very little about them, as I think the texts speak much better for themselves, so I instead offer a few excerpts from each.
Journal of an Ordinary Grief by Mahmoud Darwish / Translated from the Arabic by Ibrahim Muhawi (Archipelago Books, 2010)
I came across this book while wandering through a used bookstore friend friend/writer Harold Abramowitz. I picked the book out of the shelf because the title jumped out at me, but while I was holding it and about to flip through the pages to get a better look, Harold glanced over, saw the book in my hand, and immediately declared to me how good of a find it was.
I read the entire book in one sitting while sitting on my patio in Altadena, surrounded by trees and mountains, and sipping my coffee, and found the language staggering, heartbreaking, intense, sad, inspiring, moving, and absolutely essential. Several times I found myself having difficulty breathing and several times I had to hold back tears. It’s hard to articulate the emotional effect this book had on me. Hence, some excerpts:
from “The Moon Did Not Fall into the Well”:
—Why are you avoiding me? Are you trying to put a distance between yourself and the past?
—To make it clear to you that I do not defend a past happiness, exactly as I do not celebrate a past misery. Perhaps it is due only to our high opinion of it that our homeland is justice and beauty. Yet it did not become so beautiful merely from projection caused by deprivation. It is a dream in its actuality, and an actuality in its dream. We do not long for a wasteland, but for a paradise. We long to practice our humanity in a place of our own.
from “The Homeland: Between Memory and History”:
The map is not the answer. And the birth certificate is no longer the same. No one has had to face this question as you have, from this moment till you die, or repent, or become a traitor. To be content is not enough because contentment does not bring about change or blow anything up, and the wasteland is immense. The desert is not always bigger than a prison cell. So, what is a homeland? It is not a question you can answer and then go on your way. Your cause and your life are one. And before all this – and beyond it – it is your identity. But when you returned, you found nothing. What does that mean? It would be the simplest thing to say, my homeland is where I will die. But you could die anywhere, or on the border between two places. What does that mean? After a while the question will become harder. Why did you leave? Why did you leave? For twenty years you have been asking, why did they leave? Leaving is not a negation of the homeland, but it does turn the problem into a question. Do not write a history now. When you do that, you leave the past behind, and what is required is to call the past to account. Do not write a history except that of your wounds. Do not write a history except that of your exile. You are here – here, where you were born. And where longing will lead you to death.
The homeland that is in your memory and in the cells of your body is entangled with the homeland in their fists and their “returning” suitcases.
from “Journal of an Ordinary Grief”:
The solution lies in the sea. Early in the morning you head for the beach to put out your fire in the blue water. The waves draw you away and do not carry you back. You have to return on your own. In solitude you lie on the warm sand in the open air. Why does the sun squander so much of its energy, and why do the waves break? There is a huge amount of sun, a huge amount of sand, and a huge amount of water. All around you people speak a language you understand, but your sadness and your loneliness and your alienation intensify. A desire possesses you to describe the sea to your girlfriend, but you feel lonely. With reason, or without, they curse your people, yet they enjoy what your people have left behind. Even while swimming or joking or kissing they damn your people. Is the sea not capable of granting them a single moment of innocence and affection so that they can forget about you for a moment? How can human beings feel hate while they are stretched out on the sand? Saturated with sun, salt, and longing you head for the beach snack bar. You drink a beer and whistle a sad song, and all eyes turn to you. You busy yourself with lighting a cigarette that has no taste, and you buy an ear of corn and eat it all by yourself. You wish to be able to spend the whole day at the beach in order to forget that it’s a feast day and your family is waiting for you. But the time of your daily appointment at the police station is approaching and you remember all that is happening to you. And in the blink of an eye the color of noon, the sea and sky turn even more blue. Then you leave.
from “He Who Kills Fifty Arabs Loses One Piaster”:
Here they sleep. The sunset grows larger and changes into forests of dry trees. There is no hour to commemorate their death, no occasion and no appointment. The stones themselves are time, and the expanse of the pale sunset is time. What name shall we give them?
from “Happiness – When It Betrays”:
They taught you to be wary of happiness because it hurts when it betrays. But from where did it come from all of a sudden?
Suddenly you laugh. Equality makes you laugh. And you resist, that you may not be secure in your happiness. The days have taught you not to trust happiness because it hurts when it deceives. Where has it from from, then, all of a sudden?
You are not responsible for anything that happened in the past. The past was not made by you, or by any mistakes you made. But it is your heritage.
from “Going to the World”:
—Why are you waking the world from its slumber?
—What you hear is not my voice. It’s the sound of my corpse hitting the ground.
–Why don’t you die quietly then?
—Because a quiet death is a degrading life.
—And a loud death?
—It is to stand firm.
—Did you come to announce your presence?
—No. I came to announce my absence.
—Why do you kill, then?
—I don’t kill anything except killing. I kill only the crime.
—Go to hell!
—I am coming from hell.
Mess and Mess and by Douglas Kearney (Noemi Books, 2015)
I’ve long admired Douglas Kearney as human being, as a writer, as a poet, as a teacher, and so much more. Several moments in his last book, Patter, brought me to tears, and I often teach his work in my writing classes as there is so much to learn from the way he stretches language in every possible way. Because his work is so layered in what it says, performs, reads, overrides, poeticizes, turns, and theorizes, this book, a strange and messy amalgalm of theory and discussion and poetry and performance, becomes a crucial text, not only to delve deeper into Kearney’s own work and find new points of entry, but also as a resource to read so much of what is happening in the world today. Some excerpts: