Fady Joudah on Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008)

Mahmoud Darwish was and is a colossal figure in modern Arabic poetry. He passed away Saturday in Houston, Texas after heart surgery. Fady Joudah is a Palestinian-American poet and doctor who lives in Houston and was a finalist for the 2008 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation for Butterfly's Burden, a collection of three recent books by Darwish. Two of these poems appear in PEN America 9: Checkpoints, along with two new poems by Joudah, who recently won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition. (One of these poems provided our new issue with its title.)

Mahmoud Darwish was and will remain a rare phenomenon in the world of letters, a poet whose constant dialogue with place and time (or non place and non time) have thrust him in the hearts and minds of millions of people. He was as extraordinary and private as he was universal and public.

A tender, shy man, with a sense of humor and satire, he was dedicated to the art of poetry and was not concerned with his public image, but never disdainful of it, always respectful of, and indebted to, his readers. His complex language that incessantly bears the illusion of accessibility is laden with paradox and complex metaphor. He was not only the truest and most beautiful expression of Palestine and Palestinians but also of the Arab world. He is dearly loved in Tunis and Morocco as he is in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt and across the Gulf. And he was also celebrated and honored the world over.

Mahmoud Darwish loved life, and loved it in its full adornment and dignity and did not want it compromised. He would not want sorrow to define him. He would rather “We Love Life” and “Remember after (him) only life”…And he would want not necessarily the fixation on the elegiac and the historico-political in his poetry, but a celebration of his eulogy for life and language. He was an innovator of prosody and contemporary rhythms in Arabic, a philosopher of the self and its stranger others, ever the interlocutor. I can only hope that the day will soon come, especially in English, when Darwish’s night and dream, jasmine and almond blossoms are seen for what they are, the private lexicon of a singular and eternal, timeless voice in the history of human literature.

Fady Joudah, a Palestinian-American, is a physician. His first poetry collection, The Earth in the Attic, won the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition in 2007. He has been a field member of Doctors Without Borders since 2001.


Esterházy Update

If you read much about the 2008 World Voices festival, you probably came across the name of Péter Esterházy, who was a hit everywhere he went—sharing the bill with Ian McEwan, Michael Ondaatje, and others; protesting government incursions into our privacy; and talking with Wayne Koestenbaum.

Or perhaps you were ahead of the curve, and read about his masterwork Celestial Harmonies in 2004, when it was published in the US (and was raved about in Slate by none other than Aleksandar Hemon—another festival participant this year).

In any case, a couple of excellent blogs flagged this recent article in Hungarian Literature Online about his follow-up to Celestial Harmonies, called Revised Edition. After writing 1,000 pages about his male ancestors (who more or less ran Hungary for a few centuries, from what I understand) in the former book, he discovered that the most immediate of these ancestors, his father, was an informant for the Communist government which had brought low his aristocratic clan.

It’s an amazing story. I heard Esterházy tell it to Koestenbaum back in May—and then, more recently, I read Esterházy’s preface to Revised Edition, which provided some additional details. The preface was translated for us by the wonderful Judith Sollosy, who also translated Celestial Harmonies. We thought we might publish it along with the Koestenbaum conversation in PEN America 9 (which will also feature a typically smart and gorgeous essay in five-word lines by Wayne). For a variety of reasons, the preface didn’t work in this particular issue—but yesterday I had the chance to talk with Judith, and got some good news about another Esterházy project: a very different follow-up to Celestial Harmonies, a novel about mothers rather than fathers, called (in the Hungarian original, anyway) No Art!

Judith has agreed to write something for this blog in the near future, filling in
Esterházy's growing American fanbase on all of these matters. So if you're a part of that group, watch this space.

(Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan, taken at the Town Hall reading, 2008 PEN World Voices Festival.)