“It is not the soil that is occupied…colonialism has settled itself in the very center of the…individual, and has undertaken a sustained work of cleanup, of expulsion of self…there is not occupation of territory on the one hand, and independence of persons on the other. It is the country as a whole, its history, its daily pulsation that are contested, disfigured, in the hope of a final destruction. Under these conditions, the individual’s breathing is an observed, an occupied breathing. It is a combat breathing.”
Iraq? Afghanistan? Palestine? No. But it could be. This is Frantz Fanon writing about the French in Algeria, in his book, A Dying Colonialism, 1965.
So, someone reading this might say, what does this have to do with Best American Poetry? With poetry at all? Fannon knew what he was speaking about. His books are still read for the clarity of his understanding of colonialism, occupiers and the occupied.
Poetry can be a rebellion, a refusal to allow occupation of the soul. Rebellion to the occupiers themselves.
When I wrote Vocabulary of Silence, (Red Hen Press, 2011) it was from the stance of a witness-from-afar to the continued US war against Iraq and Afghanistan. I tried to examine in myself how that felt, what it meant to be living in the country that conducted, and took photos of, torture in Abu Ghraib, for instance. Many of poems from Vocabulary of Silence have been translated into Arabic by poet and translator Nizar Sartawi, and have appeared in journals and newspapers throughout the Arab world, an honor to be sure.
One must write what one must write. For myself, I couldn’t bear what was going on without “doing” something. Poetry and politics. Political poetry. What seems to be questionable in this country, that is, there seems to always be a challenge to those who write what is termed “political poetry,” in my limited experience of reading poets from the Arab world, particularly Iraq and Palestine, the division isn’t there. The assumption is, I believe, that the poets are the speakers for the people, (and for themselves as individuals) what happens to their country and the world, is matter for their poems -- and the poets are highly revered.
Of course, Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish comes to mind. His poems, “Identity Card” and “State of Seige” propelled him to international fame, and he was considered the voice of the Palestinians for most of his writing career. He exemplifies too, a theme, that for me, runs through so much of modern Arab poetry: the theme of exile. Here are some excerpts from Who Am I, without Exile?
Stranger on the river bank,
like the river, water binds me to your name.
Nothing brings me back from this distance
to the oasis: neither war nor peace.
Nothing grants me entry into the gospels.
Nothing. Nothing shines from the shores
of ebb and flow between the Tigris and the Nile….
What shall I do? What shall I do without exile
and the long night of gazing at the water?
This displacement and comment upon exile, and colonial occupation, is echoed in this excerpt of Iraqi poet Lateef Helmet’s, The Heart of a Woman:
The heart of a woman is the only country
That I can enter without a passport,
Where no policeman
Asks me for my card
Or searches my suitcase
Full of contraband joys
And delicious sorrows.
The heart of a woman is the only country
That does not heap up heavy weapons
Nor force its citizens to fight its wars.
Iraqi poet Fawzi Karim circles the question of exile, even in one’s homeland, in his poem,
What Was my Choice??
One has learned to allow a tiny space in the head for contingency…
then you in one moment peel yourself of whom you love
and lone, dim-sighted, grope your way home,
the light of the street lamps heavier than darkness
---the burden of exile…memory.
Tantalizing ourselves with hope
shielding ourselves against…but the question in the middle
of exiles suddenly…:
--What have you chosen?
The question of hope as both desired and feared, is echoed in Darwish’s famous poem, State of Seige:
Here, by the downslope of hills, facing the sunset
and time’s muzzle,
near gardens with severed shadows,
we do what the prisoners do,
what the unemployed do:
we nurture hope
And finally, excerpts from We Are Not Dead, by Iraqi poet Munthir Abdul-Hur:
…We go, every sunset, to the river
Carrying the coffins of our day
…We are not dead…
We compose our features,
Bandage our calendars,
We return to our hospitals
Lighting lamps of regret
…Where fold after fold,
The sea takes our dreams…
Our lifetimes are withered leaves
That launched an attack on the sun
And fell in flames.
The fire now licks at our names,
Sewn together with splinters.
What poetry can do, is to seize back our names, emblazon them on paper, and send poems out like messages in a bottle, or the folded paper boats with candles, set upon the water, in tribute to hope, endurance, peace and poetry.
Mahmoud Darwish, Unfortunately, It Was Paradise, Selected Poems, translated and edited by Minir Akash and Carolyn Forche, with Sinan Antoon and Amira El-Zein, University of California Press.
Mahoud Darwish, The Butterfly’s Burden, translated by Fady Joudah, Copper Canyon Press.
Fanon, Frantz, A Dying Colonialism, Evergreen Press.
Sadek Mohammed, Sohell Najm, Haider Al-Kabi, Dan Vech, editors and translators; Flowers of Flame, Unheard Voices of Iraq, Michigan State University Press, East Lansing.
Saadi Simawe, editor, Iraqi Poetry Today, Zephyrpress.