While listening to Luciano Berio’s “Laborintus II,” (1965, 2010, 2012) I come across a writing and reference to one of my favorite political writers, Edward Said. This poem about Said was from an author whom I was not familiar, until just now. His words ring heavy with sorrow, light with joy, deep with passion, and sincere with compassion. I have noted the entire poem here for all to read and share as they feel necessary. I hope that this offers some peace – and, possibly, a blessing – to all on a day which, for me, has become one of reflection.
Translated by Fady Joudah
For Edward Said
New York, November, Fifth Avenue,
the sun a shattered metal saucer,
I said to my estranged self in the shade:
Is this Sodom or Babylon?
There, at the door of an electric abyss
high as the sky, I met Edward
thirty years ago, time was less defiant then,
and we each said: If your past is experience
make your tomorrow meaning and vision!
Let’s go to our tomorrow certain
of imagination’s candor, and of the miracle of grass.
I don’t recall that we went to the movies
that evening, but I heard ancient Indians calling me:
Trust neither the horse, nor modernity.
No, no victim asks his torturer:
Are you me? If my sword were bigger
than my rose, would you wonder
whether I would act similarly?
A question like this piques the curiosity of the novelist
in a glass-walled office overlooking some irises in the garden…
where the hypothetical hand is as white as the novelist’s
conscience when he settles his account
with the human instinct: There’s no tomorrow
in yesterday, onward then…
Though progress might be the bridge of return
New York. Edward wakes to a sluggish
dawn. Plays a Mozart piece. Runs around
in the university tennis court. Thinks
of the migration of birds over borders and checkpoints.
Reads The New York Times. Writes his tense
commentary. Damns an orientalist who guides a general
to the weakness in the heart of a woman from the East.
Showers. Chooses his suit with a rooster’s elegance.
Drinks his coffee with cream. Screams
at the dawn: Come on, don’t procrastinate!
On the wind he walks. And on the wind
he knows who he is. There’s no ceiling for the wind
and no house. The wind is a compass
to the stranger’s north.
He says: I am from there, I am from here,
but I am neither there nor here.
I have two names that meet and part,
and I have two languages, I forget
with which I dream. For writing I have
an English with obedient vocabulary,
and I have a language of heaven’s dialogue
with Jerusalem, it has a silver timbre
but it doesn’t obey my imagination.
And Identity? I asked.
He said: Self-defense…
Identity is the daughter of birth, but in the end
she’s what her owner creates, not an inheritance
of a past. I am the plural. Within my interior
my renewing exterior resides…yet I
belong to the victim’s question. Were I not
from there I would have trained my heart
to rear the gazelle of metonymy,
so carry your land wherever you go,
and be a narcissist if you need to be.
I asked: The outside world is an exile
and the inside world is an exile
so who are you between the two?
I don’t completely know myself
lest I lose myself, he said. I am what I am
and I am my other in a duality that finds
harmony between speech and gesture.
And if I were a poet I would have said:
I am two in one
like a sparrow’s wings
when spring is late
content with bearing
the good omen.
He loves a land then departs from it.
(Is the impossible far?)
He loves departure to anything.
In free travel between cultures, the researchers
of human essence might find enough seats
for everyone. Here is a periphery advancing.
Or a center receding. The East is not completely East
and the West is not completely West.
Because identity is open to plurality,
it isn’t a citadel or a trench.
Metaphor was asleep on the riverbank
and were it not for pollution
it would have embraced the other bank. I asked:
Have you written a novel?
I tried, he said…I tried to bring back my image
in the mirrors of faraway women,
but they had already infiltrated their fortified nights
and said: We have a world separate from text.
Man will not write woman, the riddle-and-dream.
Woman will not write man, the symbol-and-star.
No love resembles another love.
No night resembles another night.
They enumerated the traits of men and laughed.
-So what did you do?
-I laughed at my absurdity
and threw the novel in the trash!
The intellectual reins in the novelist’s rendition
and the philosopher dissects the singer’s rose.
He loves a land then departs from it
and says: I am what I become and will become.
I will make myself by myself
and choose my exile.
My exile is the backdrop of the epic scene,
I defend the poets’ need
to join tomorrow with memories,
I defend trees the birds wear
as country and exile.
I defend a moon still fit for a poem of love.
I defend an idea fractured by its owner’s fragility
and a land the myths have kidnapped.
-Can you return to anything?
-What’s ahead of me drags what’s behind me in a hurry.
There’s no time in my wristwatch for me to write down lines
on the sand. But I can visit yesterday, like strangers do,
when they listen in the evening to a pastoral poet:
A girl by the spring fills her jug
with the milk of clouds
she laughs and cries from a bee that stung
her heart in the wind-rise
of absence. Is love what aches the water
or is it an ailment in fog…?
-Then you are prone to the affliction of longing?
– A longing to tomorrow is farther and higher.
My dream leads my steps. And my vision
seats my dream on my knees like a cat.
My dream is the realistic imaginary and the son of will:
We are able
the inevitability of the abyss!
-And what of longing to yesterday?
– A sentiment that doesn’t concern the intellectual except
to comprehend a stranger’s yearning to the tools of absence.
My longing is a conflict over a present
that grabs tomorrow by the testicles.
-But didn’t you sneak to yesterday when you went
to the house, your house, in al-Talbiah, in Jerusalem?
-I prepared myself to stretch out in my mother’s bed
as a child does when he’s scared
of his father. And I tried to retrieve my birth
and trace the Milky Way on the roof of my old house, I tried
to palpate the skin of absence and the summer scent
of the jasmine garden. But the beast of truth
distanced me from a longing that was looking over
my shoulder like a thief.
-Were you frightened? What frightened you?
-I couldn’t meet loss face to face.
I stood like a beggar at the doorstep.
Do I ask permission, from strangers who sleep
in my own bed, to visit myself for five minutes? Do I
bow respectfully to those who reside in my childhood dream?
Would they ask: Who is this inquisitive foreign visitor?
Would I be able to talk about war and peace
between the victims and the victims
of victims without interruption? Would they
say to me: There’s no place for two dreams in one bed?
He’s neither himself nor me
he’s a reader wondering what poetry
can tell us in the age of catastrophe.
in your land,
in my name and yours, in the almond
blossom, in the banana peel, in the infant’s
milk, in light and shadow,
in wheat grains, in the salt container.
Proficient snipers hit their marks
This land is smaller than the blood of its offspring
who stand on the threshold of Resurrection like offerings.
Is this land really
blessed or baptized
that doesn’t dry up with prayer or sand?
No justice in the pages of this holy book
suffices for the martyrs to celebrate the freedom
of walking on clouds. Blood in daylight.
Blood in the dark. Blood in the words.
But he says: The poem might host defeat
like a thread of light that glistens in a guitar’s heart.
Or as a Christ on a mare adorned with beautiful
metaphor. Aesthetic is only the presence
of the real in form.
In a world without sky, land becomes
an abyss. And the poem, one of condolence’s gifts.
And an adjective of wind: northern or southern.
Don’t describe what the camera sees of your wounds
and scream to hear yourself, to know
that you’re still alive, and that life
on this earth is possible. Invent a wish
for speech, devise a direction or a mirage
to prolong the hope, and sing.
The aesthetic is a freedom.
I said: A life that is defined only
in antithesis to death…isn’t a life!
He said: We will live, even if life abandons us
to ourselves. Let’s become the masters of words
that will immortalize their readers —
as the brilliant Ritsos said.
Then he said: If I die before you do,
I entrust you with the impossible!
I asked: Is the impossible far?
He said: As far as one generation.
-And what if I die before you do?
He said: I will console Galilee’s mountains
and write: The aesthetic is only the attainment
of the suitable. Now don’t forget: If I die before you do,
I entrust you with the impossible.
When I visited him in the new Sodom,
in 2002, he was struggling against
Sodom’s war on the Babylonians,
and against cancer.
He was like the last epic hero
defending Troy’s right
to share in the narrative.
bids his summit farewell
and soars higher and higher.
Because residing over Olympus
and other summits
farewell to the poem