Written toward the end of his life, Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s In the Presence of Absence is a self-elegy unfolding in the liminal interaction between two selves: the self that is dying, and the self that will live on in the poet’s words.
Divided into 20 sections, one each for a major period in the poet’s life, it is partly the modern biography of a people, part memoir, part epic prose poem, and also an historical account of the time leading up to and after the Israeli invasion of 1948.
The first section is an introduction laying out the poet’s basic intent from the present moment.
The second begins with the poet’s childhood, before the invasion, and chronicles the scars of innocence he acquired in those early days.
“At that moment, the future became your approaching past!” As the poet moves through his past life in the written word, as he approaches, his future becomes apparent and momentary. In a flash, they become the same. Likewise, life, death; absence and presence; voice and body converge for a poetic instant in which two selves that long for one another meet.
This quote also alludes to the coming invasion and foreshadows the impending exile of not only Darwish himself, but his entire people.
The 3rd section deals with Darwish’s early schooling and unveils the poet’s strong affinity for, and joy of language in the sense of play from a young age. While reading this section, I wish very much I could comprehend the original Arabic, for the simple sense of “three letters becoming a house,” and how it relates to the Arabic alphabet. In Darwish’s enthusiastic and childlike description, “lethargic letters” moot within themselves, when added on, then become the bricks with which that house is built. Poignant, using letters as building blocks, like a child playing architect, as I did when I was small, although it speaks also to the burgeoning skill of the extraordinary young poet. “If you do not misspell “river,” the river will flow through your notebook.” (pp. 28)
His personality, as well, is clear, his sense of being alone, even other, appears early on. He writes that what “assumes the obscure … makes childhood a sixth sense,” and that provoking it made the young Darwish “a stranger.”
Darwish’s joy and attunement in describing his early memories is both profound and wounding, as it shows a side of his personality which remains deposited like minerals in his memory from before the war. While the tone strays far from the typical assumptions about life in exile, and reflects how his imagination may have grown as his nostalgia for a home he could not return to shaped in him a need, and therefore a stronger capacity for recollection, it also becomes apparent throughout the book just what an internal severance the invasion caused between himself and those early experiences. His innocence, however, is not lost.
To close the section, like the last two, a paragraph in italics: an exquisitely painful intertwining of selves, as the poet calls on one self as another to “be a child again” so he can “elegize you now, now, now. Just as you elegize me!”
The invasion. The sudden rushing away from this home “lest the wolf” or “the star … kidnap you.” The sudden visible, tangible “pain … rejoicing, on the other bank of a river that was once a barrier and now has become a petrified word.” And the soldiers. The tanks.
The urgency of this text, framed within the urgency of elegy, rushes alongside us as we rush alongside his family into exile.
He brings up genesis. “We had no need for myths back then, but what happened in them is now happening to us…” But, he continues to himself: “You, you and not your ghost, were the one driven out into this night … So you will write about history, not about myth.” (pp. 33-35)
Canaanite women appear in this section, signifying “the legacy of pure water before the invasion,” ancestors whom he calls to “Swim, … swim in warm light, so that a poet’s poem may overflow” with that legacy.
This wave of recollective reflections ends with a scene of the young poet sitting on a Lebanese shore, trying vainly to poeticize: “O sea! O sea!” But the cry is not adequate, and so, when a bird in the boy’s dream carries him away and the narrative shifts its focus back to the present moment, he echoes the boy’s experience as his own, but the song has changed: “Dream and you will find paradise in place!”
Darwish calls upon himself and his people from the void of the past, whose memory becomes:
“Darkness, darkness, darkness … The trees are black and blind without name or shadow.”
He speaks as a poet, speaking to himself as a human being:
“I, the narrator, not you, now remind you of the village crier who used to sit on top of a roof and call out: The hyena is coming! Dozens like you ran to the village cave until the soldiers had left…”
He extracts from that void the pain of a wound:
“Everything here is proof of loss and lack. Everything here is a painful reminder of what had once been there. What wounds you most is that “there” is so close to “here.”
He reminds himself of being chided in those days for thinking he had memories of his own, and that, though he was a child of 7, he did, and that:
“The past was born suddenly, like mushrooms. You have a past that you see is distant. Distant is the house that the past alone inhabits. The past was born out of absence. The past calls on you with all it possesses.”
And he calls on himself, reminds himself, the reader, his people:
(This essay remains unfinished. I decided to share in light of the recent attack on Bernie Sanders, in which a white supremacist raised a Nazi flag at one of his rallies. Bernie is, of course, Jewish, and known for his support of Palestine).