Eliot Cardinaux


Category: Memoir

Self-Elegizing at Each Stage of Grief “In the Presence of Absence” (On Mahmoud Darwish’s Farewell)

DarwishWritten 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:

“Remember, remember!”

(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).



When I first encountered the poetry of Paul Celan, I was going through a mental breakdown, a part of which coincided with a loss of language. I was unable to speak for several weeks. When I discovered Celan, his fragmentary reconstruction of his mother tongue, after the Nazis, who spoke the same language, killed her and his father, was a draw that lead me into some kind of a rabbit hole in the following years.

This book, Around the Faded Sun, is an homage to the importance that took on for me as a young poet just starting out, trying to revive in myself the will to speak through poetry, as well as having fallen silent in the face of atrocity.

My connection to Celan was immediate and personal in origin, and its historicity can only be applied effectively in relative terms today, from a political vantage point. That is why I am saying, there’s a mythos there that I wish to reach for here regarding Celan, and Osip Mandelstam, Celan’s poetic “brother” whom he never met, Mandelstam’s wife Nadezhda, too, and Ingeborg Bachmann, etc. René Char makes an appearance as a dedicatee, as do Bei Dao and Adonis, whose poetry speaks to the exiled condition of all poets, as well as a few friends & mentors without whom I never would have followed my artistic practice to where it has continued, in unarriving, until today. Coltrane also runs through these pages heavily.

I recently traveled to Köln, where I recorded the first two sections of this book with a band of musicians who go collectively by the name of Our Hearts as Thieves – Asger Thomsen , a bassist from DK, Jonas Engel, a saxophonist from DE, and Etienne Nillesen, a percussionist from NL – live at a venue called Loft.

(Video: Portions of a concert we performed back in 2017)

These new recordings are now mastered, and we are shopping for labels. The album, when it comes out, will be titled: What the Wildflower Witnessed. This work is difficult. My goal with the music was to see what happened when I brought this new poetry, much of which is based on Celan, into an improvising group whose format is to work with my poetry as a narrative anchor. I guess it tells the story, in poetic terms, of my interaction with the world through the lens of history, and having been thrown into music, the poetry is transformed, and allows me to see how the poems respond to outside forces & influence through the veil of noise and sound, recalling Osip Mandelstam’s prose work “The Noise of Time.” I think I succeeded in opening up a new window for myself into my process, and have started responding in my current poetry to that experience as it unfolded then, and how it unfolds now, in retrospect, as I listen back.

This whole practice stems in large part for me, from Pierre Joris’s work translating Celan, and his and many others’ scholarship surrounding both Celan & Mandelstam, such as Jerome Rothenberg, Clarence Brown, & Charles Bernstein.

In effect, these are my own “reading stations in the late word,” finding a clearing in which to speak, reading into and out of the later poetry of Paul Celan, always as if for the first time.

-Eliot Cardinaux

Purchase the paperback here: AROUND THE FADED SUN

Notes on the Inner Life of Piano

In 2016 I was living in Boston after graduating New England Conservatory. The world I believed I belonged to was like American English, in that it only accounted for that within earshot, and although I listened, I could never hear the sound of bells that rang outside its walls – that which was too far to hear unless there was a breeze. Hence, I felt guarded against all that was in my periphery. And so I naturally knew to become just that: the sidelong glance of a thief, a strand of poetry abandoned by a world leader after it became too much to wrestle with. I hid like the outline of writing on the layer of paper underneath the page that is torn off the pad. All it would take was to rub the flat end of a pencil across my spirit to reveal me. Nonetheless, I focused my intention like the eye-patch of a horse that is all but blind, and I waited for silence: a particular silence, accompanied by the sound that is left in one’s ears as someone hangs up the phone having been the bearer of bad news. Read the rest of this entry »

New Release: Sweet Beyond Witness

As some of you know, I have decided to pack my bags, and take leave of the city of Boston, where I have lived for the past four years. As I prepare to move out to the rural countryside of Western Massacusetts, again, I am finally gaining some much needed perspective on my life during my time here. There is evidence of that fact.

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Journal of a Nomad Justice

All three photos in this post are by Monica Frisell. Unfortunately, the timeline offered to me to complete this project did not allow for me to include more of Monica’s photos. More to come in the future though, as we hope to collaborate on something, eventually. I personally admire her work a lot. Hope you do to. Enjoy.

Frisell_FieldPhoto.jpg Read the rest of this entry »

Mindfulness––A Mantra and Afterword

Part I: Writing in, Writing out; Invention

In his book of essays, A Nomad Poetics, Pierre Joris writes of the necessity for poets not only to learn other languages, but to invent them. If it is possible to invent one’s own language, I have tried. It may as well follow that it is possible to learn—to write, indeed, even to speak in—those languages that others have invented.[1] Read the rest of this entry »

Mother of Two

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