Mahmoud Darwish, one of the world's greatest contemporary Arab poets, died Saturday night in Houston after complications from heart surgery. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, declared three days of mourning on Sunday, saying that Mr. Darwish was “the pioneer of the modern Palestinian cultural project,” adding, “Words cannot describe the depth of sadness in our hearts.” Read the full article at the NYT.

In HFR issue #39 - the Works of Witness issue - two of Darwish's poems appeared in the Arabic along with translations and an introduction by Fady Joudah. Joudah's introduction and Darwish's poem, "The Cypress Broke" are below. To read more from issue 39, see our website.

In 2001, when the Israeli forces began a siege of the Palestinian territories to quell another uprising against the occupation, Mahmoud Darwish was in his residence in Ramallah. He had been working on more colloquial, conversational pieces, which he had to postpone, and he turned toward writing a long memoir poem, “A State of Siege.” Comprised of lyric journal-like entries, it was a testimony not only to human suffering but also to art under duress: Darwish says, “Our losses: from two martyrs to eight / and fifty olive trees, / in addition to the structural defect / that will afflict the poem and the play and the incomplete painting.” The poem’s title also brings to my mind the same expression al-Niffari, the tenth-century Iraqi Sufi poet, used to articulate the stage or the station in which the creative mind must pass through to arrive at a new aesthetic. This was such a poem for Darwish, and in it his address to poetry is simple: “Besiege your siege.”

From that point forward, Darwish found himself “In the Lust of Cadence,” a long sequence poem of forty-seven short lyrics grouped into twos and threes or more. They begin by reintroducing the self, weaving through place and time, constantly forming new interiors, as in the pentad that deals with death and life, of which “The Cypress Broke” is a part. Forgetfulness follows the death/life sequence in a triplet that ends in “As for Me, I Say to My Name.” Then it is a dream sequence, followed by progressive, playful, and occasionally absurd lyrics that culminate in the poet’s hovering over the body of his exile, in the final pentad sequence of his latest book: Don’t Apologize For What You’ve Done (2003).

Darwish is a formal poet who abides by the taf eelah, the element of prosody in Arabic. However, as he explained it to me, he sees his recent poetry as “circular,” wherein the line is insignificant, as if the poem is made up of one long line of prosody in prose interrupted into shorter fragments because of the limitations of the printed page. He encouraged me to “break up” or “re-form” the poems as I saw fit, but I persisted in providing the English reader with as much of the original “view” to which the Arabic reader has access. Even his peculiar use of the virgule and frequent pacing of the orality of the poem through ellipses enhance this vision. In the two poems translated here, the enjambments are more obvious. One can read the poems as if they were prosody in prose or imagine the curvature of the phrase in the Darwish poem.

The Cypress Broke
The cypress broke like a minaret, and slept on
the road upon its chapped shadow, dark, green,
as it has always been. No one got hurt. The vehicles
sped over its branches. The dust blew
into the windshields . . . / The cypress broke, but
the pigeon in a neighboring house didn’t change
its public nest. And two migrant birds hovered above
the hem of the place, and exchanged some symbols.
And a woman said to her neighbor: Say, did you see a storm?
She said: No, and no bulldozer either . . . / And the cypress
broke. And those passing by the wreckage said:
Maybe it got bored with being neglected, or it grew old
with the days, it is long like a giraffe, and little
in meaning like a dust broom, and couldn’t shade two lovers.
And a boy said: I used to draw it perfectly,
its figure was easy to draw. And a girl said: The sky today
is incomplete because the cypress broke.
And a young man said: But the sky today is complete
because the cypress broke. And I said
to myself: Neither mystery nor clarity,
the cypress broke, and that is all
there is to it: the cypress broke!