Book Review | “If I Were Another” By Mahmoud Darwish

mahmoud darwish poem poetry poet if i were another bookI read “If I Were Another”, a collection of beautiful poems by Darwish some time ago. The collection was released in 2009, and having purchased it in Beirut back in December, I thought today, the day that Darwish left us some two short years ago, was a symbolic day to retrieve it from my bookshelf and review it. Well, not really review it. I hate reviewing poetry books. My love for the art doesn’t allow me to do so subconsciously. And I have to much respect for someone like Darwish to dare slap that label on it. So call this more of an attempt to share a piece of his work.

To begin with, I’ve always found Darwish’s poetry in the original Arabic to be musical, but even in their English form they seem to resonate a certain honesty in his storytelling that made him such a rich writer. Fady Joudah, who translated “If I Were Another”, writes an interesting observation in the book’s introduction describing the work. Joudah writes:

“A consumate poet at the acne of innermost experience, simulteansously personal and universal, between the death of language and physical death, Darwish created something uniquely his: the treatise of a private speech become collective.”

I absolutely love that last sentiment: a treatise of a private speech become collective. That’s exactly what made Darwish’s poem speak so loudly to so many people, whether they were inherently part of the struggle from which he was born, or simply bystanders window-shopping on the avenues of an ongoing history. Darwish’s poems were like private conversations that one might whisper to oneself in a reminiscent state, but he gave these very conversations a collective voice.

“If I Were Another” brings together some of Darwish’s most interesting works from the past two decades, including the memorable Mural. Each poem is an epic unto its own, and the book illuminates short pieces like “A Music Sentence” simultaneously with the detailed prose of pieces like “The Tragedy of Narcissus”, all in one breath. Who am I? – the recurrent question in many of Darwish’s later poems is scattered throughout: “Who am I after the strangers night? / I used to walk to the self along with others, and here I am losing the self and others”.

But it is perhaps the lengthy Mural, written after his first encounter with death, that perhaps resonates the loudest on a day like today. A sad tale of self-exploration, Darwish tries to find some reconciliation in the journey to self:

Who am I?
The Song of Songs
or the university’s wisdom?
Both of us are me…
and I am a poet
and a king
and a sage on the well’s edge,
no cloud in my hand,
no eleven planets
on my temple,
my body is fed up with me,
my eternity is fed up with me,
and my tomorrow
is sitting on my chair
like a crown of dust.