Reviewed by Andre Naffis-Sahely
"Wait a little so that wind/not bewilder me"; this slim collection of verses sketches out the spiritual geography of a friendship between the author, the South African painter and playwright Breyten Breytenbach, and the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish who passed away in August last year following heart surgery. It is a scene Breytenbach uses to ignite his nomadic conversation: "when you die Mahmoud/ when your aorta thrashing / all sluggish and crinkled / like a purple snake bursts / because lines can no longer / carry the perfect metaphor." This slim forty-one-page volume is an East-West diwan of sorts—part elegy, part rumination, part translation all representing Breytenbach's coming-to-terms with the physical end of a friendship that spanned four decades. From their initial meetings at a poetry festival in Rotterdam—the beginning point for many friendships in the literary world in the past century—the journey starts anew in the book as Breytenbach hears the news of Darwish's death while on Gorée Island, just off the coast of Dakar in Senegal, and continues as he travels through to Catalonia and Friesland.
The poems have a watery feel, as if Breytenbach were carrying a handful of water and letting a few drops fall in the brief pauses of his peregrinations, "all is movement until it stops moving/ to sing." In his postscript to the volume, Breytenbach tells the reader how he "bathed in Mahmoud's verses." Owing to his lack of Arabic and his reliance on English or French cribs, Breytenbach approaches the task of rendering a friend's work with a tremendous measure of respect and humility and, as Muslims perform their ablutions prior to entering a house of worship, Breytenbach seems to cleanse his writing of his own persona as much as possible in order to allow Darwish's words to sound as unpolluted as possible in another voice. The journey is difficult, experimental in its erratic line-breaks, yet intensely visual in its grief. The sixth sequence in Voice Over is particularly striking. It begins with a tribal chant, "for we shall be a people," which is repeated at the top of each of its eleven stanzas, and carries the reader into a world peopled by courtesans, singers, bonfires and birds. Each image is described intimately to emphasize how the pleasure derived from each is universal, and the mere act of sharing reinforces the message of peace and love that anchored the original poems. "Poetry is an act of love, not of war", Darwish was fond of saying. "For we shall be a people, oh my people, when we recognize / the exact beat of life's passion and death's urge . . ."
They are songs penned by a public poet—a role both Breytenbach and Darwish understood all too well. Romantics, who turned to politics and, despite the mounting pressures heaped on them as their fame and status increased, managed to glimpse their homelands and public through a critical, if affectionate, eye. It is their shared common ground that makes this dialogue noteworthy. Great poets distinguish themselves by the soothing tone of their precision. This is a difficult enough task for a poet in his or her own native language, let alone for a translator to achieve in a completely alien language. The choice to present the poetry in the form of a dialogue allows Breytenbach to legitimize his presence in the text. While a number of translators have carried Darwish's poems into respectably clear English, none have, like Breytenbach, transported the very essence, the gentleness of the tone, the luscious but spare vocabulary, grounded in everyday objects: bread, coffee cups, olive trees, bird coops. Both poets witnessed the transformation of their countries from prisons into abattoirs, the receding democratic vistas, and the always promising, yet increasingly more cynical takes on reconciliation.
Breytenbach reminds us that poetry is a calling entrusted from mind to mind and heart to heart: "and I say: if I should die before you/ it is to entrust you with the impossible/ I ask: is night still far? / you answer: the next generation/ will avail themselves/ of the blind dancer's belly" No one is better suited than Breytenbach to render versions of the Palestinian poet's work. Ever since the Palestinian Authority placed a glass pyramid and fencing over and around Darwish's grave, the symbiotic relationship exemplified in this book lets us see the poetry that can often fall in the cracks between myth and stereotype, man and monument.
Archipelago Books has also published Breytenbach's All One Horse, Mouroir, and will be bringing out his new Intimate Stranger this month. Haymarket Books will be releasing his Notes from the Middle World in October. Both are part of his Middle World quartet. Mahmoud Darwish's A River Dies of Thirst, also with Archipelago, is now available.
André Naffis was raised in Dubai and is at present finishing an M.Lit in Creative Writing at St. Andrews. He divides his time between Paris and Scotland and is at work on a collection of poetry and a novel.
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