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What can poetry say in a time of catastrophe?
The losses are many.
I have no words. They leave each night the sky falls on innocents.
Words seem hollow. Everything without.
If you’re like me, you’re wondering how speech acts.
How word accumulates, circulates among grief.
Screens — among us, the screened.
I want to linger on the invisible, the illegible.
Who sees who and who sees not who and what this means of our virtue.
I anticipate the pause between.
Hands clasped together in refusing the conquerer story.
We didn’t watch as Lot’s wife (didn’t she, too, have a name?) eroded.
We cache thought inside obsidian.
More than a little lost each time.
Many are the losses.
A screen for every tear.
A scream for every year.
We entered, or snuck into, Gaza in the dark. I let you walk ahead of me and carried your imagination for you, because you would be incapable of mending it if it were to crash on hard reality. I saw you averting your face from the eager cameras mounted to capture the ecstasy of the returnees and to record the words prepared for an invective against exile. You said: I came, and did not arrive. I came, and did not return. You did not lie to anyone, or to yourself. This was not a time for celebration. Gaza has yet to repair itself. The destruction left by military occupation shook you to your core. If you do not dream of what lies ahead, the sea will run away from the fishermen in your language. That night, chopped up by checkpoints, settlements, and watchtowers, one needed a new geographical method to recognize the borders between one footstep and the next and between what is prohibited and permitted, not unlike the challenge of distinguishing between what is vague and what is clear in the Oslo Accords.
At the end of the night you can only sleep with the help of a sleeping pill. When you wake up, you need some time to be convinced that you are in Gaza, which you then describe as “the city of misery and might.” Late in the sultry morning you go together with some returning friends to visit the camps. It is hard to walk in the alleys, and your own cleanliness and access to water shames you. You do not believe, and never did, that these holding tanks of misery are a necessary step toward immortalizing or affirming the right of return. But you remember what you really should forget: the world’s conscience. You vilify theories of progress and the teleology of history, which might take humanity back to the Stone Age. To keep some perspective, you deprive yourself of the serum of optimism and zeal and instead take a pill for high blood pressure. You say: If I think of anything else, I will have to throw my conscience to the cats.
You wonder: what kind of a linguistic or legal wunderkind could formulate a peace treaty and good neighborliness between a palace and a shack, between a guard and a prisoner?
- “In the Presence of Absence” by Mahmoud Darwish, translated from the Arabic by Sinan Antoon (Archipelago Books, 2011: pages 128-129).
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