Najwan Darwish’s Poetry of the Unspeakable


Arts & Culture

Najwan Darwish. Photo: Veronique Vercheval. Courtesy of New York Review Books.

If I could come back,
I wouldn’t come under any other banner.
I’d still embrace you
with two severed hands.
I don’t want wings in paradise,
I just want your graves by the river.
I want eternity at the breakfast table
with the bread and oil.
I want you
my defeated banner.

This poem, “My Defeated Banner,” is from the fifth section of the Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish’s latest collection, Exhausted on the Cross, and in its devastating beauty, it represents one of the peak moments of his poetry as well as of the writing of our time. As in all of Darwish’s poetry, this defeated banner presents us with a primordial scene, possibly inserted in the depths of what we persist in calling the human, where the feelings of a particular being, that sudden nostalgia that grips us, that desire, that love, crosses over and merges with the nostalgia, passion, and love of all humanity. We understand then that, from Nothing More to Lose and Je me lèverai un jour (I will rise one day) to Exhausted on the Cross, the multifaceted poetry of Najwan Darwish puts us again and again in front of the contours of something immemorial, almost unspeakable. It tells us that above all else poetry is solidarity and compassion for every detail of the world: for that specific bread and oil, for that eternity at the breakfast table, for that land with its “graves by the river.” The poem shows us those graves, it explicitly tells us that they are there, by the river; and for a second we see that if that image moves us, it is because—whatever our countries, origins, and histories, and even whatever languages we speak and, beyond that, whatever times we have lived and died in—we have all been buried in those graves and, at the same time, we have all wept over them.

The characters who move through the seven sections that make up Exhausted on the Cross are exhausted, exhausted on an infinity of crosses that rise in an infinity of places. Expelled from their ancestral land, permanently besieged and persecuted, women who have lost everything—their houses, their neighborhoods, their children—make present to others, to me, to you, to the reader, that in this land of victims and perpetrators, displaced and disappeared, all the rest of us are survivors. And if we can affirm that we are facing political poetry, it is because we do it as survivors of an unfinished war. Far removed from any pathos or self-pity and, on the contrary, endowed with a stirring familiarity with everything it names, a familiarity that often resorts to irony and humor, Najwan Darwish’s poetry travels through the villages, landscapes, neighborhoods, cities, and towns of a history that is three millennia old, one that, in each of its corners, preserves the remains of a permanently shattered eternity, as if there were an underlying god, not named, who took pleasure in weaving together suffering and misfortune.

It is that almost unbearable presence—not named, as I say—that appears, for example, in the poem “In Shatila,” whose central scene suddenly brings forth all the strength and courage that characterizes Najwan Darwish’s poetry. The poem’s elements are as simple as they are resounding: “There’s no dignity here,” says a woman to her interlocutor in the first line of the poem. There follows the fierce, unappealable observation that everything has been said in those four words, and therefore that the years of agony have been spoken as well, the “rivers of regret” of a history that seems dictated by the presence of a deformed god. If that god exists, the only thing it would show us is that the truth is the most dangerous lie because one kills and dies for it:

She says it all
in just four words.

Rivers of regret,
years of agony that drown
in just four words.

The poem ends with that lash with which the woman’s interlocutor recriminates himself while walking away. The scene is sacred, not because of that underlying god but because there is no being in the world that has not repeated such self-recrimination at one time or another:

What did she tell you as she said her goodbyes?
What did you promise her as you said yours?
How could you smile, indifferent
to the brackish water of the sea
while the barbed wire wrapped around your heart?

How could you,
you son of a bitch?

But what else is that unnamed god who is permanently glimpsed in the poetry of Najwan Darwish, as I already know from the title of Exhausted on the Cross (it does not matter who is exhausted on that cross; whether a god, a prophet, or an ordinary being, it is someone who suffers), if not the heartbreaking force that tugs at our sleeves, trying to hold us back while we are leaving?

We realize then that from the fantastic opening image of the sea whom the poet would like to invite in, like a good neighbor, to have a coffee, to the powerful ending of “All of It,” each line of Exhausted on the Cross is the scene of a physical fight, to the death, between words and what we can no longer say. We cannot express the tension of that centimeter that separates us from the woman from Shatila. There are no words to name the absolute horror, to account for the exact moment in which the body of a living child becomes the body of a slaughtered child, we lack images to fix that infinitesimal second in which someone becomes those lumps of flesh and bone thrown into the sea by Latin American dictators, or the heaps of scattered limbs of Palestinians crushed by Israeli bombs in Gaza, or those massacred in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. We have no concepts to imagine what questions, what memories assail someone in that monstrous extreme, someone being killed by other men. And yet, for that very reason, precisely because those words do not exist, they must be shouted, to bring to this side of the world the terrible and ruthless porosity of each of those moments.

However, expelled from the horizon of language, we must rise from that impossibility to return again and again to that unrepresentable extreme of death in a land overflowing with the dead. This is the moral imperative that carries Najwan Darwish’s poetry. In a history full of unfinished words, of sentences broken halfway through, of stanzas that do not say what they wanted to say, poetry has been the colossal record of violence and, at the same time, the no less colossal record of compassion. Compassion for all the dead that we have been and that we will be, for all the times we abandoned that woman in Shatila (the poem tells us she is sixty-five years old), or for our own abandoned selves during those three millennia when the soldier in “A Poem by a Soldier in Disguise” stopped writing poetry and remained in hiding, not knowing that the war had ended. Yet when that soldier stopped writing, he failed to realize that love itself had also ended, and so he wakes up in a land overflowing with the dead. The poem is impressive because, among other things, it lacks emphasis, as if it’s revealing something that happens every day:

The last time I wrote poetry
was three thousand years ago.
Back then, I was a soldier in disguise,
a soldier who didn’t know the war was over,
and now here I am
trying to write all over again.
The dust of the years is like the dust of tombs.
I emerge from the earth like a seed bursting,
like a bud unfurling on the branch,
and like the dead
who spread across a land
only death inhabits.

With a kind of desperate hope, the poem opens, despite everything, to the pale glimpse of rebirth, like that seed that’s bursting, spreading like the dead in this land that’s filled with the dead. In a world of victims and victimizers, it has fallen to the poet to be the first victim to cross the land of the dead and of silence, and also to be the first to rise up and tell us that despite everything, new days will come. At ground level, then, Najwan Darwish’s poems reemerge from their own silence, signaling that nothing would exist were it not for the fact that the most imperishable aspect of the human dream is inscribed in the hope of a new day.

This is perhaps the final question that this extraordinary poetry leaves us, its readers, with: How, in the face of that endless cohort of sufferings, the thousands and thousands of refugees who die daily in the Mediterranean, the ones kidnapped and beheaded by drug traffickers, the constant bombings, the hunger—how can one bear it all? Why doesn’t the woman whose children were killed by a tank commit suicide? Why do those millions and millions of people who survive in indescribable conditions continue to fight for their right to life? Whatever the answer, if we add up, one by one, the reasons—almost inaudible, minimal, unthinkable—that allow the most devastated of people not to kill themselves and that lead them to choose, second after second, to remain alive, that sum would form the image of Paradise, or of a seed sprouting and budding. It’s there that the sunny morning would be—the broken husband returning from his work, the rebuilt house, the milk that the mother did not have for her dying child; it’s there that the bread would be, and the warmth of the bed whose mattress, still intact, peeks out from the rubble:

Carriages drawn by cheerful horses
and the tunes of accordions,
or sullen buses
and relatives weeping at their doors—
it’s all a journey, dear,
and here we are now, back from it.

I name it earth, and am not ashamed.
It’s all earth.
It’s all death.
All of it.

Exhausted, then, on a cross made of rubble and death, of love and shame, we glimpse the limits of an immortality we cannot escape, an immortality that condemns us to death. Yet by reading this poetry one can come to love that condemnation and thus love the whole earth—our defeated banner.

—Translated from the Spanish by Frances Simán


Raúl Zurita was born in Santiago de Chile. Zurita has received the Chilean National Prize for Literature, the Asan Memorial World Poetry Prize, and the Reina Sofia Prize for Ibero-American Poetry. His book INRI was published by NYRB Poets in 2018.

Frances Simán is a communications professional and translator. She is a member of the Alicanto Poetry Workshop, annually organizing the Alicanto Poetry Week in Honduras, and a contributor for the editorial board of the Cisne Negro publishing house. She lives in Honduras.

Excerpted from the foreword to Exhausted on the Cross, by Najwan Darwish, translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid, foreword by Raúl Zurita, foreword translated by Frances Simán, published by NYRB Poets. Foreword copyright © 2021 by Raúl Zurita.