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. Read More