“He uses the dream as a weapon of resistance; he sanctifies memory as a means to justice”: A Conversation about Mahmoud Darwish’s ‘In the Presence of Absence’ with Alina Ştefănescu — Tobias Ryan

When I approached poet Alina Ştefănescu about the possibility of doing an interview, the idea of discussing a different author was broached. Were there, I asked, any writers she was particularly passionate about or whose work had had a particularly profound effect on her? From the list of authors with which she responded, we chose to talk about the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, and specifically his final collection In the Presence of Absence. A form of self-elegy comprised of prose poems, In the Presence of Absence shows Darwish at the height of his poetic powers as he looks back over his life and meditates on love, longing and his homeland. The book, in a translation by Sinan Antoon, is available from Archipelago Press.

I’m curious what the criteria were for the writers on your list. Why were they in particular on your mind?

I write in dialogue with the writers who haunt me, though the list of writers who presently disturb me is not separate from the list of writers who shape me. Darwish stands out for his lyrical expansion of temporality and what it means to be placed in the context of disappearing locality and homelands. Globalisation has altered our ability to understand ourselves in relation to place.

What’s your sense of how these hauntings come about? What happens when you read a writer like Darwish or the others you included on your list?

An easy example would be with Thomas Bernhard. The first time I read Bernhard, I was pissed– what an asshole! His catastrophism, like that of Karl Kraus, unnerved me. Once I realized what he was doing, I thought: what a genius! Still an asshole – an incredible asshole – but an iconoclastic genius as well. His obsessive retellings, his fictional masks, the skill with which he locates history inside fictions, the rage, drew me in. There’s a tension, a conflict, a sort of intellectual chemistry that emerges for me. There’s a risk they’re taking, I want them to get away with it, but there’s also a disruption – a perturbation, a bone I want to pick with them — followed by the urge to pick this bone on paper by writing. If I read a writer in complete agreement, I lose interest.

Do you have a bone to pick with Darwish?

I’m interested in his evasions, the role of imagination, and how, by the end of his career, the homeland doesn’t exist in the same form. There’s this tension between memory and idealization, with what the brain does, which, as Gerald Edelman said, is the synapses rewriting the memory every single time we remember an event. Neuroscience makes us all unreliable narrators. What does it mean for truth? How do we navigate veracity historically, aesthetically, politically? How do we understand witness? Darwish uses the dream as a weapon of resistance; he sanctifies memory as a means to justice. Imagining is one form of freedom, but for him, “poetry is an active freedom.” Here, we see a theme in carceral poetics: poetry “makes what is visible invisible when facing danger …” Poetry overcomes by preserving the imagined. In Darwish, this can come across as disengaged from the reality on the ground.

Is that something you would want to challenge?

I’d rather study his Penelope strategy, how he uses questions to lure us nearer as he undoes the loomwork. Darwish is remarkably seductive. He’s a maestro of intimacy across a distance. It’s easier to idealize the long-distance lover, or the country you aren’t living in. I do that with Romania – imagine a land where I am whole, undivided, accepted, surrounded by family and community. And I crave that seduction, even as I’m troubled by its vulnerability to nationalism. Like nostalgia, longing can be dangerously regressive. On the other hand, creative nostalgia imagines an elsewhere . . . like culture-jamming, the motion is irreverent, radical, and futuristic.  Darwish acknowledges the Palestine he writes is a homeland in his head. Dreaming is his way out of an untenable present. As he says to the prison guard: “Dreaming is my profession while yours is pointless eavesdropping on an unfriendly conversation between my freedom and me.”

What was your first exposure to his writing?

As a teen, thanks to the library in our high school. I remember marvelling at how he touched words, the ephemerality he rubbed over language, the sense that something immense was happening behind each word – and the layers, the repetitions, the things he refused to set aside. Among my peers, scoring was the game and longing was the taboo. Darwish gave longing a pulse. He was shameless in that.

And when did you first read In the Presence of Absence?

Two years ago, as I was sending out Dor, the poetry collection about, well, longing…

So in your poem ‘I May or May Not Be Appropriate/It’, the line “I’m intrigued by love / as the presence of absence, a sense of some-ing that persists in loss” is coincidental?

I hadn’t read The Presence of Absence when I wrote that poem, but there’s no question that Darwish and I mine similar interior terrains. His influence is palpable in my current poetry manuscript, which includes a self-elegy. Sinan Antoon described the entirety of In the Presence of Absence as self-elegy, reaching back to a form established by premodern Arab poet Milik Ibn al-Rayb ala Tamini, who, after being bitten by a snake on his way home, thinking he would die, wrote a poem addressing himself in this profoundly moving manner. We’re all destined for death. The self-elegy consciously acknowledges poetry’s memorializing role in telling others how we want to be remembered, and how language shapes this. To quote Darwish again: “Exile is the poet’s journey through a poem, a journey within a journey, but figurative language keeps looking back.”

I hadn’t read any of his poetry prior to In the Presence of Absence, so I don’t know how it compares with his earlier work. Could you say a little bit about his development as a poet?

As a fan rather than an expert, my responses come from personal impressions. Some of his earlier works make broader use of the field, more lineation, more spacing for rhythmic and tonal effect. Like Celan, Darwish uses space to enact silence, to burden the breath.  The title, In the Presence of Absence, suggests copious blanks and white space, but in this book, hybridity and prose blocks predominate. Ellipses do more work. Poetry is performative. It began in orality, in the performance of memories and imaginings. On the page, lineation exhibits this performative possibility. A paragraph doesn’t quiver before a mic and begin pacing. There’s a difference in presentation, so if you want to pace nervously, it has to happen inside the lines, words, and punctuation. Line breaks make it easier to shape the physicality in space; readers are more likely to find melodies in internal rhymes, or to recognize forms.

Darwish is also more self-critical here, particularly in the tribute to Emile Habibi, a Palestinian who didn’t leave, who remained in Galilee as a writer and an activist. He seems to accept the suitcase is his homeland – an image he refused in earlier writing. There’s a sense that death is near, and his bed has been made. But it isn’t drastically different from his previous works. Darwish is Darwish.

There were elements of his engagement with self that I found quite cloying – romantic nostalgia can easily descend into sentimental solipsism … So going back to notions of longing and nostalgia, which, as you mentioned, can be dangerous, how does the poet avoid falling into the honey trap of self-indulgence?

The Romantic poets offered an image of a man ensconced in a cultivated (arguably fake) solitude wherein he dreams the world. Like them, Darwish looks to ecstasy as a palliative, though I think his ecstasy is more radically creative. There are odd moments, as when he writes: “A poet is at liberty to lie, but he only lies in love because the heart’s provinces are open to alluring conquests.” In the context of Palestine, the language of conquest feels abrasive and possibly self-indulgent. But memory is self-indulgent. Love is self-indulgent. Darwish’s commitment to remembering is central to his poetics. There’s a knife in his pocket that you can’t see. He lures us in by invoking these feelings and gets to people that might not otherwise imagine what it’s like to lose a homeland. His message is different from his language. He’s always seducing, very openly seducing, constantly encouraging you to come along: Let’s do this … remember when … But there’s no distinction between the lover or family member he might be referencing and you the reader. It could be anyone. You could be anyone. You’re part of it, though. That sudden intensity fascinates me.

You mentioned earlier this idea of having lost a sense of location and geography to globalisation.

“There is no place for no place,” writes Darwish, and no place for the one who calls no place home. All rights and privileges are tied to citizenship papers. The refugee is modernity’s tortured asterisk, the least visible human, the most at-risk. Displacement is continuous in the silences of camps that bloom near borders, in the profit made from those camps, in the destruction of homelands by climate change, in the brutal dispossessions of wars and invasions.

But hasn’t that made people more conscious of their locality? In a really horrible way, if you look at the UK for example, maybe people don’t recognise the extent of the crisis that refugees face, but they are very conscious of themselves as being British. There is a very strong recognition of geography, borders and nationality going on.

But I think that’s constructed. As people feel alienated by globalisation and consumerism, by brands, they start to invent this golden past that they want to return to. Nationalism rises not because people actually have a sense of being French, say, but because people are more invested in the thing that no longer exists clearly. They are creating a Frenchness by looking to the past as a template. It’s this direction – this looking back – that can monumentalize the past by freezing into an ideal.

It’s such a complicated question because there is an engagement with identity, even national identity (thinking, for example, of Welsh or Scottish independence movements which have a very different tenor to what is generally associated with English or British nationalism) that seems to have the potential to be positive and progressive … But coming back to Darwish, and perhaps connecting to what I was saying before about his self indulgence, how does the poet manage a balance between the personal, the individual, and the social or political?

Anyone who loves this world takes the rise of neo-fascism and its relationship to nationalism seriously. There’s a part where Darwish quotes a large section of Jean Genet’s commentary on Sabra and Shatila. He says: “You avoided rhetoric because, when out place, it becomes an accomplice to torture […] You did not cry this time because fire and tears never come together in one eye or one phrase.” There’s an attempt to look at monuments; there’s a ruin-scape within this book that I don’t see as much in his other work. That’s part of it.

But I also want to go back to your earlier comments because separatism is complicated. Take Alabama, my home state, and the heritage of white nationalism. If Alabama seceded to preserve its culture, what would that mean? What does self-determination involve when neo-fascists are at the helm? And where does it stop in a world in which the consequences are now global? The romance of it, to me, has been undercut.

I guess then you get into moral judgments as to whose separatist impulse is valid or not. But in the case of Darwish writing about Palestine, I feel great clarity on the right of Palestine to exist freely. Everyone draws their lines, I suppose.

Any state that’s built on exclusion is hard to defend. No matter what. Every single one of us has an executioner inside us and a victim – I think Vaclav Havel said that. All of us can be the prisoner or the prison guard, the border official or the refugee. No one is pure, no one is perfect, no one is innocent of what is to come. And it’s interesting to see which person we become in difficult situations. I think that’s one of the scariest parts of poetry, of writing, and of existing as a human.

How so in poetry specifically?

I think we’re tempted to lean into a “we”. I was reading Ceauşescu’s court poet, Corneliu Vadim Tudor, who made quite a career for himself after the 1989 coup-revolution. Tudor became the leader of the Greater Romania Party, an uber-nationalist, anti-minority, Christian party. I was in Bucharest, working on my Honours thesis, and I wanted to interview him. He was wearing a fancy silk suit, and he had this gorgeous office in a historical building right next to the opera house. Like many former Party bigwigs, Tudor had access to money when the wall fell. Overnight, the most ardent Communists became passionate Capitalists. He asked me: “What’s a nice girl like you doing reading books when you could come to Romania, marry a Romanian and birth Romanian babies?” That’s all he wanted to discuss; he wouldn’t go any further with me. All of his poems, every poem he wrote, was either an ode to Ceauşescu or a “we” poem: “We the people;” “we the so and so.” Just like when I look at the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence: “we”. Who is the “we”? Who are we speaking for? Like all humans, poets want to belong, and we feel a responsibility to speak. But “we” can also be terrible. In this book, Darwish doesn’t “we” very much. He doesn’t take refuge inside a plural. The “we” is attractive because it feels safe, it lays claim to a community. It constructs something.

How do you engage politically in your writing?

This question always challenges me. I think I engage in the only way I know how, and that’s being accountable for my “I” as much as I can be. I’m honest or try to be honest about the “I” and the ways in which it’s socialised by a lot of the systems that I want to criticise.

It’s a conversation that happens a lot, and very often in ways which feel unproductive when things move onto the moral value of writers or their works, but it didn’t seem possible to discuss In the Presence of Absence without talking about how writers engage politically and their political responsibility or lack thereof.

A lot of poets, writers want to say: “Oh, we’ve contributed to making the world a better place by travelling around and writing about the sorrow that we’ve seen others live.” Is that true? Is that what that fellowship was about?

That’s always on my mind, whether any of it actually makes a difference. Discussing a Palestinian poet feels significant because freedom for Palestine is an important issue that must be confronted and discussed. Then again, what does it achieve, this book, our talking about it? I don’t really have a question, here … Perhaps I could ask if the value of poetry, of literature, is something that weighs on your mind?

Talking about Darwish requires us to say: Palestine. To write the word Palestine. To read it as the home of Palestinians. To stand before those words as a reality. As for the metrics of what this accomplishes, I don’t know. To me, words have significance. A sign labelled “White Restroom” has significance. A sign labelled “XX Restroom” has significance. The way we use language alters our physical practices of engagement. The use of poetry to create a shared history, to carve a common ground, goes back to the ancients. I can’t give you the numbers on whether that matters. I don’t care about numbers, especially since they align so closely with late-capitalism valorisations. My interest is words.

Are you working on anything at the moment that relates to or is feeding off what he does?

His broad “you”, the interlocutor; that continuous shifting of the interlocutor without providing context for it is something that I’ve learned from … It’s intriguing to me … And I think that’s all I would say, to the extent that longing, displacement, creative nostalgia, per Svetlana Boym, the notion of: OK, let’s tear down the monument and draw a purple fish on it. I’m drawn to those kinds of creative practices: the way we approach ruin-scapes and monuments by changing them, by altering them, by interacting with them. A lot of conceptual art does that, and I’m intrigued by it at the level of the line and the page.

Would you see a figure like Darwish as a monument which is ripe for being broken down and messed around with?

Darwish belongs to Palestine, to the Palestinians. His writing is inseparable from his longing for Palestinian freedom. But messing-with can be collaborative. I’m thinking of Robin Myers’ translation of Dolores Durante’s Copy, which opens with a quote from In the Presence of Absence. Dorantes’ book expands on Darwish’s repetition techniques and adds an element of visual reverb to his Penelope strategy, the weaving-unweaving, the building-questioning. Frequently, Dorantes returns to Darwish in an undertone, in an elliptical gesture, to write the security apparatus of border walls along the US Southern border. Each reader and writer takes something different from Darwish. His work inspires and provokes uniquely innovative responses and forms of engagement. Surely Darwish has been rebuilt and reimagined in centos, in fragments and pieces of those statue limbs known as epigraphs.

Meanwhile, in the Black Sea near Crimea, there is a garden of dismantled Soviet statues deep beneath the water, a stunningly blue cathedral of water where Stalin and Lenin sit near the poet Sergei Esenin, while Yuri Gagarin, the first human to enter outer space, lives out eternity at the other extreme. I’d love to rent scuba gear and meet these monuments under the sea – I think of that song in The Little Mermaid, ‘Under the Sea’ – to bring that song to it, to combine these different realities in water, the juxtaposition of their solidity and permanence against my weightlessness. Reality is complicated; nothing is as binary or simple as we want it to be. And I’m very comfortable with something that doesn’t erase the past but interacts with it in a way that challenges the past. Changing the tense of history. Darwish does that or can give us a route into doing that. He can say we are present with absence. And we are responsible for imagining the next part.

Mahmoud Darwish (1941 – 2008) was a Palestinian writer, who was regarded as Palestine’s national poet. Winning numerous awards for his work, Darwish used Palestine as a metaphor for the loss of Eden, birth and resurrection, and the anguish of dispossession and exile. In the Presence of Absence, translated by Sinan Antoon, is available from Archipelago Press.

Alina Ştefănescu was born in Romania and lives in Birmingham, Alabama. Her poetry collection, DOR, won the 2020 Wandering Aengus Book Prize. Twitter: @aliner

Tobias Ryan is an English teacher and translator. He lives in France. Twitter: @tobiasvryan