Poetics of Grief

Today, Palestine seeks recognition of statehood at the United Nations.

Two days ago, President Obama told Palestinians, “Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the UN – if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now.”

Last week, I was reading a book I found on clearance at a Borders going-out-of-business sale. The author, Mahmoud Darwish, was a celebrated Palestinian poet who died in 2008. His lyrical essay collection Journal of an Ordinary Grief (trans. Ibrahim Muhawi) deals with home, exile, belonging, borders, and injustice, but also with the role — and impotence — of the poet in navigating these difficult and politically charged concepts.

Rather than attempt to dissect and analyze the relationship between Darwish’s writing and the current political situation, I want to set out one passage that drew my attention and made me pause before I had even begun the book proper.

The battles do not end, and the language remains on edge. These pages do not tell the whole story. They only set down the beginnings of a small voice that shook the rock a little. The homeland is distant and near, and in this everyday grief and everyday death the writing gets written, or tries to get written, so that this ordinary grief may stop accepting being acceptable.

There is something safe and unsatisfying about reading a poem instead of dealing with media representations, historical grievances, and political maneuvering. As Darwish writes, “Justice is a hope that resembles an illusion if it is not supported by power.”

However, it seems to me that the narratives spoken at the U.N. this week and the stories written in history books and newspapers and passed from parent to child all represent attempts to give voice to everyday griefs like those Darwish extrapolates in his poetry. To me, the exchange of stories through poetry and literature — even if it is a safe, low-stakes medium for me as an American reader — does matter.

What does it mean for an ordinary grief to “stop accepting being acceptable”? The language is poetic and muted, but its use of repetition and degrees of removal resembles the long, convoluted search for peace. In this context, making statements may not bring immediate change, but it creates the possibility of an encounter with another human who is struggling to write his or her story, despite the limitations of language, vulnerability, and an imperfect world. That kind of encounter is most deeply felt when it takes place face-to-face, but writing it is, at the very least, a beginning.

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