A Blade of Grass: New Palestinian Poetry, ed. by Naomi Foyle, Smokestack
The Arab world is full of poetry, and always has been, but for most people, I suspect it’s a completely closed world. With the possible exception of Rumi, and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, badly translated by Fitzgerald, most people will be totally unaware of one of the most vibrant poetry cultures in the world.
This book, therefore, represents a brief glimpse into an unknown literature for many. There is another dimension to this, however, in that it represents a literature that is very much under siege; the poets included here are sometimes living in exile, sometimes imprisoned but always under some kind of pressure to be political or talk about things they would probably rather not write about. As Neruda said when asked why he didn’t write poems about flowers any more, “there is the blood in the streets”.
And here it is, in Fatena Al Ghorra’s ‘Blood’:
Red as it should be
Flowing like that
Drilling in my soul a place for screaming
Flowing as if an explosion
Leaving carnage behind
It keeps flowing without boredom or forgiveness …
This blood could, of course, be several things; it needn’t be the blood spilled in the streets, it could be a metaphor for passion, for country, it could even represent menstrual blood. But you can’t help making political connections when the poet is a Palestinian exile in a country not her own (in this case, the US.)
There are some names I recognise here: Fady Joudah, Mahmoud Darwish and Naomi Shihab Nye. But there are lots of unfamiliar names to me, and it’s always great to discover new writers. Sarah Saleh’s sequence of short poems, ‘to the cities that changed us’, has this to say about Sydney in 2014:
your graceful fingers wrote
the history of your people
the way spiders
spin their silken webs
A metaphor perhaps of the fragility of exile. This attachment to the fragility of life is perhaps one of the most telling resistances of this poetry. This is a poetry about the survival of the human spirit against all the oppressive forces marshalled against it. There are some beautiful and some ugly truths in this book. It also contains the poems in Arabic, printed from right to left as they should be (turn the book over, and read from ‘back’ to ‘front’.) it’s been judiciously edited; and I’m just sorry that my lack of Arabic makes me unable to comment on the quality of the translations.