At a writing residency last year, during a discussion about what is now known as “these difficult times,” one of my writing mentors, the poet and essayist Lia Purpura, reframed our discussion with a challenge that she has given herself. “I want to live more like a poem asks me to live,” she told us. This has become an invitation that fascinates me. Instead of poetry as an island of escape or solace, let me welcome it, the practices it demands, and try to imagine the kind of life it requires. Each of the essays I’ll share in this space are my response to Lia’s invitation.
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On a March day of mostly blue skies and temperatures inching into the 50s in Seattle, the mind turns to spring. I realize there is evermore rain in the forecast and gloom on the horizon and in the news. But I’ve been reading about the seasons, cycles of endings and beginnings.
In Palestinian folklore, the seasons are named and subdivided. February, Shbaat, is described as ما عليه رباط, a month that is “unpredictable.” It belongs to the khamseeniyeh, the final fifty days of winter, which are in turn divided into four phases, or saads. Cutting saad of bitter cold that leaves not even a dog barking outside, swallowing saad, in which the earth drinks in the rain as its temperature gradually rises, and saad il suood, a kind of supreme saad, in which water flows again in the veins of plants. The final phase is hidden saad, when creatures come out of hibernation.
Soon, as the final saad winds down, it will be almond blossom season again in Palestine. Mahmoud Darwish’s poem “To Describe an Almond Blossom” begins:
To describe an almond blossom no encyclopedia of flowers
is any help to me, no dictionary.
Words carry me off to snares of rhetoric
that wound the sense, and praise the wound they’ve made.
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I’ve been thinking about words, their cycles of beginnings and endings, how we wield them in our daily transactions. These considerations are not exclusively reserved for reckoning with the unfurling of almond blossoms on the branch. How do I write in a time of civilizational destruction without wounding and then praising the wound?
In the winter, on my book tour through the Arab world, I had the otherworldly experience of reading poems at the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center in Ramallah. The center lives in a beautiful old Ramallah house, and was the site of Mahmoud Darwish’s last office. I arrived more nervous than I have ever felt at a reading. What could my poems, written in the faraway galaxy of the diaspora, offer to an audience surviving at this very moment an active violent occupation? To survive—to continue to live or exist despite difficulty or hardship, from the Old French sourvivre, and before that from the Latin supervivere. Super—in addition to vivere—living.
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It’s possible the young man at Sakakini Center, Alhareth, senses my nervousness. Or simply out of reverence for the space I have just entered and of which he is a custodian, he offers: “Behind that door is his office. Would you like to see it?” It is a room with heavy wooden doors painted in soft ecru. He turns an old key in the lock and pushes them open as I try to compose myself. Darwish’s desk, still piled with folders and stacks of mail and journals, sits facing a window with a view of the garden. In the center of the desk there is a letter opener resting on an envelope. A rose and a sprig of lavender have dried silently beside them.
On the 13th of this month readers around the world commemorate Darwish’s birthday. He was born in the Palestinian village of Al-Birweh, and his life and poems were marked by cycles of exile and return. In 2004, in an awards acceptance speech, he reflected on the cycles of his own life and, by extension, on the role of poetry.
“A person can only be born in one place. However, he may die several times elsewhere: in the exiles and prisons, and in a homeland transformed by the occupation and oppression into a nightmare. Poetry is perhaps what teaches us to nurture the charming illusion: how to be reborn out of ourselves over and over again, and use words to construct a better world, a fictitious world that enables us to sign a pact for a permanent and comprehensive peace…with life.”
Alhareth asks if I prefer water or zhoorat, a tisane of dried wildflowers. Asked and answered. My voice has become haggard from the ubiquitous cigarette smoke and the cabin air of multiple flights; I sip with gratitude. My mind is crowded with the flora of the place. The lifeless rose on the desk, the relics of spring past floating in my cup, and the stubborn jasmine vine clinging to the wall of the house. The audience is utterly generous—they receive the poems like letters written only for them, envelopes spilling pressed flowers. I sip again with gratitude, life pulsing in my warmed veins, the super living of that night.
Lena Khalaf Tuffaha is a poet, writer, and translator. She is the winner of the 2016 Two Sylvias Chapbook Prize for Arab in Newsland, and the author of Water & Salt, a book of poems from Red Hen Press published in April 2017. She is currently Poet-in-Residence at Open Books: A Poem Emporium.