Voice Over: a nomadic conversation with Mahmoud Darwish, Breyten Breytenbach. (Archipelago Books) $9
This pocket-sized white book’s cover depicts two gray elephants, their trunks entwined over a single pink tulip, like two of contemporary world poetry’s most serious poets, grappling with each other in response to the beauty and tragedy of the worlds they inhabit. It’s been beautifully produced by Archipelago, as a small but fitting tribute from a close friend, to be appreciated by a larger community but still regarded intimately.
Breytenbach’s response in verse to the death of his friend Darwish, with whom he had discussed Darwish’s impending heart surgery only weeks before it was to take place, in Arles, France, is an eery dialogue with the departed, incorporating versions and variations of Darwish own poems. Breytenbach explains:
MD had always been a prolific poet. One could interact with him forever. The present ‘collage’ touches upon transformed ‘variations’ of his work, at times plucked from different poems and then again by way of approaching a specific verse, with my own voice woven into the process. The images, and to an extent even the rhythms and the shaping, are his. I don’t know Arabic and have to make do with English and French approximations…. I had to step a language away in order to get closer to him in English… The result cannot be properly described as a true ‘translation’.
Even without Breytenbach’s description of the work, it is possible, with some basic familiarity of Darwish, to sense the poet’s cross-language echo through the course of the poem. The work itself is bold, simultaneously brash and respectful, both an interesting experiment in near-translation and compelling in its own right. Its very first strophe establishes the tone of the entire poem, like some novels’ opening paragraphs, as it vividly echoes Breytenbach’s last living interactions with the Palestinian poet:
when you die, Mahmoud
when your aorta thrashing
all sluggish and crinkled
like a purple snake bursts
because the lines can no longer
slither the perfect metaphor,
and your heart as poem spurts
the final blood
in that hospital in foreign parts
of the barbarian land,
when your heart is at last
a sundered vowel
Notes from the Middle World, Breyten Breytenbach. (Haymarket Books) $18
Haymarket’s publication of Breytenbach’s latest collection of essays is also dedicated to the memory of Mahmoud Darwish. It contains a shorter version of his conversation in verse with the deceased poet, as well as an essay that connects Mandela and Obama (appropriately titled, a la People, “Obamandela”), punctuated with African folk sayings.
As they begin to speak, they both seem to know where each following sentence, covering a thought, is going to end. (A saying in Rwanda explains, “If you take your time, you can cook an elephant in a pot.”)
What is conveyed, however, is a solemnity of purpose and a kind of self-evident moreality that needs to be expressed. (“The word that remains in the mouth becomes drool,” say the Burundi.)
It was there [prison] that [Mandela] the national leader, the nation builder, was forged. (“it is with the body’s water that one draws water from the well,” goes a Housa saying.”
By the essay’s end, despite its lyrical discourse on the nature of political and moral speech, I grew weary of the sayings. Breytenbach does, however, do a good job, even with his obvious admiration of both politicians, of (unlike the Nobel committee) waiting to declare Obama a Mandela, by addressing the question mark of his impending term as President.
Other high points include his essay “Imagining Africa,” in which he analyzes the current state of the 55-country continent, and speculates on the role of cultural creatives, women, and youth—rather than just large NGOs, the UN, and World Bank—to improve the future. In what is perhaps his best essay and this collection’s namesake, “Notes from the Middle World,” a portion of which was published in the last issue of World Literature Today, the poet poses as tour guide to the land inhabited by the “un-citizens” dispossessed by post-modernity and post-colonialism.
To end his last essay, “To Bring to Book,” he summarizes,
For what I am saying is this: between the inscrutably fortuitous need of birth and the absurd inevitability of death only nothing took on the patterns of meaning. Writing is making nothingness.
And if this indeed is true, Breytenbach has succeeding in crafting an especially tender nothingness, combining in near equal part the unusual sort of abstraction he is prone to in his writing on writing with the searing imagery and argument of his social commentary or his reflections on his time in prison.