In the Presence of Absence: Mahmoud Darwish’s Farewell to Language

Yes, I like the cover.

I am still working on a line-by-line comparison of the two English translations of Mahmoud Darwish’s In the Presence of Absence, which is really a bit more dizzying than you’d think. This is, in the main, a review of the Archipelago version, pictured. From Al Masry Al Youm:

Mahmoud Darwish wrote “In the Presence of Absence” near the end of his complex, rich, and engaged life. Palestine’s national poet published the book in 2006, when he imagined it might be his last long project. Indeed, the book is fueled by its author’s intimacy with death. Translator Sinan Antoon calls the book a “self-eulogy” in which “the living ‘I’ bids farewell to its imagined dying other in a sustained poetic address.”

The book may be a poetic address, but it is not traditional poetry. It is Darwish’s third and final book-length work of prose. The other two, “Journal of an Ordinary Grief” (1973) and “Memory for Forgetfulness” (1985), were also animated by the tension between storytelling and poetry.

But Darwish’s third prose work is built, even more than the others, on the tension of opposites: life and death, presence and absence, home and exile, poetry and prose. It insists on being neither story nor poem. The book’s prosaic elements sketch in a life lived, with its beginnings, middles, and a clear farewell. But the poetry collapses story-time, turning everything dense and luminous.

As with Darwish’s other prose works, there are moments of pure story. Darwish writes in “Presence” about childhood anecdotes, love, and his relationship to the Oslo Accords. He also writes movingly about death’s nightmarish attempts to snatch him. In the eighth chapter, he narrates a story to himself about a recent hospitalization: Keep reading on Al Masry Al Youm.