Today's poetry selection is by Taha Muhammad Ali, a Palestinian poet I'm late in coming to, though he has garnered the acclaim of a wide array of the global literati. (Including Michael Palmer.) Today on WNYC, I heard Adina Hoffmann on the hapless Leonard Lopate's show discussing her brand new biography of Ali, entitled My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness (Yale, 2009), which she claims is the first biography of a major Palestinian writer, a claim that strikes me as incredible (Can this be true?)
Hoffman spoke about what distinguishes Ali's work for her, citing his combination of extraordinariness and his very ordinary background and life. Self-taught and a late starter, and still half his time maintaining a shop, Ali has managed to produce a body of work that can stand with the best, not only among his peers in the Middle East, but also globally. I admit that I've only read a handful of his poems, as I'm not that familiar with Palestinian poetry and have tended to read the work of the better known Adonis (whose poetry is more lyrical and experimental) and Mahmoud Darwish (who was work more overtly political), among others, but I found the few Ali poems I've read compelling. Back in 2007 he was featured on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer, and here's a snippet of what he said to interviewer Jeffrey Brown:
I'm posting the poem whose resonant, antitautological ending provided the title for Hoffman's book. (I found a copy of it on the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center's website.) A trio comprising award-winner Peter Cole, Yaya Hijazi, and Gabriel Levin translated it. It's tight.
TAHA MUHAMMAD ALI: I think there is two kinds of language, one for the news, for the politicians, and this is broad, and one for poetry. And this is beautiful and descriptive. And they are different, very different languages.
JEFFREY BROWN: Muhammad Ali insists that his poetry does speak to the conflict around him, but indirectly.
TAHA MUHAMMAD ALI: In my poetry, there is no Palestine, no Israel. But, in my poetry, suffering, sadness, longing, fear, and this is, together, make the results: Palestine and Israel. The art is to take from life something real, then to build it anew with your imagination.
Lovers of hunting,
and beginners seeking your prey:
Don’t aim your rifles
at my happiness,
which isn’t worth
the price of the bullet
(you’d waste on it).
What seems to you
so nimble and fine,
like a fawn,
every which way,
like a partridge,
my happiness bears
no relation to happiness.