I
It’s stranger to think of you, Allen, now that Mahmoud is gone, your glary eyes,
your voice like an old record, 1947.
It’s 2008, on a sunny winter afternoon, Manhattan. I didn’t sleep last night,
thinking of what you might have been reading if you were with me,
awake, at 3:39 a.m.
I was listening to Leonard Cohen, he seems to be everywhere I go these days, and
listening for short intervals to Fairuz and packing for San Francisco,
speaking to the phantoms weeping, as you wept when you read “Adonais.”
I weep reading Liam Rector and Jason Shinder—“God Bless,” Jason would say,
whenever I told him something he liked, or it was just part of his mantra?
I weep thinking of Darwish. Have you seen him yet, Allen? Should we be looking
for death, or is it Jerusalem?
Meanwhile, did I tell you, I can’t find my national anthem. Every time I start
singing, the tune disappears. I see a flashback of a thin sheet of light, the
American flag I will soon carry. La Marseillaise forever on my tongue.
Where is the garden that will blossom in the cold, the cities I will dream of
finding again, the fantasy of finding India and China while being in
Bethlehem, and the trees outside still bare so bare, or is that what
forgetting looks like?
Who knows where to find solitude—on a broken bed, in the balcony that refuses
the wind’s visit, in the crimpling shadow of poets who never heard a
rooster early in the morning, as I have in the Caribbean, waiting for the
message behind the hills.
Perhaps death will stop at nothing until it’s trapped in what it worships, it’s like
scratching a dream when it’s not looking, it’s like stealing some gray from
the sky, or like the swelling of silence in our throats, trying to climb out of
black smoke.
Skeletons in our minds, it’s a private grief, a private grief, you hear.
Now all I have is the time I dreamt I kissed a boy as the Arabic music was
playing, the time an Afghan immigrant reminded me of myself when I
first took the 7 train to Queens, not knowing yet that nostalgia steals from
longing—
from the thoughts that keep coming to us; not because we can’t forget but because
we don’t want to—
as for me, all I want is a gesture from Mahmoud, a touch from a world that listens
to what movements say.
I practice listening to everything around me—the bird, its cry, the sun, its cry, the
echo, the stillness, its music. I keep all that they mean to me and break into
what we are unable to be.
Death’s stubborn—it never rests. Maybe that’s how it stops suffering. Where have
you gone, Allen?
To New York or Kolkata—is there joy in those places or fear—what do people
there think about as they drink root beer or lassi, as they watch bodies pile
up in newspapers—
it’s all about money, no one’s looking for soul or secret—the things you think you
don’t have—
women looking for love, men looking for love except they can’t find the place for
it. Did you love, Allen? What is the last thing you remember?
The last man in your bed, who was he to you? What can’t darkness prepare you
for? What did God forbid, then said yes to? Do you know where to find
the cloud trapped in a bark? A red ribbon, and a sigh that asks, “Can you
believe?” You don’t have to answer now.
The wind blows something that can’t exist—so it’s victorious. And then we start
cherishing what can change and changes—
the mercy on the tree, the broken arrow, the leaves, the colors that cut air into
what it desires most—lost snow—
an electrical wire that lights nameless neighborhoods that sing under bridges, and
then people stop wearing shoes to feel the earth. Wait—
are we grieving? Is that what we are doing, Allen? I can’t do this—I need forever
now—tell me eternity exists or that I should call my lover, his kiss is that
other dream, sleeping on his lips that other endlessness—
no more moon, mind bent, heart strolled dream hanged, face under madness. You
understand—
in the world we all struggle with Jesus, with what we name Holy Father. Ya
Salaam. Shalom.
Blessing is what we adore each day. As for Heaven, it’s still undefined—come on,
give me a clue.
Is it the end or do we keep redeeming—the shadows are near but far enough. I get
it—you’re the perfect phantom.

II
Tell me, tell me Allen—about the song you sang—of the place that crosses flesh,
of the hush that breaks light, of Saladin Street where we see those
crippling in the dark or the dark crippling, those who went blind last night,
who lost a sky, who dug deep to find a cemetery that once belonged to
them.
Curse the mind. The craziness of being on a Greyhound bus, then a broken down
bus on its way to Hebron.
I can’t hear the footsteps of mourners anymore, the presence of love and hate in
the heart of prayer.
What is history when what disturbs us most finds a different pleasure each day?
Allen, I’ve been having these nightmares—that I can’t get to New Jersey,
that my room is no longer organized, and that the wallpaper my mother
put up on the wall has turned green, or is it red? What should we have for
breakfast?
Wait—before you answer, I have to reach the Mount of Olives, my cousin’s son,
my neighbor’s flock, the hills the stone walls?
What are you really looking for? I don’t know if we believe in what we are saying
anymore, if our discourse on peace is not beaten down.
It’s come back—my dream of New Jersey. It’s a strange place to be lonely in. I
would rather be by the limestone, the agonized horse, the gray light.
But I’m thankful that two hour bus ride to Bayonne every week helps me erase
the day my uncle lost his land in Mar Elais, the afternoon my father cried
for his murdered friend in Africa, and my mother’s line, on ne sait pas, we
don’t know. Still don’t know about return.
By the time I arrive at Journal Square, pass Kennedy Boulevard, listen to people
speak Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, see the lonely tree by the telephone
company, listen to other people’s music (since they play it too loud), smell
other people’s takeaway and see the old Egyptian immigrant still waiting
for someone to speak to him, I understand that moving is like a
hallucination—real, not real, dizzying, addicting, melancholic.
I wonder if the old man speaks English now. Wonder what he hides. I was twelve
when I hid the old map with shame written on it.
Allen, absence stays permanent. No, absence shifts into small gods—pleasures
and sins. It matters less with time, it matter more with time.
Cut the voice into pieces but it stays whole, my Siti would say. I wish she told me
what it means to refuse glory. To lace my shoes. No eyes should be on us.
Place the picture sideways, my Siti would say. A Surah from the Koran. A
verse from the Bible always close.
Is there another word for dreaming? Do ghosts set light on fire? Look—an
eyelash on your shirt, a small sound, a broken scar. It’s always too
crowded at night. Allen, answer.
I’ll tell you how to replace a question with a haze—just think of the present when
it insists on the past, break a glass, then two, and you find that you have no
choice except to walk out and stay.
Remember the twenty letters I left on your bedside, Allen. Dark ground. Empty
room. They all have the same refrain. I know you understand, even if no
one else does.
Whom have we betrayed? Which wisdom, which age? There was a city on the
train. Did you see its colors? Mystic blue. Then yellow.
This wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Mahmoud wasn’t supposed to leave.
Bring me the water jug, two weavers, a marble about to crack, a glass with
a smell that will intrigue me. I understand—
The dead cheat death. And I am restless.
The bending shoulder. The titling neck, the drunken eyes. The lips releasing fever
like a long stretch of black clothes. You see a place and wonder if you’ve
been there.
So Allen, show me what’s slow like my Jiddo showed me what’s gone—a shield
broken, a heart broken, a branch broken, the trees that lost a life before
him?
I replace heat with more heat. Replace ache with winter, winter with a familiar
voice, voice with a wound I confuse with a patch of bitter plants.
I saw Mahmoud weep—the day he realized his moving was spelled backward, the
shore further than the day before, and he still loved summer.
I still love when my lover pulls Neruda from the shelf and reads me a poem over
the phone. It makes me think when his mother suddenly hugged him but
he didn’t know why—that’s same suddenness. It haunts. Finally midnight
is available.
Meditations. Highways. Roads. Routes. Noticias. Hesitations. Mocking one’s own
hesitation. I line them up—conspiracies, frescos, speeding tickets,
recycled newspapers, hairpins, landmarks, lives bargained—and now I
have to find them.
Last night I heard “Ya Jaffa” and dreamt of the sea, but when I awoke all the
water was gone.
And I can’t get the Brooklyn Bridge out of my mind. What do you think that
means?
Let me go back. Long nights as a child. Nightmares. The place moves its dark.
Keeps darkening. Then the dark changes. Another alphabet.
Like electrical shock, it’s October 21, 2008 and I’m in Gettysburg—only six days
until the test—to be or not to be American.
I see the 1860s—the American civil war, the dead and the dying, shrieks and cries
in wagons—the 13 th amendment, freedom—how it’s defined, 1877 and
Hayes, black civil rights, Jim Crow, “separate but equal” —reconciliation,
but whites only—under Wilson blacks clean latrines, pass blankets. We
don’t seem to understand that after war is where you see war. The gospels,
Hosanna—au plus haut des cieux (that’s the language I remember it in).
Souls linger to hand out truths. Mason Dixon line. Pennsylvania and Maryland.
Abe Lincoln. Dixie—
General Lee, General Meade. Passing the line. Harrisburg. Shell, bullet,
ball—Uncle Tom’s Cabin (read). .31 caliber pepperbox revolver. Pistol.
Rifle. Handmade wood fife. Brass bugle. Drummer’s baton. E-Flat Tenor
saxhorn. B-flat Baritone saxhorn (all preserved and behind glass cabinets).
Suddenly, I hear Sandoval playing in a white man’s saloon, the quiet apples on
Route 34. Route 94. What I see here—the color of fall. The great
American landscape—walnut trees, apple orchards, pear orchards, Adam’s
county, Mexican workers in the apple belt.
And I’m out of breath, Allen—are you? Let’s call Darwish. Mahmoud. Mahmoud.
He’s not listening. Later then.
I pass my citizenship test in Long Island. The year ends. 2009 begins in Gaza.
Where has the sea gone? Is there a sea where the simplest things become
strange, the strangest things a simple answer to grief—an empty street, a
baton, a faint desire moving, as if it was decided by someone else what
should be sealed or shared—a dark, transgressed.
Allen, as I watch Gaza, January 20 approaches. Obama’s inauguration. The day I
become an American. Imagine that.
I start watching nightfall along a field of long branches, bare and reaching for all
that they can. Do you think of what it’s like a thousand miles from
Memphis?
Not a lighted road. No one walks here in this obscurity. The road is but a hollow
hold to where we pretend to exist—a cornfield or a burning field, it’s no
different than a mind gone with another.
This is the time of surrender, I think. Is that what the dead do, surprise us and
when we’re finally alone become all that we need to be—a cook, farmer,
messenger, tailor, lover—a crowded sentence. I needed elsewhere.
I saw Faith today, 17 hands, and I looked at the mountains surrounding the ranch.
Oh yes, I forgot to tell you, I’m in California now. Ojai. But just returned
from the West Bank and Texas—
Did you know that Texas is where Darwish died? Such irony. His irony is like the
color of noon—no identifiable tones.
Allen, where’s Mahmoud now? Have you seen him yet?
Damn it, I missed his call. I missed his damn call and now he’s left—truth is, we
decided, no goodbyes.
Allen, when you died, I was with Darwish in Ramallah. We both said nothing.
What could we say, the sun tangled in our shadows.
Spiders and solitude, around us—who can measure the distance of fire half a mile
into our scar?
He stopped smoking, waited for something other than summer, it’s all about
compromise. I know—that’s why we beat hope out of the tabla
It’s all about god, always about god, no one sees the fountain.
You weren’t well. I know. You spoke to me because you liked Mahmoud.
I know. I wanted to postpone. I was nervous. Your assistant said,
“Don’t”—You died a month and some later. I kept your keys. The poem
you wrote the night before we spoke, your words to me: “I got up in the
middle of the night and wrote a poem. It was a thought that had occurred
to me over and over again and I had never written it down because I was
ashamed of it. It is a fantasy of my own funeral. The main thing is, beside
my family, everybody I have ever made love to are still alive, hundreds of
young kids or older guys, bold by now and married with children. I was
always ashamed of this fantasy—fame and death are something—afraid to
reveal that sort of vanity. So last time I realized, yes, it was vanity but so
what—you take your neurosis and make your pet out of it. The whole point
is to reveal your mind, not be ashamed of your mind. I wrote it down and
it is probably the title of the next book I will put out, Death and Fame.”
That’s what we leave behind, the way we went. Kiss Mahmoud.

Love,
Nathalie

I started this poem on August 2008—the month Mahmoud Darwish died—and finished a draft on February 2012 in Queens, N.Y., the same month I interviewed Ginsberg 15 years earlier. (Interview with Allen Ginsberg was published in Arabic in Al Karmel, edited by the late Mahmoud Darwish). Ginsberg died a month or so after the interview in 1997. August 2018 marks 10 years since Darwish’s death.

Photo: Getty.

Nathalie Handal

Nathalie Handal's most recent books include the flash collection The Republics, lauded as “one of the most inventive books by one of today’s most diverse writers” and winner of the Virginia Faulkner Award for Excellence in Writing and The George Ellenbogen Poetry Award; the bestselling bilingual collection La estrella invisible / The Invisible Star; the critically acclaimed Poet in Andalucía; and Love and Strange Horses, winner of the Gold Medal Independent Publisher Book Award, which The New York Times says is “a book that trembles with belonging (and longing).” Handal is a Lannan Foundation Fellow, Centro Andaluz de las Letras Fellow, Fondazione di Venezia Fellow, and winner of the Alejo Zuloaga Order in Literature, among other honors. She is a professor at Columbia University, and writes two literary travel columns, The City and the Writer for Words without Borders and EAT: Everywhere a Tale for Popula.