“Here The Birds’ Journey Ends,” The New Yorker August 25, 2008
It’s strange to me how many poets in the elder years write so consistently about that line between life and death, that line they so soon, according to their ages, are about to cross. Maybe it’s not strange, thinking about it…we do seem to write what most consumes our thoughts—conscious or subconscious—and perhaps those in their golden years become preoccupied with how few of those years are left, with what a truly unknown future both brings and leaves behind. In my early thirties, a wise conjecture about this is difficult for me to make. Regardless, Darwish, who died less than a month ago, seems to fall right in line with his “Here The Birds’ Journey Ends.” Rather beautifully written (translated by Fady Joudah), it’s a calm meditation on life’s passing.
Part of the poem’s beauty is born by its ten long lines: generally speaking, the longer the line of poetry, the more fluid its rhythms. Consistent with that observation, much of Darwish’s language in “Here The Birds’” has a sweeping grace. All but the last sentence stretches across two lines or more, many are perpetuated with “and,” and every line is lengthy, the shortest stretching 14 syllables. As well, though clearly not a metrical poem, several lines tend toward the iambic, such as “We are the ones who forge the sky’s copper, the sky that will carve roads” and “Soon we will descend the widow’s descent in the memory fields / and raise our tent to the final winds: blow, for the poem to live, and blow / on the poem’s road.” That these lines contain iambs is neither here nor there. It’s the fact they are rhythmically patterened that matters, as the pattern of beats helps give this poem its elegance.
Though the title says the journey ends, it could just easily say the journey begins. Darwish’ second line states, “after us there will be a horizon for the new birds,” a sentiment he repeats verbatim in his last line. He echoes it near the middle with “After us, the plants will grow and grow.” These images make the poem less about life’s end and more about transient nature. Life as a force persists whether I or Darwish or his birds do not. Life as a force is eternal; the end (much less the beginning) as we perceive it is arbitrary. Darwish’s use of birds fits this idea nicely too. They are a common symbol for life’s transition to death, for the spirit and spirit-world, and, though they offer no surprises in the poem, they fit it easily and comfortably.
It’s possible, too, that Darwish could be writing about Palestinian-Iranian-American conflict, indicating all such historical madness will eventually reach its peaceful end. He writes we will “make amends with our names above the distant cloud slopes.” While no clear reference to peace in the Middle East, its possible the poem can be taken there by such a line. Darwish, after all, who believed strongly in the Palestinian cause (though not necessarily its governments’ methods for pursuing it), and was on no certain terms a friend of Israel, sought peace, a human peace more so, I think, than an ethnic one.
Then again, he claimed his poems were often misunderstand politically. If he wrote a poem about his mother, it was about his mother, not about his mother-land. If he wrote “Here The Birds” about the passage of a life within life’s greater scope, likely that’s the case—unlikely its about the passage of any nation’s from this life into the next, from this history into another.
A final note, it’s interesting to me that his repeated line—“and after us there will be a horizon for the new birds”—is so rhythmically, tonally flat. It’s bad poetry in its own way. At the same, it’s what might be the poem’s greatest success. So often poems about death and dying (yadda-yadda) romanticize the subject, thus those sweeping rhythms I earlier indicated (Longfellow’s “The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls” comes to mind as I think about this). But here’s a case in which the final thoughts are expressed rather flatly. Not bluntly, but flatly, laden with the emotional acceptance of a truth that is indifferent to its writer. And his readers.