2011 Travelogue: Dire Poesia and Palfest
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Leaving New York
March 9, 2011
Went last night to Ahdaf Souief’s talk `Notes from the Egyptian Revolution’. She spoke of how people wore saucepans on their heads, since they didn’t have helmets, and that in Egypt a saucepan on the head, in a play for instance, betoked a crazy person. So if you have a stage set in a forest and you see an actor with a saucepan on the head, you know it’s someone who is mad. This of course was in Tahrir square.
Ahdaf and I were able to say hello before her talk and she gave me some advice on how to dress, for our trip in Palestine. `Just as you are is fine’ she said. I was in a black skirt, and black sweater.
O for some color I thought, I should color, the brilliance of color flowing in water, that is what I have learnt from my childhood, living at the edge of rivers.
Ahdaf spoke of the young men who made a line of three deep so that the Mubarak loyalists would have to confront them, and in front of them they placed burnt out cars for protection. People behind were higher up and told them where to throw stones. Others broke up the paving, for stones to throw.
O the camels and horses she said laughing. It was someone, a wealthy business man who gave money to the people by the pyramid who have camels for tourists and said – Go to the square. So the horsemen and camel men came and the creatures started slipping on the asphalt and the protestors caught them. They had whips and swords. It was quite Orientalist. They offended the dignity of the young people. Who do they think we are, that they should attack us in this medieval way. The young people with their twitter and facebook and the their multiple ways of hoisting the world forward.
All this I got from her talk.
We want to cradle this revolution, like a new born thing she said. Make sure everything is alright for it. Its for Egypt, but its really for the world.
What a fitting end to her talk, I thought.
I sat near Gayatri close to the front, and I walked out with Judith Butler and we spoke about poetry and the political world. Amazing, I said to her, we have heard of Mary Wollstonecraft going to Paris during the French Revolution at the invitation of Olympe de Gouges and this is like that. You are going on your journey to Palestine, Judith said. I will write to my friend who has the theater in Jenin. You should meet him.
All this is our life I said to Judith as we walked in the half darkness of Amsterdam avenue. How we dress, how we walk, what we choose to wear on our feet (my ankle was swollen) all this is part of the political world. She spoke of reading Darwish’s poems at the Said memorial lecture she gave in Cairo.
I feel I am going on the journey with you, she said. Drop me a line from your travels.
It is amazing that we are alive to see this moment I said to her. Yes she said.
So it is that I will close my suitcase, close up shop as it were and prepare for the voyage. The first part – Venice; the next part Israel;/ Palestine. This too is our life, this movement, this search through the interstices of what seem to be fixed places, this not knowing what time will bring. I will take a copy of Pound’s Pisan Cantos with me. I think of him imprisoned in his cage, as a fascist. The lines:
What you depart from is not the way
and olive tree blown white in the wind
washed in the Kiang and Han
what whiteness will you add to this whiteness,
`The great periplum brings in the stars to our shore.’
For him, periplum, the word he made up from the ancient greek : `not as land looks on a map/ but as seabord, seen by men sailing’
How I poured over the text a few years ago, something I found in translation from the ancient Greek, the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea – said to have been composed somewhere around the first century AD. Then as now I am trying to make sense of these voyagings.
I think of my grandmother Eli, born in 1892 in Kozhikode, north Kerala, dead in 1944. She did not live to see the great changes that befell her country. But already it was in the making. She walked by the sea shore, she watched the waters lap against rock, all the way down at the cape. She traveled to China in the 1920′s. What did she see in Shanghai? What did she feel, leaving her home, even if it was for just a month? It was after she returned that she heard Gandhi’s call for burning clothes, all foreign textiles, all things made in the mill. She burnt her silks in a great pile. This is how the stories from my child hood go. She watched the smoke rise by the bamboo grove. What would my life have been like if I had known her. I feel she would have understood this need to travel.
Up and down I went on the subway, no 1 and then the A train, doing a few errands, bidding goodbye to the underground channels of my life, here on this island. Everywhere people with crosses marked with ash, on their foreheads.
`Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn…
How I love those lines from Eliot’s `Ash Wednesday’. I committed them to memory when I was a girl.
Venice Fragments I.
Venice, Friday 18 march, 2011
Said goodbye to David who was here for a few days. We sat in the sunshine on an old bench. Coffee in hand the waters of the canal in front. Together we had taken the vaparetto. He will catch the plane back to New York. I returned alone to the apartment in the elegant Palazzo Malipiero where I am staying. It is right at the top of the palazzo and has a view of the glinting waters of the canal grande. The vaparetto stop San Samuele is literally just outside the great front door, made of oak. In its earliest stages this was a Renaissance building. Much has been done to it since then. The walls are massive stone. Opposite is the palazzo Grassi, and next door up the dark stairs, the center for Iranian art, an outfit run by the government of Iran.
After leaving David at the bus station and seeing his bus off, I walked in the Ghetto. There were some trees, still bare and brilliant sunshine. Children playing ball. I stood by the wall of remembrance and found my own shadow on the ground. I took a photo of the shadow. I stood by the tree closest to the wall. Was it an almond tree? Can the Venetian weather support almond trees? This is something I do not know.
The day before we had gone to the Museo Fortuny to see Paolo Ventura’s photographs, based on models that he built, of the old man in the Ghetto and the automaton he built out of loneliness. He called the mechanical creature Nino. `The Fascists entered the house of the old man, it was exactly 6:30 in the evening…’ There is a frame in the exhibit which is utterly black and bare.
In a fortnight if the winds blow well I will be in Palestine. I will stay in the Indian hospice in the old city of Jerusalem. It is where the twelfth century Sufi saint Baba Farid of Shaker Ganj lived when he went on his pilgrimage. Will there be almond trees in the compound there? I woudl like to find those trees and stand in their shadow.
On the evening of February 18th Daniel Stighall and his partner Susanna – they had just arrived from Stockholm – came to have a glass of wine with me. Daniel is interested in using my `Acqua Alta’ poem as the basis for a musical composition. If he can get the grant money for it, the composer Jan Sandstrom will write the music. We sat and talked about the intricacies of music and poetry, about the silk road and traveling over the surface of the earth, about climate change and wind and water. Daniel had a cold so instead of wine we all had green tea and olives. I told them about my travel plans and we all hoped it would flow well, the coming in and the goings hither.
Sunday 20 march
Went with Simona to the Scuole Grande San Rocco. On the ground floor I found the painting I loved of Mary Magdalene shining, her face bent to a book, sitting under a great tree. The tree was the main figure it had flesh and arms, and stood there, corporeal. I thought of Magdalene’s happiness, after all the torment of her life, to be able to sit with a book under a tree. Upstairs the masterwork in great swirls of orange, of the Passion of Christ. On the ceiling Isaac so pale with his father. The child, I had never noticed before was sitting on bits of torn up wood, a pyre? The father had his head turned away. There was an angel holding the knife back.
Venice Fragments II.
March 21, 2011
A clear and brilliant morning. I look out of my high window in the Palazzo Malipiero and see the waters of the grand canal, the front of Ca’ Rezzonico with the green banner blown over in the breeze. Yesterday I walked down to the traghetto stop. Someone had put a flimsy bit of paper over the entrance to signify a work stoppage. They were on strike the rowers of the gondola that is to take one to the other side.
How will I cross the river now?
Two gondolas float side by side
Both are tied to the pier.
One is filled with long strips
Of wood, painted wood torn up,
The other is polished
Later in the morning I open my Basho and lines flash up. They are lines about leaving Edo, where he has been for ten autumns and feeling that its his native place. I wonder how `native place’ sounds in Basho’s own reckoning, what the translation does with the original.
I will leave Venice later today for Vicenza, for the Dire Poesie festival. It is hard for me to pack my over night bag, cross the shining waters in the train no 9718 `frecciabianca’. I will find it in Santa Lucia station.
Yesterday as I walked on the Zattere, gazing at the waters that glittered, the facade of the Stucky Hotel on the other side, the tragedy in Japan with the earthquake, tsunami and then the radiation leaking from the damaged reactors, was so much in my mind.
On March 13 I had a note from Ed Marx who teaches at Ehime University. A month or two earlier I had sent him my poems inspired by Basho.
Ed told me that Matsayuma where he lived was fine, at least then, but that the places where Basho walked, near Sendai were all gone.
I could not sleep. I woke very early and wrote lines for my poem `Near Sendai’. I went to Daniela Ciani’s house near Campo Santa Margarita and Daniela opened up here computer and printer. That way I had a hard copy I could stick in my notebook and revise.
Where is my friend the poet Shuntaro Tanikawa? Is he still on this earth? We had met in South Africa and I had dedicated my poem `September Sunlight’ to him. Something I wrote after 9/11.
I think of the small children and their parents told to stay indoors and cover their noses and mouths. I finished the poem yesterday. `Near Sendai’. Marco is putting it into Italian, so I can read it at the festival in Vicenza today. He will work late into the night to translate it. Fortunately it is very short and the language is simple. At least Basho has had that salutary effect on me.
Pictures from Dire Poesia
March 21, 2011
Venice Fragments III.
Tuesday march 22, 2011
The poetry festival in Vicenza is over, at least my part in it. They invite one poet at a time. It so happened that I was the inaugural poet. It was intense, moving.
Marco Fazzini with great care, for which I thank him deeply translated my brand new poem `Near Sendai’ and we read it, in Italian and English close to the very end of the reading. Then Stefano Strassabusco read the poem I had found in my papers, an unpublished poem which was the length he wanted. It was published in a limited edition broadsheet in beautiful paper and given away to the audience. On the paper my handwriting is also visible. I called the poem `One Word’, a most unsatisfactory title. It was one of a cycle I never thought I would publish and I had hidden it away. A love poem. I remember I was reading the Polish poet Anna Swir when I read it. I am sure every poet has poems she or he decides for whatever reason not to publish.
The book of my eight poems hand stitched, with the simple title Otto Poesie (Sinopia Press, 2011) was released just before the event. The publisher lives in the Ghetto in Venice. He came to meet me. He had a cap on his head and a satchel on his back. Somehow that seems just right.
I spent the night in an inn in Vicenza called `Duo Mori’. Who were the two black men? No one seemed to know.
In the morning Isabella Sala took me to see the magnificent Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico. I was deeply moved seeing the stage, the many roads of Thebes leading behind, the painted clouds above, added in the nineteenth century they told me. An extraordinary harmony of reality and illusion Caught a glimpse of the Russian icons in the Palazzo Leoni Montanari where I had read the night before. As in Ohrid, where I had seen this in the form of a fresco, the image of the dormition of Mary, the son holding the tiny animula of the dead mother in his hands, moved me to tears.
Later Marco walked me to the railway station in Vicenza. Lovely spring weather. We passed through the ancient city center with buildings by Palladio, just then it was a market place filled with people bustling about and fish and vegetables too. And men playing mournful tunes on a violin and harmonium. Marco told me about visiting the poet Sorley Maclean on the isle of Skye. The way he had of reading his poems, the deep grunts and moans that would come from deep inside him as he read. Was that a special Gaelic way of reading I asked. No he replied, it was him, it was Sorley. In passing we spoke of the great poem `Hallaig’. I must read it again.
They put up a little blog on the festival site.
April 9, 2011 (very early morning)
Night of April 7, I went to the Al Midan theater in Haifa. There was a memorial for Juliano Mer-Khamis. His friends were reading in turn from Darwish’s poem `The Shroud.’ After that poem was completed, I was invited to read and I said how very sad I was to have news of his death, that I had hoped very much to meet him in Jenin at the Freedom Theater. Then to honor him and his life and work I read the poem `Teatro Olimpico’, I had made in Venice, just before traveling to Jerusalem.
The poem evokes the theatre Palladio designed for Greek tragedy. Somehow the separation wall came into it and the poem ends with a death. After I read, a friend read out an Arabic translation.
There was a big photo of Juliano with a candle under it, and bunches of roses and lilies. Lots of cigarette smoke. It was a sad an beautiful event.
Tomorrow I read in Ramallah at the La Vie Cafe.
I will go through the check point in the separation wall The wounds of Partition in India, still with us, has made me so acutely aware of the tragedy of what is happening here. A Palestinian friend tonight at the Jerusalem Hotel where we were listening to oudh music told me that the first time she saw the checkpoint in the wall, she was stunned, then when she got through to Ramallah she couldn’t stop laughing, then she moved away to the shade of a tree, she didn’t tell me what tree, and started weeping.
Later in the month in the midst of several readings, a poetry workshop in the Balata refugee camp , Nablus and a poetry workshop, through video hook up with poets in Gaza. To prepare for that, I read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.
Poetry reading on April 6, 2011 – Suq al Kattanin
Center for Jerusalem Studies
The last day of Palfest 2011 — it started quietly. Our trusty bus, the fat bellied one in which we all sat together, rolled out of Ramallah. As I stared out of the window, I could see the wild flowering yellow sprays in amongst the rocks on the hillside, and on a knoll where we stopped for a minute, a whole cluster of the delicate red anemones. The ones with the dark hearts that leap up on the frail green stalk.
At Palfest we have come as visitors, well wishers, writers come to a land that is undergoing great difficulty. I thought of the stumps of olive trees, a scarred field glimpsed out of the bus window one morning near Nablus. The Israeli soldiers had cut the trees because they were deemed to be a security risk. Whole families depended on the livelihood from the trees.
We got into Hebron a little later than planned, There was a tour of the embattled city, where settlers had come into the very heart of the city and terribly disrupted the lives of Palestinians. The glorious city of sandstone and carved trellis work, an ancient city was being depleted of its inhabitants and The Hebron Rehabilitation committee which we visited was involved in helping rebuild the houses, stone by stone, millimeter by millimeter as someone there put it. In the street of the Gold market there were international observers. One of the them told me that there job was to watch the school children, both boys and girls had their bags checked by soldiers and were also subjected to body searches. The gentleman at the Hebron Rehabilitation Center who was speaking to us about the experience of the children had said: `These things come in the blood, they are bloody things.’
We walked in the street and above our heads was netting – the settlers who lived above the street had flung garbage and all manner of waste, onto the heads of the shopkeepers there. There were soldiers everywhere, on rooftops, at street corners. I thought of the students in the workshop at Hebron University. How attentive they were to the music of poetry. What were their daily lives like? I thought back to the child in Balata refugee camp who had made a picture of barbed wire, knotted around a flag, and a huge lock on the barbed wire and a creature that looked part bird, part woman flying down. In its beak was a key.
We passed Beit Jala in our bus and on the walls of the check point at Bethlehem, those enormous dirty grey walls that cut the air and sky, someone had painted a hand, on the palm a red heart, but the fingers missing – with the caption Five Fingers of the same Hand. Elsewhere on the wall there was huge and colorful graffiti, animals with huge tails and wings, trees, people gathering, a celebration of life and resistance. Inside the checkpoint we were in a large empty shed. No soldiers were visible, but there was a very loud voice that came on from time to time, barking out orders. Ahead of us was a Palestinian family with two tiny boys. One of the boys held onto the bars of the swivel gate and tried to poke his head through, the sort of thing a child would do. Behind us was a multicolored poster of the church of the Holy Nativity. `Come and feel the glory’ it said and under it, in elaborate letters – Israel. It took us a while, but we were able to find our way to the right gate, the one that suddenly had a light flashing. One by one, passport in hand, we made our way through.
The evening started with a reception for Palfest in the American Colony Hotel. After the wine and canapes we set out in a bus for Silwan. We were to read that night in the solidarity tent. Silwan is where houses are being demolished and the people are resisting as best they can. Earlier that evening the Israeli army had lobbed tear gas at the tent, trying to get rid of the people in it. Close to Silwan the bus stopped. We left the bus and walked in a group. The acrid scent of tear gas was everywhere. The dark was illuminated by lights from a few shops, and we could see the glowing lights in the houses nearby. A cluster of people stood there, as we figured out what to do. Onions helped, cut onions that were passed around, scarves, scraps of tissue, anything to ease the tear gas. There were broken stones on the road, and from the houses nearby the people were chanting Allah u Akbar’ Whistles came in the dark. There were soldiers on the hillside nearby, though we could not immediately see them. Our destination was close by. How dark the tent was as we stumbled in, a cheer went up as the lights came on. Plastic chairs were rearranged quickly. Fekhri Abu Diab from the Silwan Solidarity Committee who welcomed us spoke in very moving fashion. `We had wanted to welcome you’ he said `in our own way and with the poems of a thirteen year old poet, but see we now welcome you with tear gas.’– One of the signs in the tent – `Israel wants to demolish the houses of 1500 years. We will not give up our houses — Bustan Committee.`
- Several of us read, poems and prose pieces and Ahdaf did an amazing job of on the spot translation. There was supposed to be an open mike so the people of Silwan could read and share their work, but because of the tear gas, the parents had taken their children to the relative safety of home. The Palestinian rap group DAM brought the house down with their songs. The first rap was in English, for the benefit of Palfest, since many of us did not know Arabic. An amazing piece about being in an elevator with a beautiful woman who could well aim her machine gun at you. The lead singer had a T shirt with a teddy bear. The bear had an eyepatch. When I asked him what it was. He looked at me and said `Just like that.’
So ended our last evening all together.
Article in the Economist – C.S., “An Explosive Evening in the Territories,” The Economist, 26 April 2011.
Palfest – Reading in Silwan, Palestine Literary Festival, April 20, 2011, Silwan solidarity tent.