Monday, June 08, 2009

Wrap-Up & Teaser

Eric Selinger

It's Monday the 8th, and my quarter is over.

Not technically. Exams and final papers come in Friday, and I'll have to grade them. But the teaching and class prep are done, and the committee work as well.

What a year.

As you know, if you follow Say Something Wonderful and / or Teach Me Tonight, this has been a year of highs and lows for me.

The lows? Not getting my Promotion to Full Professor leads the pack--still a stinging, simmering disappointment--followed by assorted deaths of children's pets, angst over my son's Bar Mitzvah celebration, increasing ambivalence about all things Jewish, thanks in part to the Gaza war and in part (l'havdil) to mounting unhappiness with the religious school at my synagogue. In the end, we simply pulled our kids out--this after, what? Five or six years of work on various committees, trying to improve the curriculum. An utter failure, that, and I don't take failure well.

The highs? Well, let's see. Judaically speaking I'd list playing with the Alte Rockers right near the top, along with my son's Purim Bar Mitzvah, which defied any number of familial and communal expectations. Professionally, there were the conferences: first the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation in November, then, in the spring, in quick succession, the Popular Culture Association in New Orleans, then the big Princeton conference on Romance Fiction and American Culture, which got covered by the Huffington Post (among other media) and now the final push to prepare the international conference on Popular Romance Studies down in Brisbane, Australia.

And, most of all, there was the writing. Early in the year I ground out (slowly, painfully) a long essay on the poet Lawrence Joseph that will be coming out soon in the University of Cincinnatti Law Review. It's a good piece, and the foundation for future work on Joseph, whose work I highly recommend. From that I pivoted to write another essay, this one on three Palestinian poets, Mahmoud Darwish, Taha Muhammad Ali, and Samih al-Qasim. It will be coming out in Parnassus at some point in the next few months, and I'm doubly proud of it--as an essay and as a second essay, as it's been ages since I wrote more than one published piece in a single school year.

While you wait for that one to come out, here's a teaser--the opening paragraphs:

“The house is dark in the February damp, but when she opens the door to let me in, Imm Nizar is laughing.”

Stop, just a moment, to appreciate that sentence from My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness. Start with the pacing: three poised clauses, sight and touch yielding to motion, then sound. Savor how it’s knit by sound, as “dark” sets up “damp,” then “door,” then “Nizar,” in” modulates to “Imm,” and “damp” transforms into “laughing.” Most of all, thank Adina Hoffman, its author, for the way it beckons you into the daunting subject announced by her subtitle: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century. At the start of what she claims is the first biography of a Palestinian writer “in any language (including Arabic),” Hoffman calls up laughter, not anger, hospitality, not guilt, and a domestic scene instead of the public saga of displacement, frustration, and war.

The poet she focuses on is an unlikely subject: the gracious, self-deprecating husband of Imm Nizar, eighty-seven-year old Taha Muhammad Ali. Given the fame he has recently accrued, reading with his translator, Peter Cole, to hundreds, sometimes thousands of fans at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, Muhammad Ali may be better known in English now than he is in Arabic. Born in 1931, he didn’t write a poem until the early 1970s, by which time Samih al-Qasim and Mahmoud Darwish, the two other poets I will discuss, were famous as rock stars. “How is it that we didn’t even know you existed?” the Iraqi author Buland al-Haydari demanded of Muhammad Ali a generation later. The explanation was simple enough: When they met at his first international reading, the poet had no political ties to make him famous, little distribution for his work, and, at fifty-seven years old, still only one slim volume to his name.

In centering her “group portrait” of Palestinian writers around a poet even she calls “marginal,” Hoffman borrows a strategy from the poet himself. “Taha has often likened his own poetic method to what he calls in English ‘bill-i-ar-des,’” she writes. “‘You aim over here—‘ a long, gnarled, yet delicately mottled farmer’s finger points to the right—‘to strike over there.’ The finger bends sharply to the left.” To use the technical term, both Muhammad Ali and Hoffman put considerable “English” on the course of Palestinian history since the 1930s, spinning it into useful, graceful, surprising trajectories. As a result, My Happiness Bears No Resemblance to Happiness offers the best introduction I know, not only to the poet at its heart, but also to the more famous authors who have crossed paths with him or spent years talking to him in the makeshift, under-the-radar salon of his souvenir shop in Nazareth. With it in hand, I have spent the past few months re-reading not only Muhammad Ali’s own work, but also Sadder Than Water, the recent Selected Poems from Samih al-Qasim (another Ibis Editions poet, in English) and, with blossoming admiration, the fine new crop of Darwish translations, which let American readers grapple, for the first time, with complete books by this expansive, reflective, mercurial, and self-revising poet. Not to slight the useful pair of monolingual Selecteds, The Adam of Two Edens (2000) and Unfortunately, It Was Paradise (2003), translated by various hands, but for Darwish, as we shall see, the collection was as much the unit of composition as the individual poem. Only now, thanks to translators Jeffrey Sacks and Fady Joudah, can readers without Arabic, including me, begin to take his measure.

Keep an eye out for the piece, and for more posts here. I'm taking over my children's religious education this year--officially, I mean, as I've been in charge all along--and will be designing a curriculum for it here at BJB.

More soon,

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