Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone?

Mahmoud Darwish

translated from the Arabic by Jeffrey Sacks
Archipelago Books 2006
A book review by Danny Yee © 2009 http://dannyreviews.com/
Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? was my first encounter not just with Mahmoud Darwish but with modern Arabic poetry. Darwish is allusive and indirect and takes some getting used to. I had to adjust to the style, relax, and find a comfortable reading speed before I could properly appreciate him.

Many of the poems deal with Darwish's childhood memories of his family's eviction in the 1948 Nakba, or with the Palestinian experience of dispossession exile more generally. Other recurring subjects include love, landscapes, and poetry itself.

The front flyleaf introduction, back flyleaf biography, and back cover blurbs provide only minimal background information. There's not that much that needs explaining, however. A basic understanding of Palestinian history helps, but other than that there are only occasional references to places and people from the history and geography of Islam and the Levant.

Most of the poems are two to two and half pages long, too long to quote in their entirety. Here's an extract from "The Eternity of Cactus", which contains the line used as the anthology title.

He felt for his key the way he would feel for
his limbs and was reassured. He said
as they climbed through a fence of thorns:
Remember, my son, here the British crucified
your father on the thorns of a cactus for two nights
and he didn't confess. You will grow up,
my son, and tell those who inherit their guns
the story of the blood upon the iron ...
— Why did you leave the horse alone?
— To keep the house company, my son
Houses die when their inhabitants are gone ...

Many of the poems have much less narrative grounding than this. Here's a stanza from "Sequences for Another Time":

My life is elsewhere. It's not important
that the daughter of Genghis Khan, in her nightgown, see it
Or that a reader see it penetrate meaning
the way ink penetrates darkness

And here's "Saturday: The Dove's Wedding" from "The Seven Days of Love":

Listen to my body: Bees have their gods
Neighs have countless fiddles
I am the clouds. You are the earth, held against
a fence by the eternal wail of desire
Listen to my body: death has its fruits
and life has a life that renews itself only
from a body ... that listens to a body

This is a dual language edition, with the English translation on the left page facing the Arabic original on the right. This is visually attractive and shows that the line structure of the translation closely matches that of the original. A transliteration might have spoiled this, but would have been useful for those of us unfamiliar with Arabic script.

Like other Archipelago Press books, this is not a glossy volume, but a simple, attractive and reader-friendly one.

October 2009

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Related reviews:
- more Arabic literature
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%T Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone?
%A Darwish, Mahmoud
%M Arabic
%F Sacks, Jeffrey
%I Archipelago Books
%D 2006 [1995]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0976395010
%P 197pp