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Gated Community III
An apology and a confession: I’m sorry for being absent on Harriet—I thought I would sneak back to the U.S. from Beirut and do two readings and slip home without fanfare, to take up my blogging duties again from the comfort of my own desk, close by the books I’d wanted to cite in my meditations on lyrical “gated communities” … but it was not to be. I’m still in the U.S., stranded by the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull.
So I’ve fallen behind in my life (stranded, in stasis, a guest in my parents’ home) and I’ve fallen behind in my conversation on Harriet. As a devoted reader of Lavinia Greenlaw’s poetry (wherever I can find it — we need more of her work on these shores!), I am delighted to have inspired this post, and will respond to it further. I also have to respond to Praxilla’s cucumbers.
Irony heaped on irony: I was exiled from my home in the U.S. in the midst of the economic meltdown, so went to live, against my will, in Beirut; I needed to do some April readings for my new book so I came to stay in my parents’ home for a few days; now I can’t leave my parents’ home, though my children are waiting for me in our not-real-home, in Beirut, which is essentially the only place on earth I want to be right now.
I can barely write a coherent sentence, much less a coherent post. But this is what I was going to say before I got stranded:
One of the advantages of being in the U.S. right now is that I can walk into a bookstore and pick up the issue of The Nation where this article appears, since it’s not available online. Pre-Islamic Arabic poetry is—well, something stronger than an ongoing interest of mine, but doesn’t quite qualify as an area of expertise.
There is a dialectic of wandering and homeland at the heart of Arabic poetry. The poets Jordan Davis evokes at the beginning of his article on Darwish were nomadic Bedouin, who would open their famous poems with invocations of lost love at the site of old encampments. These sites were just temporary dwellings, but erotic memories infused them with significance.
In the Levant, several cities boast of being possible candidates for “the longest continuously inhabited city in the world.” The scholar of Arabic poetry, Suzanne Pinckney, wrote in her book The Mute Immortals Speak of the ancient Arab story of “the bursting of the dam at Ma’rib.” “With the dispersal of its people, the Himyarite kingdom became a byword for a failed polity, the moral of their story preserved in the idiom tafarraqu aydiya Saba, ‘they scattered in all directions.’ … It is not surprising, then, that in Islamic terms, the heavenly garden is termed dar al-qarar, the permanent abode, and the Ka’bah at Mecca (and its heavenly counterpart) given the epithet al-bayt al-ma’mur, the (continuously) inhabited dwelling.”
A successful polis makes life more livable for its inhabitants, who in turn sustain the life of the polis. Scattering and exile constitute failure.
Still, some of the most exciting poetry in world history was written by people who were essentially homeless. This homelessness augmented the value of poetry for them—a poem was a “thing” they could essentially carry around in their heads, weighing nothing, and unable to be stolen or lost in transit. Conversely, even a temporary campsite has the heaviness of “home” if what took place there burned itself into the brain forever.