PEN Flyer for 1982 reading in support of victims of Lebanon War.

I’m not one to go digging around in old dirt, but sometimes you find good bones. Recently I’ve been doing some research in the papers of an important scholar and public intellectual who taught at my university and died on my twenty-second birthday. When he died, I was a baby editor, and bad at my job, but I felt a little grand. I managed to get the day off from work for the memorial and bought a prim looking black dress from Goodwill, linen with a satin ribbon. I dug out my interview heels. People like Noam Chomsky said very moving things, but I couldn’t pay attention. The shape of everyone’s grief was so different and it didn’t really make sense to me. Everyone took his death personally, and the obituary in the Times was less than totally respectful.

Since eye and mind were wandery—like when you’ve crashed a party—I stared and tried to stay very still. I followed the lines of heavy stone to the grand but unbeautiful ceiling, traced the bronchioles of the organ, blinked in slowmo to feel the quiet hubbub, and tried to remember who told me about Alice Babs singing there, in Riverside Church or was it St. John the Divine, and what was supposed to have been shocking about it.

These are hard times for theoryTM, the summer bookended by revelations of a scandal that has split my social world down the middle, largely along generational lines. One of the theorists weighing in—who has signed a letter suggesting that reputation and clout, “grace” and “wit” should be allowed to eclipse abuse—wrote recently “I am still against scandal culture.” It’s probably true that there’s more than a little schadenfreude involved in this #moment. The internet is interested in juicy shit, and this is soggy-ass laundry from an out-of-touch cadre on the intellectual left.

But when Derrida died, and Said died, it’s not like the public was more earnestly interested in what they were up to. People hate theory. Newspapers hate writers, unless they’re misogynists. When nouveau roman pioneer Nathalie Sarraute died—no joke—some paper in France headlined it Nathalie S’Arrête. When I die, please pun me so rude.

Apart from the obituaries, the only time I remember Edward Said appearing in the news as a subject rather than a writer was when he threw that stone at the Israeli guardhouse on the Lebanese border in 2000. He called it a “symbolic gesture of joy” and said, “it was a pebble…[t]here was nobody there. The guardhouse was at least half a mile away.” The Freud Society of Vienna cancelled a lecture the next year. The New York Times headline called his stone-throw a “Freudian slip.” The campus paper said he was “accused of stoning,” like a proper Muslim barbarian. Nevermind that he was from a Christian community. The racist insinuation hit its target.

Said’s papers, housed in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library at Columbia, contain a folder labelled simply “poems.” Poems!!! I caught the archival giddies just from the Said finding aid. I made my appointment, placed my things in the digipad locker and sharpened my pencil. Gathered my book rests, bean bags, and leaden rosaries, and waited for my box to be called. Downstairs, a friend was writing an essay about deer. At the desk in front of me was this truly legit grad school colleague who had found an unpublished novel by a giant of the Harlem Renaissance in that same building. So I started off pretty hopeful and pretty jealous.

The folder didn’t contain secret, unpublished Saidian lyrics, but rather drafts of Rana Kabbani’s translations of works by Palestinian writer Mahmoud Darwish, a few of which would appear in the 1986 collection Sand and Other Poems. The whole emotional research cycle happened in under ten minutes: What are theeeeeeese? Who wrote them? No names! Oh. Oh. Google Google. Ok. Bummer. I tried to tell the librarian that I figured out what was in the folder, but he didn’t seem interested.

The pieces read differently—truer and more gestural—on the flimsy draft paper. At the upper left corner, a faint rust stain from a paperclip affixed the year I was born. In “The River is the Stranger,” Darwish writes of a nascent and unrealized love that glints at the edges of night along a river. “We did not try love’s language,” he writes “Nor seek the river in vain,/ But night rose from her garments.” This night, he says, is unlike any other night. It curled like “a kitten in her lap” while “the wide horizon” sought “a shelter in her gaze,” where he too wishes to moor, at least until sunrise. He bows to the night:

I made an offering in its name
That saints might die in place of us
An offering of my blood
In order to remain
A little longer on these steps

Stuttering between an unnamed city and the grasping underworld, sidewalk and the fountains of jannat, the two are “wound and knife,” the river both separation and link to other times and other places. The lover, Jhana, a name that means stream of water or stream of life, vouchsafes bits of her mind with precision, with devastating control. The pair walk and test their sentiments, their histories, turning over the possibility of each other until she dodges: “The river is the stranger,/ She said/ As she went to meet the road.”

The speaker follows her lead, learns to turn his desire inward or to find it there, transform it into other beings:

Reshape me into moon,
That I might slant the night
Behind me into forests.
Reshape me into stone,
That I might draw the distance to me,
As horses follow shyly.

The poem, like much of Darwish’s work, flings out its silence and solitude—its many departures and suspensions—in frustrated agony toward the impossibility of home. “Jhana/ You could not be the cities I was seeking/ Nor the land that I desired,” he writes, accommodating inside the self the mournful wish to absorb and refract: a moon that throws received light back to earth in slanting beams, a thirsty stone that “draw[s] the distance to me,” and leads shy horses to some steady and sempiternal watering hole.

“Sand,” Darwish writes in the collection’s title poem, “a shape and an idea of shape/ Sand/ Oblivion killing blossom.” In a later poem, “Who Am I, Without Exile?

…nothing carries us: not the road and not the house.
…And what will we do?
will we do

Darwish’s writing is always working to say this exactly right: that to make one’s way home over under around and by every obstruction is perpetual self-annihilation, agential and suicidal both. It’s only a gesture, and the only possible gesture. A pebble lobbed at an indifferent wall. A grain of sand in a lengthening desert.

The closing lines of June Jordan’s 1985 collection, Living Room, dedicated to the children of Atlanta and the children of Lebanon, speak to this condition in solidarity with Darwish—with whom she hoped to collaborate—and with Palestinians:   

I was born a black woman
and now
I am become a Palestinian
Against the relentless laughter of evil
There is less and less living room
It is time to make our way home.

Poetry mystery solved, I signaled the librarian that I was finished with the box, but the next folder peeped me hard: “SCANDAL, 1982.” Man, scandals are scandals, and I like seeing people I admire be petty. I went back to the desk. 

The folder contains a collection of documents about the planning, execution, and aftermath of a November, 1982 poetry event, “Moving Towards Home,” held during the First Lebanon War, and cosponsored by PEN and UNICEF at New York’s Ethical Culture Society. The reading was to raise funds for the children of Lebanon—many of whom were Palestinian refugees—who had been orphaned, further displaced, and maimed during the already deadly six-month assault by Israel. The war would last three years. The reading, organized by June Jordan and others, featured “American, Arab, and Israeli” poets. Said advised on the list of readers. Jordan read four poems that would later appear in Living Room: “Apologies to All the People in Lebanon,” “To Sing a Song of Palestine,” “The Cedar Trees of Lebanon,” and “Moving Towards Home.” Congressman John Conyers hosted, before his career was mired in scandal.  

Darwish was scheduled to read, but, per a program addendum, was denied a visa under the Ideological Exclusion clause. “The poet has been barred, but the poem continues,” they announced in his absence. The reading seems to have been normal, successful even. Etel ’Adnan read too, and Thulani Davis, and Yehuda Amichai. But the PEN Executive Board meeting minutes from December 1982 detail how Grace Schulman, then director of the Poetry Center at the 92nd Street Y, “rather bitterly grieved about the poor literary quality of some of the work purveyed during the evening and expressed the feeling that as far as it was from literary quality, so close was it to political assertion.” The executive board largely seems to have agreed. The concluding lines of the minutes read:

It was asserted firmly that any requests to PEN that it co-sponsor activities should be viewed with active skepticism, that PEN should by far prefer to sponsor and carry through its own events and that, particularly in matters yielding possible political impacts, a sense of caution was necessary, particularly when, as in the case of relief for Lebanese youngsters, the emotional appeal for participation was so clear.

Let us observe that this is how whiteness shores itself up, “griev[ing] bitterly,” retreating from politics in the name of aesthetic “quality,” forging its armor from the false quarry of affective and poetic purity. Perhaps the readings didn’t have enough “grace,” or “wit,” the victims and witnesses being equally unwhite.

Darwish didn’t make it to the event, and neither did Said, but he was informed of the PEN board’s unfortunate response as an interested observer. Some vocal parties worried about what he would have said had he been there. A letter from a member of the board warned in advance against PEN’s participation, insisting the occasion was about something entirely other than the professed aim of helping Lebanese children. He mused on the possible poetics works of Noam Chomsky and Edward Said that might be read at such an event, wagering confidently that they would certainly not address the wounded victims of the Lebanese Civil war some years earlier.

I like the way Ben Lerner describes, in The Hatred of Poetry, the weirdly tender feeling of watching someone contort their face and mind toward recognition when you mention a poet they most surely don’t know. Something wistful and serene comes over faces when you say the names of even the angriest, wildest, most truthful and joyous poets, who fought with their pens and blood for justice. No one acts tenderly, or feels an upwelling of nostalgia and humanity, when you mention a theorist whose name lingers at the edges of memory, whether or not they wrote apocryphal poems. Usually they look pissed, like, it’s just words, you know. No one’s life is on or in the line.

The root of scandal—skandalon—is a stumbling block or stone. As in The Devil’s Charter: “and since all skandalls are remou’d and cleer’d,/ Strike up your cheerful drummes and march along.” It’s a good slogan against throwing stones, a good motto for anti-theory, anti-politics. Just march along cheerfully and stop tripping us up with your gestures, your anger, your pebbles.

Except for the scandal of nothing-having-changed in quite specific ways, these folders are just tripping stones. No Saidian secret poem, and no surprise pettiness from people I admire, no true revelation. But there are the bones of something theoretical in this old dirt, not just in the spectral poems of theorists Said and Chomsky, which—assuredly!—wouldn’t have dealt with the victims of the Lebanese Civil War. Theoretical also in that the PEN scandal incited Jordan to introduce poetry to truth in a way that feels entirely fresh, and entirely apart from the ethic of aesthetic purity that masked what she called the “extraordinary second-hand gossip session” at the December, 1982 meeting of the PEN Executive Board.

Addressing the board in a letter, Jordan writes, on fire, “I believe that if we are not talking about the truth, then we are not talking about poetry.” Further on, she writes: “I am appalled by the procedural irregularity and surrealism of the attempted post-mortem.” The letter dismembers in detail both the derogation of the Board in allowing itself to be steamrolled by moribund judgments of aesthetic autonomy, as well as the hysterical re-construction of the event rendered into evidence by absent witnesses. Poetry, she insists, is being severed from truth, and thus, eviscerated of politics. For Jordan, it won’t stand.

Irregularity and surrealism—in matters concerning Muslims in America—remains the order of our day. In April of this year, a few months before the Supreme Court upheld the Muslim Ban, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, Australian activist and founder of “Youth Without Borders” was denied entry to the U.S. on the way to the PEN event. Her talk was to be called “No Country for Muslim Women.” This time, the PEN response was measured: 

The very purpose of the PEN World Voices festival, founded after 9/11 to sustain the connectedness between the U.S. and the wider world, is in jeopardy at a time when efforts at visa bans and tightened immigration restrictions threaten to choke off vital channels of dialogue that are protected under the First Amendment right to receive and impart information through in-person cultural exchange….We call on Customs and Border Patrol to admit her to the U.S so that she can take her rightful place in the urgent international conversation to take place at the festival next week.

Abdel-Magied never made it to the event. Jordan’s “Independence Day in the U.S.A.,” also from Living Room, attempts to face the shame, the isolation of living in “northamerica” under such conditions, thirtysomething years earlier:

…I am living inside the outcome
of the only legitimate revolution
in human history
and the operator will not place my call to Cuba
the mailman will not carry my letters to Managua
the State Department will not okay my visa

“Apologies to All the People in Lebanon,” which Jordan read at the “Moving Towards Home,” event, registers the difficulty—perhaps the impossibility (is this theory?)—of accessing the truth in an imperialist discursive regime. In this poem and others, official reports obstruct, littering the field of solidarity with stumbling blocks: “They said you shot the London Ambassador/ and when that wasn’t true/ they said so/ what/…They said they were victims. They said you were/ Arabs./ …I didn’t know and nobody told me and what/ could I do or say, anyway?” Reading these lines now, it is hard not to hear the vile phrase “fake news.” What she does, what she says, is “I’m sorry,/ I really am sorry,” in both gesture and in word. Writes it, then gathers witnesses to hear it.

Some years earlier, in Things That I Do in the Dark (1977), Jordan was working through the relationship between poetry, truth, and illumination in a more private register:

These poems
they are things that I do
in the dark
….These words
they are stones in the water
….These skeletal lines
…arms for my longing and love.

To tell you the truth, this is a violent excerpting. I am trying to make the poem say something I can bear: arms not of embrace but of struggle, as in the “guerilla girl/ with no arms,” in “Poem for Guatemala.” Gestural arms enfolding angry, joyous pebbles, as in “let us break heads together” in “Poem for Etel ’Adnan,” headbreaking being the purpose of both battle and of poems. As in “October 23, 1983,”

a muscular/exquisite
matter of tactful
collecting the easily dark
of the beautiful boulders
in that gathering
   that water

At the end of the memorial, everyone said long goodbyes. I didn’t have or maybe didn’t want anyone to walk with as so many luminaries dirged down the short steps onto Riverside Drive. It was afternoon in late September, and the light was scandalously beautiful. I took the switchback paths down to the river, tripping a bit in my grown-up drag, chose a pebble of broken concrete from the crumbling greenway, and hurled it as hard as I could in the direction of those impaling cliffs, that river-quarried border wall, that hulking mass of stone, the Palisades.


[Thanks to PEN America for permission to reprint material from the December 1982 Executive Board minutes. June Jordan's correspondence reprinted by permission of the June M. Jordan Literary Estate Trust.]

Originally Published: September 19th, 2018

Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb grew up in Albany, New York and Cambridge, Massachusetts, and studied Comparative Literature at Columbia, where she also earned a PhD. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in 3 Quarks Daily, Discourse, the Los Angeles Review of Books, BookForum, Boston Review, Triple Canopy, the Bennington Review,...