"I am here. Those three words contain all that can be said_you begin with those words and you return to them. Here means on this earth, on this continent and no other, in this city and no other, and this epoch I call mine, this century, this year. I was given no other place, no other time., and I touch my desk to defend myself against the feeling that my own body is transient. This is all very fundamental, but after all, the science of life depends on the gradual discovery of fundamental truths."
Czeslaw Milosz, "My Intention"
I am here in Berlin, still trying to discover those same fundamental truths Milosz speaks about that keep confronting me wherever I am, which this time happens to be Berlin where I have been living for most of the last year. This is my third prolonged residence in this city which I`ve come to cherish after endless excursions in its alleys and streets, countless minor adventures, friendships and explorations. This is the only way one forges a secret relationship with any given city:by stamping its dust with your shoes, breathing its fumes, and knowing the lonely benches in its parks until it is part of your own body, and you fall in love. It was a German woman , Elke, with whom I `was`in love who introduced me to her country and its fabulous culture when we first met; there is no greater gift than this, and I could hope for no better guide.
So I had crossed the seas and come here for the third time to find my bearings, find some peace, and try to finish my new book. The first time I left America was during the GulfWar;I stayed away for five years, wandering around Europe and North Africa. "Anywhere but here", I told myself echoeing Baudelaire in one of his poems written more than a hundred years ago. The second time was after 9/11, that black day, when I woke up and saw huge American flags flying in front of some of my neighbors' houses;every car had a flag on its antenna. The Pakistanis, Arabs, and Indian Sikhs, scared out of their wits, flew more flags than anybody else. The president himself wore a tiny flag on his breast, along with his whole cabinet, as if they needed to assure themselves that they really "were" American. I began to suspect that this whole thing was nothing more than a conspiracy by flag makers to sell their wares! There is nothing uglier than a mob marching to the same dr
That is all behind me now, and I'm here for the third time. It looks like the United States and the country of my birthplace are locked in a deadly embrace for so many insane reasons that I don't intend or need to delve into now;I'd rather talk about my evenings when I go out into the neighborhood where I live near Warshauer Strasse in the old section of East Berlin. In my walk I cross the Wall whose remains are still there stretching all the way to the ?stbahnhof, the station where you can take a train anytime to Amsterdam or Antwerp or Paris. I walk across the Warschauer bridge until I reach a certain bench I had discovered last summer in front of the elevated railway, where I sit for an hour or so with my back to the river, watching the trains take off toward Kreuzberg, where the Turks live side by side with the anarchists and revolutionaries and bohemians left over from the tremendous upheaval that shook this city to its foundations when the Wall came crashing down and the who
Once in a while a young girl would pass by on her bicycle out of Raphael or Boticelli or Dürer, or a cadaverous rough type with rings in his ears and hooks in his nose or lips out of Carravagio or Francis Bacon;or sometimes an old woman with her shoppings wagging in a basket behind the saddle, for whom nothing has really changed, in whose face could be read the true history of what had taken place near this bridge, in another time. Friends tell me that even the river was divided and patrolled by guards in gunboats between the East and West before the wall came down. Now a small white yacht with a Greek name (Okyanos Restaurant) floats a few yards away from me with Buzuki music filling the air. I sat on my bench content to see the world drift by, drifting, myself,with the current of its passage, undulating like a crab in the systole and diastole of the wave.At this time I happened to be reading Flann O'Brien's novel "The Third Policeman" which I had bought at a booksto
I was reading chapter 6 where the Seargent explains his theory about atoms and bicycles,'that people who spent most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycles as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who nearly are half people and half bicycles.' And this is the way he describes the atoms:'They are as lively as twenty leprechauns doing a jig on top of a tombstone.'
Once in a while it happens that both life and writing overlap, and this was one of those instances.
From my bench I observed the yellow trains come and go like giant caterpillars, the bicycles roll away which by now had become almost alive, or half-alive, and I went down the memory lane to my first ride on a train, from Kirkuk in the north of Iraq where I grew up and started writing, to Baghdad the capital where I came to try my luck as a writer and journalist; I went back to the first time I ever rode a bicycle when I was six years old. I still have a scar in the shins of my right leg from a bad fall when the chain gored me to the bone, and I can still feel the pain when the weather is too cold.
A poet deals with time;all those metrics and intricacies of music and sound are only ways of measuring time, drop by drop, as it slips through his fingers and evaporates into nothing. 'The drop that doesn't become the river is devoured by the sands,' says Ghalib in one of his Ghazals.Time after time we make the discovery that when we are writing we are actually remembering, not the past itself, not a person or place, a scene or sound or song, but first and foremost we are remembering words. The words that reside in a certain memory, that carry the echoes of a certain place and time. But the problem for a poet is not essentially one of vocabulary. The problem is how to take the old vocabulary and put it in new settings, in new structures that will speak of our present, and illuminate what is happening now. So the function of memory is not simple: one needs to know the words and what they mean, but one needs also to forget the settings in which they are found.
This is why it can happen, while one writes, in the middle of his journey or near its end, that all the while he had been traveling toward Ithaka, and that he only left it in order to find it.
It was Gertrude Stein who put it right when she said:'Writers have to have two countries, the one where they belong and the one in which they live really. The second one is romantic, it is separate from themselves, it is not real but it is really there….of course sometimes people discover their own country as if it were the other.
There is a tale attributed to Rumi that says: 'A man went to the door of the beloved, and knocked. A voice from inside asked him: who is there? The man answered:This is me. 'This place is not wide enough for you and me', said the voice. The door remained closed. The man went away, perplexed and confused, wondering about those words, contemplating their hidden meaning. After a year of living in solitude, deprived of the simplest pleasures of life, he finally decided to go out and knock on the door again. The same voice asked him from inside:'Who is there?' 'This is you', the man answered. And the door was opened.
Of course, to the Sufi, a whole series of rigorous spiritual exercises has to be gone through in order for the door to be opened so he can enter into the presence of the beloved, as the mystics call him, or God. The task of the poet, whose only tools are words, is different. For him the door is locked until he succeeds, through sheer dedication, in penetrating the mystery of language itself. And because art is long and life is short, no individual poet has ever been able to achieve this formidable task completely, even the greatest ones. What happens is that each poet throughout history, whether conciously or not, is actually continuing the work of the poets who came before him, something like an endless poem or chain-letter that extends into eternity, or the end of time. Milosz wrote a poem once that says exactly this; it tells about the incredible journey of poets through the ages, as a band of humans who chose their own way, bent on telling the truth, but in a quixotic and almost childish way, shunne
In the same vein, Borges, in his essay 'Coleridge's Rose', has iterated a similar idea: that all poets have actually been elaborating the same ancient epic of which each poem is only a mere fragment. I liked Milosz's poem so much that I translated it into Arabic and published it in a daily newspaper that is published in London, where the Nobel laureate was to give a reading at the London Poetry Festival. The great poet was fascinated by the shape of the Arabic letters, and asked me eagerly which poem it was. I told him it was titled 'A Report' and was obviously raised to God, or an entity he called 'O Most High'. Milosz beamed. 'Oh yes of course,'he said. You know, I have sent him many reports through the years, but He has never answered me.' I couldn't help saying to the great poet:'Who knows, maybe one day He will.'
Milosz at the time I'm speaking of was over ninety, but still robust and alert for his age, surrounded by three Polish women, one of whom, a lovely young woman, I was told was his new wife. Here was a poet, a true witness of the age, who had been through war and madness, saw a whole civilization go to ruin, and survived to tell the tale. This is what he says in a poem called 'Dedication':
What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,
Readings for sophomore girls.
That I wanted good poetry without knowing it,
That I discovered, late, its salutary aim,
In this and only this I find salvation.
In the end, the true vision (or salvation) is what counts; passion is the sole treasure we will ever hoard; without it life is mere activity, art is empty gestures. That is what makes the journey worthwhile despite the hardships and the pain, as Cavafy expressed it in the two last stanzas of his great poem 'Ithaka' (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard):
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you're destined for.
But don't hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
So you're old by the time you reach the island,
Wealthy with all you've gained on the way,
Not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey,
Without her you wouldn't have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
You'll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.