[World Poetry Books; 2023]
Trauma remains unrepresentable. Or, rather, it strains traditional modes of representation, manifests itself in absences and omissions. In her new collection, Your Name, Palestine, translated from the French by Sarah Riggs and Jérémy Victor Robert, the Palestinian-born Francophone poet Olivia Elias begins from this premise, assembling a memorial for the many victims of Zionist expansion:
What do the children of Gaza dream about?
Who will speak of the pain of the survivors?
How can they go through these tragic times
while maintaining the desire to be human and alive?
Who will recount the exploits of those
whose every action is a feat?
As a child of the Nakba, Elias has dedicated her oeuvre to the Palestinian cause and to the memory of the repeated cycles of Palestinian displacement and oppression. Her previous collection Chaos, Crossing (2022), translated into English by Kareem James Abu-Zeid, is a testament to the violence of dislocation, a fragmentary attempt at reconstructing national identity in diaspora. Elias’s answer-less questions posit the poetic text itself as a memorial for the lives extinguished by many decades of settler colonialism.
Today, unprecedented media access to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza has spread greater awareness of the military and structural violence enacted by Israel on the Palestinian people throughout the twentieth century. Elias contributes to the chorus of voices protecting the memory of the victims of Zionist violence and representing the plight of the Palestinian people. Though Elias’s text was composed before the current wave of attacks on Gaza following October 7, 2023, her poetry acquires a new poignancy given the unparalleled level of death and destruction, and the overwhelming amount of media available to Western viewers. Palestinian activists have emphasized the importance of disseminating information about these atrocities, demanding the attention of those privileged not to be directly impacted. But, amidst the proliferation of photographs and videos, transmitting sensory experiences of pain and violence to global viewership, where does poetry fit in?
Perhaps only a poetry that is more than poetry will do. The collection’s titular poem uses graphic elements (like all capital letters and spacing at various points of the text) to emphasize that the poem is more than a poem, but an object part of a larger multimedia project. Elias’s memorialization is intermedial, both poetic and musical. “Your Name, Palestine” is labeled a “text for two players and one musician (oud, flute, clarinet),” each of its sections punctuated by “Music” that the reader does not have access to. Just as the voices of Gazan children are deliberately marked by their absence, the intermedial references of the poem are placed outside of the text proper.
Intermediality, the mixing of artistic media in a single piece, is commonly conceptualized, to borrow Irina Rajewsky’s term, through the notion of “as-if”: an artist working in one medium acts “as if” they have access to the tools of another medium. A novel can be described as “cinematic” to mean that the author writes “as if” they were using a movie camera. Elias’s intermediality works somewhat differently. While her text borrows and incorporates various musical structures, such as refrains and thematic repetition, it also repeatedly addresses “musicians,” imagining itself as a score for a future musical performance: “Musicians I am speaking to you of a country / engulfed in a fault of history.” For Elias, poems are the score for a future choir to sing, a choir that will bear witness, more fully than the poet alone, to historical tragedy:
And as I have always said, “I wrote it to be read aloud.” . . . Indeed, I wanted a text that could be read this way, if possible, in the open air, as in the Middle Ages. It seemed to me that the text would sound more, take on its real dimension, and so it did.
The page is merely one dimension of the text’s being. The music that it requires for its full articulation is merely hinted at by the text, deferring the poem’s full existence to a future moment of performance. In contrast to more traditional examples of intermediality, “Your Name, Palestine” gestures to music outside of it and marks itself as a piece of a larger project.
To explain the function of its fragmented references to other/absent media as well as the role of intermediality in memorialization, it is worth comparing Elias’s text to a parallel example, a poem that suggests the existence of a song outside of itself. In their shared pointing to music and other arts beyond the page, Your Name, Palestine recalls one of the most famous monuments to Russian Modernism, Anna Akhmatova’s “Poem without a Hero.” Composed over two decades, from 1940 to 1962, the poem is famous for its intertextual density on par with T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and James Joyce’s Ulysses, requiring a considerable amount of effort to decode its allusions. Akhmatova’s text is a swan song for Russian modernism after its suppression under Stalin. The first part of the poem dramatizes a masked ball of ghosts, various poets from the 1910s–20s that haunt the poet’s imagination. “Poem without a Hero” is also full of references to the sonic and visual experiments of the turn of the century, incorporating the meters and rhyme schemes of poems from the 1910s–20s as well as nods to the graphic experiments of the Russian avant-garde. The latter, much like Elias’s graphic choices, calls attention to the text as an object. Each section of the poem begins with stage directions (e.g., “The wind, as if prophesying or remembering, speaks:” from Chapter 3*), a nod to the unfinished ballet libretto that was meant to serve as a companion piece to the unfinished text. These references to other media make “Poem without a Hero” larger than the text, forming an additional layer of haunting within its construction.
Both Elias and Akhmatova access audio-visual dimensions in their attempts to preserve the memory of their respective communities. Where they differ is in their ethical position towards the past and their authorial agency. Though Akhmatova dedicates her poem to the victims of the Leningrad siege and immortalizes the experiments of Russian modernist poets, she distances herself from the masked ball, so that her peers’ return takes on the quality of a haunting: “I had always hoped that the far-away shout / Of the infernal harlequinade / Would burst like a puff of smoke”. Her intermedial references throughout the text merely evoke performance, precluding any actual enactment. As a result, Akhmatova’s poem has been described as a museum of Russian modernism, one that places an ethical premium on the historical separation of the poet from her past generation. The poet herself remains the singular avatar for her tradition, fully embracing the role of cultural intermediary for her lost generation, as she describes in the poem’s first epigraph:
but now I am short of paper
I write on your rough drafts
And another’s word shines through
And, as it was once a snowflake held in the hand,
Trusting and without regret melts
Here Akhmatova openly appropriates the voices from the generation she purports to revitalize. The ethics of interpolating other voices is waved away through the comparison with the melting of a snowflake.
Your Name, Palestine, by contrast, is no museum. Elias is not invested in representing herself as a singular embodiment of cultural memory. She concludes her postface by acknowledging her text’s role in preserving the memory of the Palestinian people while also decentering herself as the poet bearing witness: “Infused with the suffering of men and women—persecuted, made invisible, and thrown on the road to exile—this book strives to convey their refusal to be silenced and their will to take their place in the human family.” Whereas Akhmatova at times narcissistically overemphasizes her role as the medium for past voices, Elias gives her fellow artists the space to keep playing. Thus, the frequent addresses to “musicians” throughout the text: by giving them space in her text, Elias acknowledges the present and opens up a future, rather than merely preserving a past.
Elias’s gift for integrating multiple temporalities shines in the aptly named “It Was Not Yesterday But Today,” which begins by inscribing the Passion of Christ within the present day in Palestine and ends with a statement of transhistorical solidarity against imperial oppression:
That was not yesterday in Angkor
That was not in the land of the Incas
in the days of Conquistadors
That was not in the days of Crusaders
stakes and Inquisition
That was not in the days of death camps
That was not in 1948 when the Conquerors
ordered the destruction
by sword and fire of five hundred villages
and condemned the villagers to exile
But today in Jerusalem
the eternal city
plunging into the night of the jackal
The translators’ restrained yet poignant diction supports the text’s historical rhymes with Scripture and past colonization, at once atemporal and historically situated. The interconnectedness of all decolonial struggles aligns with the collective orientation of its performance elements. In contrast to the muteness of the performance elements in “Poem without a Hero,” Your Name, Palestine imagines a future performance parallel to the moment of Palestinian liberation. This futurity is captured in the final poem of the collection, “The Future is a Dream”:
At the end of summer when the birds gather
they head up north
Begging the sky to lead them safe and sound
to where this galloping dream does await them
This dream of a life that once visited them
and has never since left their side
The invitation to collaboration offered by Your Name, Palestine matches the solidarity that lies at the heart of all decolonial struggles, the recognition that forces of imperialism and white supremacy are global and reinforce one another. In opposition to these violent systems, solidarity is the only path to victory. By leaving the space open for future performance, Elias acknowledges her indebtedness to artists of the past and present and the necessity of collaboration. As such, the collection’s titular poem ends with the poet giving her most conscious source of inspiration, Aimé Césaire and his 1939 Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, the final word before inviting the reader to join in:
Césaire said it
There is room for everyone
at the rendezvous of victory
A new kindness grows on the horizon
And let the sun dance above our heads!
Venya Gushchin is a poet, literary translator, and PhD Candidate studying Russian poetry at Columbia University. His writings have appeared in Cardinal Points, KinoKultura, Jacket2, and elsewhere. Most recently, his translation of Yevsey Tseytlin’s Rereading Silence was published by Bagriy & Company.
*All translations of Akhmatova used in this review are by Lenore Mayhew and William McNaughton.
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