Style and Themes

Central Themes


  • Prose Poetry – Prose poetry is what it sounds like: poetry written in prose instead of free verse. The technique of writing poetry in paragraphs allows the audience to maneuver the poetry as though it is a story. Darwish does this purposefully; he is recounting the events of his life as taking the audience on a journey. This, in turn, traps the audience. They find themselves immersed in a story rather than a poem, and they are more in tune to other techniques the author uses throughout his poetry. Darwish further elaborates on this choice when he says, “This text is a convergence of two genres: prose and poetry” (8). Merging free verse and prose brings the audience two unique experiences blended into one another.


  • Self-elegy– In Arabic poetry, the technique of self-elegy can be traced back to pre-Islamic times according to Darwish’s translator Sinan Antoon. An elegy is a sad poem written to honor the dead. However an elegy is typically written by someone who is in mourning, a self-elegy is written by the person who is being mourned. Bringing the audience into his life while he is processing the connection he feels with Palestine and all he experienced there in combination with the processing of questioning, it provides a personal lens for the audience. Darwish very simply tells us, "I elegize and I am the elegized" (20). In other words he is effectively writing about himself as though he has already died, walking the audience through the events of his life, while reflecting on them, and processing them.


  • Point of View – Darwish wrote this book in 2nd person. Using a 2nd person narrative is overtly difficult as it makes it harder to develop characters. On the other hand, this technique grants the audience further immersion into the individual narratives of the chapters. A prominent moment where this effects the audience is when Darwish writes, "Thus, you saw blood for the first time… Your blood, which taught you that a scar is a memory that never ceases working" (22). The use of “you,” forces the audience to become the protagonist, tying them further into the story. The reader is then forced to question themselves and their involvement in the poetry, making them further connect sensitive topics such as blood, or more deeply, the Isreal-Palestine conflict.



  • Exile – Darwish lived in exile for twenty-six years, making it an underlying experience for the rest of his life. Multiple poems throughout this collection embody the theme if exile. Darwish explores what it means to be exiled from his homeland, how it creates tension and is something that must be considered when returning home. Further how what one can feel while exiled can be a juxtaposing.  However, the power is in what you do while you are exiled that matters, it is the capability of knowing as Darwish says, "The poetry of exile is not what exile says to you, but what you say to it, one rival to another" (85).


  • Violence and Trauma – Violence against both people and places merges together in sections of this book. Darwish describes violence against people viscerally with overwhelming imagery. He mentions different crimes against humanity such as the Dayr Yasin massacre which he describes with imagery of blood. The violence of cities is explored through personification like when he describes the siege of Beirut and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. By speaking about both the violence against both people and place Darwish must explore trauma, specifically of the people that survived the butchering of their homeland.


  • Nakba: "Catastrophe" or "Disaster"– This term refers to the on-going trauma that is the forced displacement of the Palestinian people. The word encapsulates the destruction of an estimated 400 villages and displacement of more than 700,000 Palestinians. Darwish explores this ongoing human rights issue by describing it as perpetual darkness and cold that forces the population to live as outsiders. He explains this through his own individualized trauma, later connecting it to the Palestinian population as a whole. 



Violence and Trauma:


Isreal's new king sits in the balcony of a psychiatric institute, looking out on the remains of Dayr Yasin, and hallucinates: Here, here is the beginning of my miracle. Here I killed them and saw them dead. I saw and heard them die. Here I heard the wailing of human beasts, which did not disturb my music. ― In the Presence of Absence, pg. 68



Violence and Trauma:


Beirut sleeps, dreaming of another day. Tomorrow it will count its dead and wounded. You lie down on a deafening silence. A universal silence, loaded with savage desolation. ― In the Presence of Absence, pg. 74



Violence and Trauma:


The nightmare strikes you with an iron fist. You scream without a voice. You check the body parts the nightmare severed with the skill of a butcher and find them whole, but they shiver and shriek from the effects of the slaughter. You try to get out of bed to find out where you were killed, but you see no blood in the room. ― In the Presence of Absence, pg. 75





No tribe has triumphed without a poet and no poet has triumped unless defeated in love. ― In the Presence of Absence, pg. 29





There you learned enough of the Nakba's destructive effects to cause you to hate the second half of your childhood. One wool sweater alone is not enough to befriend the winter.― In the Presence of Absence, pg. 44





You see yourself at a third, fourth, and tenth airport explaining to disinterested employees a lesson in contemporary history about the people of the Nakba, scattered between exile and military occupation, without them understanding or granting you permission to enter. ― In the Presence of Absence, pg. 52





The Nakba stabbed her in the heart and saddled her with the earthquake's aftermath. She resisted the misery with pride and with a spiritual power that gave her body the strength of a horse. She is never tired, or never allows tiredness to voice a complaint.― In the Presence of Absence, pg. 142




If you tell the passport official: No place is exile; he answers: We have no time for rhetoric, so if you like rhetoric, go to another no place.― In the Presence of Absence, pg. 52





Exile is the poet's journey through a poem, a journey within a journey, but figurative language keeps looking back..― In the Presence of Absence, pg. 82





But to love the sunset is not, as they say, one of the attributes of exile.― In the Presence of Absence, pg. 84




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Nimalah Baaith-Ducharme ’20

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