Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Exile as Inspiration

For poets as diverse as Ovid and Dante to Brodsky and Milosz, exile has often been their lot. The pain can be excruciating as the exiled, cut off from familiar culture and landscape, as well as from families and associates, lives in a state of dislocation and dispossession. Dante writes in “Paradiso” from The Divine Comedy:

. . . You will leave everything you love most:
this is the arrow that the bow of exile
shoots first. You will know how salty
another’s bread tastes and how hard it
is to ascend and descend
another’s stairs . . .

At the same time, the discomfort of living in, even visiting, another land or culture can become an imaginative action that liberates the creative mind. This proved true not only for those poets forced into exile like those listed above, but also for a number of our most revered poets who chose, yes chose, to leave their birthplaces and set up house in foreign lands. Think of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Seamus Heaney. Moreover, exile does not have to be permanent, but can be temporary and even illusory, as is the case for the traveler, who, who, because of curiosity and or deep interest in other worlds, ventures out of his or her homeland into other lands. The strange lens, held up to the eye, dislocates the familiar, no matter the reason.

For me, a non-Jewish American woman, now living in Israel married to a Jewish Israeli with four children, such has been the case. Integration seems impossible. Assimilation seems impossible. Conformity is impossible. It is only through poetry, my own and perhaps more importantly, others, that have I managed to gain insight into this country and its many political and religious issues. It is only through writing and reading poetry that I have managed to find some compromise and accommodation. It is only through poetry that I have grown to love and appreciate the myriad peoples that populate and provoke this troubled part of the world.

Agha Shahid Ali, the fabulous Kashmiri-American poet wrote in his poem “Stationery,”

The moon did not become the sun.
It just fell on the desert
in great sheets, reams
of silver handmade by you.
The night is your cottage industry now,
the day is your brisk emporium.
The world is full of paper.
Write to me.

I love that: "The world is full of paper. / Write to me.".

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