“Solitude glanced at me with its two eyes of a gazelle. . .” (Yousef Abdul-Aziz)

bird is not stoneThe tattoo ringing my right forearm spells out the Latin words

Quemadmodum desiderat cervus ad fontes aquarum

They constitute the first phrase of Psalm 42,

As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.
My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God?
My tears have been my meat day and night, while they continually say unto me, Where is thy God? (KJV)

Three months ago I wrote about this tattoo. I don’t need to explain it again, but for several days I have needed to write about solitude—loneliness—isolation again because mine has again become unbearable (this, too, shall pass). I am mystified to note that often when I am feeling most alone, I am drawn to Psalm 42. “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.”

Why those words come to mind when I am feeling most alone I am not sure (perhaps because of the hauntingly beautiful musical setting by Herbert Howells—about which I have also written recently). I would not say that my soul “panteth” after God. I frankly don’t know—my self-understanding for some time is that I am no longer interested in searching for God.

When I took on the tattoo, I remarked to Joe the artist that we would know how skilled he is by whether or not the eyes of the Palestinian gazelle accompanying the Psalmist’s words seem to be looking at anyone who sees them. I think he did.
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As I explained in December, I make a connection in my mind between the “hart” and the gazelle that I had the gift of seeing in Palestine in August of 2008—a gift because they are so rare, so endangered that few tourists ever see them wild in the hills of The Galilee where they are native. The “hart” the psalmist knew was likely a Palestinian gazelle.

If anyone had asked me 15 or 20 years ago (or perhaps 5) if I was prepared to be alone, that is, to live alone exist alone sleep alone dine alone play alone, I would have said absolutely not. I had no intention of being alone. Solitude in the desert for a week or two at a time or on the beach at port Orford, Oregon. But not as the condition of my life.

Often on TV A real-estate company’s ad plays about finding the right house to buy. It ends with the sentence, “You are not just buying house. You are looking for the place for your life to happen.”

Somehow my apartment does not feel like the place where my life is happening. I’m not sure where I might be that would seem like that place, but it is not here. If this is where my life is happening, then I must not be one of those Homo sapiens the Nature program on PBS often indicates descended from the same ancestor gorillas came from. I do not seem to be a social creature.

Of course that’s not true. I have many friends and spend a great deal of my time with other Homo sapiens—today I will be with university student athletes for five hours, and I will be with a bank teller, a member of Best Buy’s Geek Squad, and a check-out clerk at Kroger. It is, however, likely that I will not spend any time with another person simply in order to be with them, and I will most likely not touch another person all day.

I’m not feeling sorry for myself (not intentionally, at any rate). I am contemplating the reality of my “social” existence.

I recently came across a poem by the Palestinian poet Yousef Abdul-Aziz titled “The book of doubt.” Its opening image startled me.

Tonight
I stumbled across Solitude in my house.
Not only wearing my best shirt
and drinking my coffee. . .

I thought, “Abdul-Aziz has written a poem for me.” The poem startled me because it is from the volume A Bird Is Not a Stone: An Anthology of Contemporary Palestinian Poetry (Glasgow: Freight Books, 2014). Most of the work in the book is clearly about the political/social situation of the Palestinian people.

Abdul-Aziz’s poem does not seem to be. It seems to be personal. And its metaphor seems to be a metaphor for my own situation. Maya Abu Al-Hayyat writes in the introduction to the anthology,

We notice that most of the poetry particular to this generation [of Palestinians after the Oslo agreement] [is] very vague. They [use] words like “mirrors, shadows, absence, presence,” words that revealed the process of discovery and transformation from one state to another. They [deal] with viewing things in a different way, exactly parallel to the political situation. . .

Palestinian poetry became personally questioning about the poets’ place in the political realities rather than, for the most part, politically activist. The Palestinian people are living in a period of promise but uncertainty, and most of the poetry in the anthology reflects this communal uncertainty. (Of course, the situation has changed again in the short time since this poetry was written to one of the all-too-certain possibility of the destruction of Palestinian society.)

Here in the company of poetry about the enormous struggle of an entire people is a poem so personal as to be startling. And it uses one of my favorite images—one of which I am fond enough to have had it tattooed on my forearm—as a metaphor for solitude.

Perhaps I need to rethink my solitary life.

Living in a situation of political and social impossibility so different from mine that I can scarcely comprehend it is a man—a person—whose experience of being alone seems to correspond to mine. A man, a person, not a Terrorist, not a Militant, not an Arab, not a Muslim, not a Palestinian, but a person. A person with whom I feel together as we both struggle with being alone.

“THE BOOK OF DOUBT,” BY JOUSEF ABDUL-AZIZ
Tonight
I stumbled across Solitude in my house.
Not only wearing my best shirt
and drinking my coffee
but also smoking my tobacco
it was thrashing about the pages
of what looked like my manuscript.
It sat in my chair like a queen
and from its hands
rose an enchanted fog. . .

Still cloaked in my dreams I stood close by
trembling like a branch of the night
raining down bitter
questions:
What is woman?
In which storm
may my heart play?
Where did I bury the fire?!

As though I were a ring on its finger
it didn’t give me much thought.
Unfazed by my stiff shadow at the door
Solitude went on
with a sneer
scrambling pages
tearing them out of the manuscript.
I saw myself cast out to blind lands
and I hollered;
I saw before me a sphere of water
rising up in the wind
and above, a cracked moon,
and slain butterflies
strewn around me.

I’m sure
you will wrap up this farce! I yelled.
Solitude glanced at me with its two eyes of a gazelle—
my own eyes.
And it handed me
the book of doubt—it was my own book.

— Translated by Juana Acock
— From A BIRD IS NOT A STONE: AN ANTHOLOGY OF CONTEMPORARY PALESTINIAN POETRY (Glasgow: Freight Books, 2014) –available from Amazon.com.
— Yousef Abdul-Aziz was born in Jerusalem and studied in Amman and Beirut. He is a teacher, a committee member of the online journal Awraq, and recipient of literary awards, including the (Jordanian) Arar prize.

The Sea of Galilee (Photo by Harold Knight, August 2008)

The Sea of Galilee (Photo by Harold Knight, August 2008)

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