The Secret Song of Water: From Coleridge to Darwish

By Fady JoudahApril 8, 2019

The Secret Song of Water: From Coleridge to Darwish
MY FIRST ENCOUNTER with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poetry was through Iron Maiden’s rendition of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” I was 14, a high schooler in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Steve Harris, the band’s founder and bassist, had written a lyric summary of Coleridge’s ballad to realize another classic in heavy metal music, just under 14 minutes long. Driven by Harris’s playing style, Iron Maiden’s music at its best was anchored in fluid melodies that could induce one to trill, not scream the songs along, despite their intensity. At their most harmonious, Iron Maiden revealed undercurrents of folk songs, echoes of Tchaikovsky, and blues chords on the edges of becoming the jazz within. I could also imagine Arabic rhythms in some of their songs. I could dance inside the confines of my skull, a numinous act on the waves of recurrent, multiplying tempos.

In those days, I had a red boombox for cassette tapes. In Iron Maiden’s rewrite of “The Rime” (which is as good as any CliffsNotes), they quote Coleridge’s text only twice. The first excerpt is perhaps the more famous of the two, and on first hearing it, I scrambled to read it, verify it to my ears, in the liner notes:

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean

Water, water, everywhere
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere
Nor any drop to drink.

It was the second quatrain that left an indelible mark on me. Its irresistible, timeless simplicity diverted me from the cliché that states the obvious, primarily because of the dynamic setting and music in the quatrain that precedes it. After the still life of motionless colors, the violent taste of undrinkable salt water flooded my tongue. I can’t shake off the proverbs about water in Arabic that splash around in my mind when these verses revisit me. And I always remember another line of poetry I’ve loved since my younger years, from an Amal Donqul poem (an Egyptian who had died one year before Iron Maiden produced Powerslave, the album that features their version of “The Rime”): “The sea like the desert doesn’t quench the thirst.”

It is this echogenic quality in art that has the most lasting effect: its multidirectional peaks and troughs that travel back and forth and leave us at their mercy, intoxicated, ecstatic, simultaneously face to face with our evolutionary beginning and future memory.

As is the case for many people since the publication of Coleridge’s poem more than 200 years ago, I remain uncertain as to what exactly “The Rime” is about every step of the way. Nor do I possess a necessary degree of clarity on what constitutes its sources. The wedding, the shifty narrator, the throw of the dice, the ancient Mariner, purveyor of lands, cartographer of dead reckoning, survivor of a terrifying past, the albatross, the Life-in-Death (“by the star-dogged moon,” which begins the second quotation in the Iron Maiden lyrics), and all that emerald ice, here and there, all that water, salt and fresh.

Coleridge’s own vacillation on the question of whether the poem could will the reader into the suspension of disbelief is well known. In subsequent editions of Lyrical Ballads, he tossed in marginalia that ranged from the redundant and didactic to the bizarre and curious (adjoining, for example, the ghost in the poem to the dominion of “the learned Jew, Josephus”). And there is his shrewd (and absurdist) comment that pretends to confess the poem’s major flaw as its excessive moralization: “it ought to have had no more moral than The Arabian Nights’ tale” (Coleridge espoused in peculiar self-analysis) of a merchant who blinded a genie’s son with the pit of a date he haphazardly flung into a space where he saw no body present. For his negligence, the merchant was convicted of attempted homicide by the distraught and vengeful father genie.

Whenever I dive back into “The Rime,” I suspend my disbelief with ease and allow myself to read it as a work of eco-literature. It is a committed poem whose political subject is the human relationship with nature. No eco-literature is complete without engaging the psychic and spiritual in humans (“He prayeth well, who loveth well / Both man and bird and beast”). The poem was composed during an age of imperial maritime expeditions, expropriations, the piloting of unheralded subjugation of our biosphere, and downright plunder of the earth. Coleridge may not have been as politically radical as Blake was, and may not have been as nuanced as we think ourselves to be today about the environment, but he was not as blind as the merchant in The Arabian Nights who tossed his pits any which way an invisible genie lay. And aesthetically speaking, I find that the apparent incoherence of “The Rime” is a brilliance to embrace, a magic act that harnesses the irreplaceable pleasure and fancy required of any worthwhile work of art.

Did Coleridge sense that the albatross, legendary as it was at the turn of the 19th century, would become a threatened species today? Did he know that the bird’s name, that “Christian soul,” comes to English, via the Portuguese, from the Arabic word for “diver” (“Instead of the cross, the Albatross / About my neck was hung”) — or that Carl Linnaeus had renamed the bird in the annals of science after the myth of Diomedes? What did the Mariner’s murder of the Albatross stand for: the ferocious voracity and self-righteousness of human progress as it moves too fast for its one-eyed vision and insatiable mouth? Why was the Mariner “ancient,” passing “like night, from land to land”? Was he eternal or historical? Did Coleridge know of the extinct dodo? And what exactly occasioned in me this series of associations about “The Rime” to begin with?

The answer to the last question is The Future of Water, a documentary series I watched on Netflix. The deluge of information in the docuseries inundated me. My mind was whirring, roaring, murmuring, hissing, burbling, and babbling. The film’s sweeping representation of water as a political being across the world gripped me. It was a servant turned master (or, as Coleridge had it, it was “like a witch’s oils, / Burnt green, and blue and white”). In certain moments, the series came across as condescending to and suspicious of non-Western clients of water in the Indian subcontinent and in Eastern Africa. The patronizing was not necessarily fairly and consistently distributed when, for example, Norway cascaded into the scene, or Venice (a failed Netherlands) came bobbing in, before Iceland promised us salvation with geothermal energy and Florida worked nonstop to desalinate us into a well-quenched world, affordable for all. There was no mention of receptacles. What will all this water be drunk out of, what form will it inhabit, and what will these shapes demand of us and the Earth?

Expected as these biases and sensitivities of mine may be — I’ve been trained to sniff their triggers like the scent of grass after rain — the cinematic production was worth watching. Water may be, like the sun, a major source of life, but it is also a “Life-in-Death,” as the ghost in “The Rime” warns us. It was on and through water (as conduit of conquest) that the seabird was encountered and heedlessly killed. Today, through pollution, war, and technology’s unforeseeable or willfully ignored damaging effects in the predatory Anthropocene, we continue to shoot down all sorts of creatures and habitats. The crossbow may change, but the end result stays the same.

The movie makes no mention of “The Rime” but ends with a quote from Jules Verne: “Water will be the coal of the future.” Water will be the new black to liberate us from fossil fuels. And the Earth’s crust will hold up its atmosphere.

Perhaps as needed relief from the movie’s unrelenting dams and deltas, Coleridge came to mind in tandem with Iron Maiden’s masterstroke, an archived endorphin ride in the gyri of my mind. Then the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish rang my bell twice. Two verses of his began to reverberate in my head. In the first, water is exile. In the second, in water we trust.

Mahmoud Darwish is a poet who managed to construct a private lexicon. The variable voyages and transformation of words in his poetic dictionary are a main portal into the aesthetic biome he creates. Clouds, jasmine, gazelle, pomegranates, green, violet, anemone, absence, stranger, sunflower, olive, horse, butterfly, and an array of birds are notable samples. Their development throughout his work — their inception, disappearance, or reappearance — are sensory cohesions and signifiers of a totality of being. His is a poetics of relations, where the earth does not belong to humans, but rather humans belong to the earth, so that what remains of our language must imagine and include the speech of the earth.

I thought of Darwish’s long poem, “The ‘Red Indian’s’ Penultimate Speech to the White Man,” in which he braids the bonds of his existence into the experience of Chief Seattle through the latter’s famous speech. The Chief’s words undoubtedly represent the essence or foundation of eco-literature in North America. The speech is one of the best examples of the language the earth speaks through human song. It is the language that spoke through Henry David Thoreau. It was all around him in various Native nations, more ancient and no less lasting than the aura of printed ink. No doubt, too, that Coleridge’s “holy Hermit” was quite familiar with it, this polyphonic merger of life forms, of energies and bodies who give themselves over to each other.

From the ground up, interconnected, rhizomatic, “water” in Darwish’s poetry reaches through and beyond us, without the scientific hubris that is entrapped in the marsh of information and supremacy. The first of his two verses that awoke in me is from his poem “Who Am I, Without Exile?” The poem starts us in fresh water, bringing us in from the sea or setting us toward it: “A stranger on the riverbank, like the river … water / binds me to your name.” The rest of the stanza reads as a summoning of past human civilizations that have not managed to add up to or surpass the commanding life force of the liquid required for life: “Nothing brings me back from my faraway / to my palm tree: not peace and not war.” The faraway is the future, the palm tree remains a present. The gospels, the Euphrates and the Nile, and the pharaoh’s boats follow in quick succession in the first few lines and deliver us to a necessary “exile” in “a long night / that stares at the water.” Reading this opening stanza after watching The Future of Water, I feel as if the verses were written for the film, yet it’s the author of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea who gets the nod.

“Water / binds me / to your name” recurs twice more in the Darwish poem. The phrase coaxes us to bond with “strange creatures in the clouds” as we grow “loosened / from the gravity of identity’s land.” In Arabic, “gravity” doubles as “attraction,” just as in English it doubles as “seriousness.” But the “you” in “your name” is feminine in Arabic. And the private address in the text can easily lead us to read it as a love poem, a mystical aspiration, or even a poem of romantic despair. The question “What will we do without exile?” may suggest this tumbling anguish as the speaker “massages his stranger’s thigh,” both perplexed by “what is left to [them] of calm … and a snooze between two myths.” This isn’t a despair of inaction. Nor is it a dilution of our chemical bond to reproduction’s urge. For one thing, this “exile” casts doubt on that sort of employment, of labor, of traffic and construction: “And nothing carries us: not the road and not the house.” It is on water that we flow.

Yes, water binds us to ourselves within ourselves. And we bind ourselves to each other through water. Without water in our future, there’ll be no us. Do we not also return to water as markedly as we return to dust? Are we not released into air as hydrogen, oxygen, and other gases? The majority water that we are when alive isn’t always chemically pure. It is mostly bound to other molecules and complexes, blood, plasma, and interstitium among them. “Water binds me to your name,” set up amid the marching clouds of human history, is a mantra of biological simplicity that compels me to repeat it as I live my days, with the conviction that the more I hum those words to myself, the more likely they will become a truth through which I can conduct my life. Exile is not necessarily banishment into passivity. Nor is it a “redemptive motif” to appease our silken moral lethargy (particularly when it concerns the travails of others, whom we watch from a distance, as if they were a documentary). Exile is a revolutionary state of being.

Coleridge’s ghost in “The Rime,” his Life-in-Death, is a feminine presence, an angelic spirit formed of sea mist or snow, of water bonds, to be sure. She condemns the Mariner to survival through suffering, a purgatory before liberation is attained. Meanwhile, the “long night that stares at the water” in Darwish’s poem marks the interchangeability between two lives, masculine and feminine, that share a “life-in-death” through it.

Water carries exile, through the long night, to its fulfillment. At the end of the experience, the transformation is exile. All this water around us, Darwish writes, is more bond than bind. The dilemma is in “identity’s land.” No self seems possible today without belonging to a collective in the nation-state, to a national tongue. We have come to believe it impossible to imagine a gradual shift away from the manacles of modern flags and anthems. Perhaps no one more than a Palestinian appreciates or desires a viable, healthy, and sovereign private and collective self within such a state. Yet here is Darwish reminding us that water is a radical force of liberation against usurping and covetous powers.

Bound by water to my reader’s name I persist: how many of us can and do practice “peace,” which includes, if not the idealized giving up of, then the slow, incessant walking away from the duality of possession and dispossession? Darwish writes that the by now conquered, diagrammatic processes of “peace” and “war” can no longer bring him back to a present that is a sentimentalized past or hold him hostage to a narrow conception of modernity. Water binds beyond the geopolitical duality. And beyond the “redemptive motif.” Water’s bonds are innumerable and boundless across life forms, supra- and subterranean.

The second Darwish line about water that hums me serene was written about five years after the “Exile” poem, in a shorter piece titled “I Have the Wisdom of One Condemned to Death.” The line is: “Trust in water O dwellers of my song!” This is how it flows:

I have the wisdom of one condemned to death:
I own nothing for anything to own me,
I wrote my will with my blood:
“Trust in water O dwellers of my song!”

The line is in quotation, but the Arabic text is without notes that attribute it to another writer. One possibility is that the line resonates with another statement that Darwish recalls but cannot fully remember; and this forgetting or uncertainty breaks free of originality, ownership, antecedence, intellectual property, and lineage, toward simultaneity and fusion of energies. This kind of borrowing — a sharing, in fact — seems perfectly apt for water on the lips of one condemned to death, who owns nothing that could own him. Within quotation marks, water also binds the speaker to another speaker who preceded him, as she equally trusts in water’s force for good. Whoever that speaker may be, she most likely lays no claims to water and its timeless echoes. She’s aware that she stands in a long line of those who pass water from one life form to another. She merges with water as “two in one.”

The rest of the poem reanimates the theme of belonging in reverie: “I dreamt that the land’s heart is bigger / than its map, / and clearer than its mirrors and my gallows.” Clouds (again) help the speaker to become a hoopoe, “and the wind my wings.”

This bird is no coincidence. It, too, returns to us from its epic journey in Darwish’s long poem “The Hoopoe,” written more than a decade earlier. And it is worthwhile to follow this little bend in the river of being, as I fancy my excitement in the company of two birds and two poets, two lands and two waters two centuries apart: Coleridge’s holloing Albatross and Darwish’s speaking Hoopoe. The latter poem bases itself on multiple theological, legendary, and literary sources, chief among them the treatise of the Persian Sufi master Farid ad-Din al-Attar, The Conference of the Birds. Darwish’s transformation of The Conference is a marvelous artistic feat, a fantastic vortex whose ultimate meditation is to become the words “fly, then, just to fly in the courtyards of this heart, fly.” (And an echo from “The Rime” ricochets: “Fly, brother, fly! more high, more high!”)

In Darwish’s epic, the hoopoe is conversant with and guide to a flock of humans who struggle to find “the land of [their] distant star” and ask: “How many seas must we cross inside the desert?” If this human flock shares anything in the way of sin with the ancient Mariner, it is their boundedness to an earth where “[h]umans are birds that don’t fly” and often refuse to soar. Darwish’s “Hoopoe” is a deeply mystical and spiritual contemplation of nature, history, time and God, land and sky, memory and forgetting. “All nature is soul.” “Salaam upon the earth […] It sleeps on arms of water as owner of its image and ours.” “Liberate yourself from all the wings of questions about beginning and destiny. / The universe is smaller than a butterfly’s wings in the large courtyard of the heart.”

In preparation of the poem’s arrival at its final departure, the lyric drama (that most certainly would have caused Wordsworth great alarm) surrenders meaning to (though does not necessarily harm it with) the unity of music. This is the station where water, a principal container of our return, embraces us before “vanishing” or “annihilation” (in their mystical senses) occurs:

And our hoopoe owns the thrones of water that rise beneath the drought, and the holm oak also rises.
Water has the color of the field when dawn’s breeze lifts it on the backs of horses.
Water has the taste of the gift of song that blows from memory’s gardens.
Water has the beloved’s scent on marble, it swells our drunkenness and thirst.
Water has the shape of illumination’s brevity as it splits us in two: human and bird.
And our hoopoe has horses of water that rise beneath the drought as the scepter rises.

Back to the future, 13 years later, to “The Wisdom of One Condemned to Death”: a struggle with a duality of good and evil persists. A “night guard” wakes Darwish from his “dream” and “language.” Much as with Coleridge’s Life-in-Death, this watchman delivers a verdict. The guard informs Darwish that he “will live another death,” that his “execution’s been postponed a second time.” But in Darwish’s poem, we don’t know what the crime is, nor are we left presuming guilt simply because Darwish’s speaker is on death row. The distinction here is between laws: one natural (Life-in-Death) and the other human (the night guard).

Darwish’s speaker exhibits more agency than the Mariner does with regards to the verdict, the purpose of which is not to rehabilitate its captive through life lessons. (Agency reaches the Mariner much later, after his harrowing survival.) In Darwish’s poem, the rule of law is meant to coerce the speaker to “alter [his] last will,” his “trust in water,” a bequest that is a wisdom attained and, as far as the night guard is concerned, must be broken, corrupted. Darwish refuses to be drawn into hegemony’s dynamics and repeats: “I own nothing for anything to own me / I wrote my will with my blood: / ‘Trust in water / O dwellers of my song!’”

Scared of nature or ignorant of it, the night guard and the Mariner injure it. The Mariner does not imagine that killing the Albatross will disturb the harmony of its habitat, sparking a chain of events that will negatively affect him and the crew on their journey. But this is where the analogy ends. The night guard exhibits an anxiety that betrays a sinister awareness of his prisoner’s “last will.” His verdict is not as arbitrary, banal, uninformed, or whimsical as it appears. He knows that water will outlast the human desire to control it. Vicious supremacy fears water — and, consequently, those who trust in it — far more than it fears blood. The latter it can liquidate. To “live another death” is a promise of violence. When stricken with the threat of protracted, immeasurable pain, many of us do not give their blood over to water but to more blood. The ancient Mariner understood this in the end. He lived to teach the tale. He, too, dreamt under clouds, past his haze and sentence, that water, the free, visits, revives, and elevates an ensnared resistance:

The silly buckets on the deck,
That had so long remained,
I dreamt that they were filled with dew;
And when I awoke, it rained.

My lips were wet, my throat was cold,
My garments all were dank;
Sure I had drunken in my dreams;
And still my body drank.

I remember asking Darwish on the phone about his “trust in water,” whether he intended a clandestine layer that speaks specifically to water as a weapon used against the Palestinians, especially in the West Bank. Israel has come to bind its settler occupation to the annexation of groundwater, further limiting the livelihood of Palestinian landowners, farmers, and society’s development. Darwish’s denial was instant and emphatic: “No, no, water stands for life, it stands for itself.”

That brief conversation turned into an aquifer I did not know was there until years later, in Tucson, Arizona, I was invited for a poetry reading and conversation. A member of the audience asked me afterward how I, as an Arab, manage to move past my “traditional anger.” It was clear to me that she meant it as a compliment. In the Sonoran Desert, the word “traditional” gathered in me many things and many people within and without borders, above and below ground. All night the saguaros transmitted messages to me until, by morning, the ancient water welled up in me and I wrote a poem whose title is “Traditional Anger”:

For there’s water where’s there’s no rain
and that after protracted

hours to explain
our bonds our pathways our molecules

water is water
is nothing more than life

And if you come
hydroelectric damned and saccadic

flooded plain and artificial
natural your claim

a carbon your every fission
an I

Whenever I retrieve the memory of that phone conversation with Darwish, I smile. He was undoubtedly aware of the politics of more than just water in Palestine. He preferred to trust his liberation over to water than to the binding terror of a “night guard” announcing that his “execution’s been postponed a second time,” a fear tactic any believer in water easily overcomes.

I smile because of my “Sad Cunning,” as Yannis Ritsos explains it to me: I held on to Darwish’s poem “like a secret [I] have sworn to keep / out of fear that it too no longer has anything to reveal.”

Darwish was right. His poem secretes no secret. He was at peace with it. He was free to live his belief that, in the end, what will remain of his verse is its water, no more and no less. Water free of despair and defeat, disclosure, belligerence, and covert operations. Water he offers to any person, any creature who wants to drink it, share it, bond with it, against a “life-in-death,” whether that life is theirs or another’s.

And as “the sad ghost of Coleridge beckons to me from the shadows,” I notice that in his “Epitaph” he has changed his “Life-in-Death” to “death in life.” In turn, the new “life in death” is released from its previous compound in “The Rime.”

And again, Darwish replies — with a riff older than either of those that had me buzzing over covalent hydrogen and oxygen bonds — his instrument from Granada unplugged: “O water, be a string to my guitar.”


Brief Notes on Water 

1. Is there a Lorax to speak for water, salt and fresh, as there is one to speak for trees? Perhaps every poet is part Lorax.

2. Exile as “redemptive motif” comes from Edward Said’s essay “Reflections on Exile.”

3. “Who Am I, Without Exile?” and “I Have the Wisdom of One Condemned to Death” can be found in The Butterfly’s Burden.

4. It’s worthwhile to look into two other Darwish poems that address water in his home in Galilee: “The Well” (Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone?) and “I Didn’t Apologize to the Well” (The Butterfly’s Burden). Of particular note is the presence of “guards” in “The Well.” But they are feminine guards with a peaceful function.

5. My translation here of the water verses in “The Hoopoe” differs from my version of them in If I Were Another. That, too, is a story of water all its own.

6. It was after Darwish’s death in 2008 that the water crisis in Gaza turned into a medical humanitarian crisis.

7. “Traditional Anger” is from Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance.

8. “Sad Cunning” is from Exile & Return, translated by Edmund Keeley.

9. The “sad ghost of Coleridge…” is the last sentence in T. S. Eliot’s Norton Lectures, “The Uses of Poetry & The Uses of Criticism.”

10. “O water, be a string to my guitar” is from “Eleven Planets” (If I Were Another). Twenty years later, in “If I Were Another” (The Butterfly’s Burden), Darwish revisited this: “Awaken the guitar more […] so that my poem would be of water, diaphanous […] stronger than memory / and weaker than dewdrops.”


Fady Joudah’s collections Alight and Textu appeared from Copper Canyon Press, and his latest, Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance, appeared from Milkweed Editions. He is the recipient of the Griffin International Poetry Prize in 2013 and is a Guggenheim fellow in poetry.

LARB Contributor

Fady Joudah's most recent poetry collections are Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance and Tethered to Stars, both from Milkweed Editions. He is also the author of the poetry collections Alight and Textu, both released by Copper Canyon Press. He is the recipient of the Griffin International Poetry Prize in 2013 and is a Guggenheim fellow in poetry.


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