I was a kid when I first read The Waste Land, and I was living in a waste land, and it can still surprise me to recall that Eliot wasn’t, that he wrote his poem between Switzerland lakes and London fog. His beating sun and dry rock come from the Hebrew prophets. His empty cisterns and exhausted wells thirst for something other than common water. It’s an advantage, I think, that I met actual sun and crickets and trees every time I stepped outdoors; as a kid you want a correspondence between world and soul.

Borders can be helpful, and so can language barriers; because at the same time Eliot was becoming stifling high culture in Anglo-America, he was turning into a tutelary spirit elsewhere. We blink and scratch our heads at his idea of a Christian society, but that wasn’t what mattered in the real waste lands of Greece and Spain, the desert corners where fascism was allowed to linger while the rest of the world wrote morality plays about driving a stake through its heart in 1945. Here is Yannis Ritsos in 1947, a few years after seeing his work publicly burned at the foot of the Acropolis and shortly before starting five years’ service in a prison camp:

This landscape is as harsh as silence,
it hugs to its breath the scorching stones,
clasps in the light its orphaned olive trees and vineyards,
clenches its teeth. There is no water. Light only.
Roads vanish in light and the shadow of the sheepfold is made of iron.

Trees, rivers, and voices have turned to stone in the sun’s quicklime.
Roots trip on marble. Dust-laden lentisk shrubs.
Mules and rocks. All panting. There is no water.
All are parched. For years now. All chew a morsel of sky to choke down their bitterness.

This is Eliot’s landscape, but now someone lives here. He knows what kind of plants grow at the roadside, and he’s seen what the sun does to the earth between dawn and dusk. Here is Salvador Espriu in 1958, writing in what is nearly a banned language:

Burning mouths have drunk,
Nostalgic for water in streaming jugs.

Rain-water in scattered gardens,
Murmur of a fountain now silenced.

The language of thirst keeps
Licking at this mockery, this treacherous belief
That there is moisture deep down in a hell of salt.

His job is to tell us that this land remains real, that someone is still walking the dry shores of the Hebrew prophets and someone else is still sitting in Pharaoh’s and Nebuchadnezzar’s and Caesar’s chair, putting his face on the currency and directing the migration of captives with his finger. There are tyrants in forests and massacres in jungles, but the desert has always offered this particular exercise of focusing the moral vision, projecting the clearest possible background on which to draw a diagram of insufficiency. I’ve written things with deserts in them, but I haven’t written about deserts in this way, and I have to do it before I get too old.

Here is Mahmoud Darwish in 2008:

A river was here
and it had two banks
and a heavenly mother who nursed it on drops from the clouds
A small river moving slowly
descending from the mountain peaks
visiting villages and tents like a charming lively guest
bringing oleander trees and date palms to the valley
and laughing to the nocturnal revellers on its banks:
‘Drink the milk of the clouds
and water the horses
and fly to Jerusalem and Damascus’
Sometimes it sang heroically
at others passionately
It was a river with two banks
and a heavenly mother who nursed it on drops from the clouds
But they kidnapped its mother
so it ran short of water
and died, slowly, of thirst.