on Like A Straw Bird It Follows Me and Other Poems by Ghassan Zaqtan, translated by Fady Joudah (Yale University Press)

“The need to explain a personal and collective biography of the Palestinian poet and his/her poetry, while a necessity not particular to a Palestinian, is itself a quandary,” writes Fady Joudah in the introduction to his translations of selected poems by Ghassan Zaqtan. He continues, “One is tempted to register those personal details of loss, distance, and absence, and what they signify, especially in a preface to a literary work in translation.” ZaptanCover.jpgThe problem for Joudah is the reader who approaches Palestinian poetry with an expectation about him/herself -- namely that the content found there will resonate with the acuteness of one’s pre-selected sensitivities to the Palestinian predicament.

But he also admonishes himself, an accomplished Palestinian-American poet (and physician) whose first book, The Earth in the Attic, was awarded the Yale Younger Poets Prize for 2007. (His second book, Alight, will be published by Copper Canyon in 2013.) “I am hyper-vigilant of the darkness that moral certainty can bring into poetry,” Joudah says in an interview with David Baker. “The classification of suffering … has become an international décor … that conveniently tells us which people have suffered more than others and what should be done ‘about it’ … the engraving of moral righteousness in the kinds of those who are faraway and watching cable.”

Joudah_0.jpegThe styling of pain into groovy aesthetics isn’t the only issue for Joudah. He also bristles at what he perceives as the pressure to argue for the contemporaneity of Palestinian and Arabic poetic practice. As a foremost translator of Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry in English, Joudah has illuminated the latter’s obsession -- “how to continually widen the lyric and in doing so reinvent or reinvigorate prosody.” At the same time, he has resisted subsuming Arabic poetry within an integrated grid of amiable global practice since “equating or comparing languages often leads to a soft jingoism … Language and poetries are, more often than not, as is science, linked to power structures and histories. It becomes inevitably problematic.”

Lest Joudah’s anxieties be regarded as surly Arabic pique at being misunderstood, remember Emily Dickinson’s warning that “too much proof affronts belief.” Too much artisanal imagery of suffering not only patronizes belief, but leaves the reader with nothing to do or work out. The Palestinian poet, like all the other poets, must satisfy a prerequisite: serve the truth to be discovered. Joudah happens to be especially solemn about his responsibilities and offended by lesser efforts.

Zaqtan.jpgIt has been both a revelation and relief to spend the hours with Joudah’s renderings of Zaqtan’s poetry, even while keeping the translator’s perturbations in mind. For in Zaqtan’s verse, timelessness courses through the moment of speaking. If the “classical” is always about what must be, not what just happened, then Zaqtan conjures a third zone that absorbs and transfigures the other two.

“I am not the kind of person who will walk in front of the demonstration,” he told Jeffrey Brown on PBS. “I feel that's not my place. I walk behind the demonstration in order to collect the small things that may fall, whether it's the handkerchief or a child's backpack or a purse. That's my attitude.” The details of what has fallen around him are prominent, and Zaqtan’s speech is direct, though not demotically conversational in the American sense. The attitude is personal, but not because dispossession and displacement have contracted to make room for it. The identity of the speaker is one he has willed and consented to, not one assigned to him by cultural or political or academic exigency. He has revealed his own strange image.


The one you accidentally found in the mirror

in its dark corner to be exact

was there alone thinking of you

befriending your solitude

The one, because you are in need of company no more,

you called out of his darkness and fed

with your hands

You used to call him and he’d come

point to him and he’d jump to his feet

and as soon as you’d turn your back he’d unload on you

his hyena stare before returning to his corner

Now you recall all this

since you must pass a long time here

staring at the mirror

at its dark corner to be exact

as he sits in your chair

feeds you with his own hands

and passes you some water

calls to you

and you come

ZaqtanB.jpgGhassan Zaqtan was born in Beit Jala, near Jerusalem, in 1954. His father Khalil was a poet. Ghassan’s first poems, Early in the Morning, were published while he lived in Beirut in 1980. He was granted asylum in Damascus after the Israeli-Lebanese War, and then spent time in Cyprus, Jordan, Yemen and Tunisia. In 1994, he moved to Ramallah where he lives today. Like A Straw Bird That Follows Me opens with work collected from his eighth collection, Luring the Mountain (1998), and then from Biography in Charcoal (2003), and Like A Straw Bird It Follows Me (2008). Zaqtan has also written two novels.

It is a life filled with the constancy of exile and a teeming potential for narrative. But Zaqtan has written as if in his presence there is another person, namely himself witnessing himself, a basic act requiring, as Pessoa says, that we “behave before ourselves as if before a stranger, with a studied, serene exterior mien, indifferent out of nobility, and cold out of indifference.” This is why, as Joudah writes in his introduction, “Zaqtan consciously moved away from mythologizing exile and displacement and homed in on the poem as textural movements, visual and tactile, whose reservoir of everyday things became endless projections that sculpt (or crumble) sound and form.”


By morning travelers knocked on her door
but she didn’t wake
By noon a bird stirred her
from a book but she didn’t wake

And at night a girl came from the orchard
her hair was short
her sleeves filthy
her load of quince

She called out to her dead kin
for seven nights
and seven days
full in count

The girl who knocked on the door at night

was there
with short hair
filthy sleeves
and a crow’s sound

The caw awakened
a woman in her thirties
from her death
who said to the little girl:
I gave birth to you in a dream,
you aren’t real for us
to love you like other girls,
leave for twenty years
so we can love you
and wait for you,
but don’t grow older in the fog
lest we die.

Zaqtan_1.jpgZaqtan’s search is the quest for the disrupted ordinary. As in “Wolves” below, it is carried out as a “reckless lament” among objects mulched too deeply in silence. It is conducted through the odd and desperate claims of a singular voice – a guest in the room, or the speaker himself? Either way, the world is blanched white, absence is interminable among those stricken presences. “News of a catastrophe,” wrote John Berger, “comes all at once.” In its wake, which is the space of our living, filled with the absence of what has been swept away by any of our disasters, take your pick, there is an encounter between the remembering poet and the austere moment now at hand.


The birds’ departure from his heart
leaves the plains white
where the story is white
and sleep is white
and silence is the caller’s icon.

A laugh of sand will sprout when the door is opened
from fear’s angle, a hymn
for the grand winter, and the voices
of those who left long ago will jump like grasshoppers
when the door is opened.

Wait, wait a moment
for us to dry a moment
there’s in our trace
a reckless lament
and a ceramic bird …
and watch for the necklaces on the ceiling

Why don’t you turn the lights on
or be happy with sitting

and watch for the fruits on the ground

Your voice in my room exhausts the silence
the silence of pots
the silence of shelves
the silence of writing
the silence of lighting
and the silence of survival
which I have been gathering for years
with the patience of one who’s alone with the garden in summer
or one who retrieves absence
the absence
that never stops.

Zaqtan_0.jpgZaqtan was scheduled to arrive in the U.S. via Amman on April 1, 2012, for a nine-city reading tour. All preparations had been made. However, at the last moment the State Department inexplicably delayed the issuance of his visa, disrupting events long in planning. Zaqtan has exquisitely paved his own route above, around and below the harrowing blandness of facile opinion and phrasing, but his vulnerability is also familiar. After the diplomats temporize and threaten, after the partisans defend the aims of their arts, Zaqtan's poems stand alone, defending us all. Poetry is dangerous – for lavishing its attention on the way things must be and have been: “to author a bend in the story / so we can prolong the evening / or make predictions / and matters bearable …”

[Published April 24, 2012. 144 pages, $26.00 hardcover]

P.S. Palestine

All that knowledge can kill you
If your day doesn’t end in
Torrents of breath and blood
Plants get rescued the sprout
Natters on about tomorrow
Ignores odd socks and sparrows
Before us the demonstrations
That none of us quite believed in
Then the final moments wavering
Of course violence mounts slowly
Looking back out there rocks thrown
We practise it too poetry is dangerous.

Re Bending The Story

Even Yale scholars know that poetry is dangerous, prone as it is to making predictions and other matters bearable. Here's hoping that Mr Zaqtan will retrieve his visa along with his absence and set foot on those shores someday. Shores now embarassed, that once provided more gracious haven to the exile.