Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me: And Other Poems (The Margellos World Republic of Letters)
Yale University Press, 2012
144 pp., $28.00
The Earth in the Attic (Yale Series of Younger Poets)
Yale University Press, 2008
96 pp., $40.00
An Evening with Two Palestinian Poets
Last October, a pair of Palestinian poets—Fady Joudah and Ghassan Zaqtan—stopped by Westmont College in Santa Barbara to read their work. They were at the tail end of a two-week tour, sponsored by the Poetry Foundation, that had included stops at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and the University of Texas. Thanks to our adjunct professor Greg Orfalea, an Arab American writer himself, we had managed to borrow them from UCLA. When Greg introduced the poets in the pit of our science lecture hall, packed to the brim, he said it had been an eventful and emotional tour—that the students at Brandeis had collectively broken down in tears. Well, I thought, does that mean that we are supposed to cry too? Far be it from us to be outdone by the Ivy League.
I don't know about you, but I am contrary like that.
I know as much about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as the next person—which is to say, not as much as I might. And going into that afternoon's reading, I knew exactly one Palestinian poet—the ever-gracious Naomi Shihab Nye. But I didn't know what to expect from the Palestinian men. The elder poet, Ghassan Zaqtan, stood up front with a sort of noble weariness to him. The younger, Fady Joudah, who, like Naomi Shihab Nye, is actually a Palestinian American poet, looked like a tougher customer—completely bald, with piercing eyes, and smart as a whip. Greg told us he was an emergency-room physician in Houston who had recently won the Yale Younger Poets Award. An underachiever, to be sure.
The reading began with Zaqtan speaking his poems in Arabic. And his voice was a thing of wonder—husky, resonant, mournful, wise. He gestured easily as he spoke, more like a friend in conversation than a baritone on an opera stage. Of course, we had no idea what he was saying, short of the English translations that Fady Joudah supplied to us from time to time—but that didn't matter. Poetry is made of sound, and if you do not know the language, you can all the more pay attention to the easy music of it—and we did.
What struck me most, both in the manner of Zaqtan's reading and in the substance of his poems, was the softness of them. They were lyrical, elegiac. Not without suffering, not without great depths of pain—but pain transmuted into beauty. To be honest, I had expected something strident. Some years before, I had heard the Sandinista poet Ernesto Cardenal at the local university. What I remember about his reading is the political fury of it. At many points his poems devolved into strings of curses. Justified, no doubt. A legitimate response to violence and betrayal, no doubt. But no longer poetry.
Zaqtan had chosen a different way. Here, for example, his poem "A Going":
Leave us something
we'd be sad if you leave
Leave us, for example,
if you'd like,
your last photo by the door
our summer trip together
that scent of pine,
your words or your tobacco?
And don't go
like a sword.
Zaqtan had spent his life in leaving. Born in 1954 after his parents were expelled from Palestine, he grew up in refugee camps—then moved to Amman, Beirut, Damascus, Cyprus, Yemen, Tunisia. Along the way he published many books of poems and edited Bayadir, a literary journal, for the PLO. At age 40, he came to live in Ramallah on the West Bank, and has remained there ever since—still editing, still writing—now a senior literary figure among Palestinians worldwide.
I wasn't crying, but I was impressed.
When Zaqtan finished reading from his selected poems, translated by Fady Joudah, Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me (Yale Univ. Press, 2012), it was Joudah's turn to read from his own debut collection, The Earth in the Attic (Yale, 2008). His voice was deliberate, charged with a soft intensity. And his poems were made of sterner stuff, raw in their record of violence, yet intelligently and intelligibly shaped into poetry. From "Atlas":
These are villages and these are trees
A thousand years old,
Or the souls of trees,
Their high branches axed and dangled
Like lynched men flanking the wadis,
Closer now to a camel's neck
And paradoxical chew.
And the villages:
Children packed in a hut
then burned or hung on bayonets,
Anchoring acacia limbs as checkpoints.
And only animals return:
The monkeys dash to the road's edge and back
Into the alleyways,
And by a doorstep a hawk dives
And snatches a serpent—your eyes
Twitch in saccades and staccatos:
This blue crested hoopoe is whizzing ahead of us
From bough to bough,
The hummingbird wings
Like fighter jets
Refueling in midair.
Joudah's poems serve as witness not only to the pain of his people but also, and more immediately, to his experiences over the last ten years with Doctors Without Borders in places like Darfur. Later, at dinner, he referred to an essay that had tried to defuse the heroic aura surrounding these altruistic physicians. "Doctors Without Borders is not about saving the world," he said. "It is about acts of common decency. That's the best we can do. That's all we can do."