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The Earth in the Attic (Yale Series of Younger Poets)
The Earth in the Attic (Yale Series of Younger Poets)
Fady Joudah
Yale University Press, 2008
96 pp., 40.00

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Paul Willis

An Evening with Two Palestinian Poets

Ghassan Zaqtan and Fady Joudah.

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
and whole
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,
Truck tires
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."

In the question-and-answer session following the reading, when asked about a possible solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Zaqtan stated unequivocally that the only hope was a single state. Joudah was more pessimistic. The solution, he said bitterly, if indeed it ever came about, would take place long after his lifetime. When challenged on this by a colleague at dinner, who suggested that history provides more than a few surprising examples of accommodation between enemies that occurs sooner than one might imagine, he flew into something of a rage. He was tired of condescending remarks like this from outsiders, he said. What we needed was to move beyond the myth of the nation-state—the myth that a people only matter if they form a nation-state. "We need to see that for what it is—as just a myth," he said.

"But there's no such thing as 'just a myth,' " I found myself interjecting. As the song says, I don't know much about history, but now we were verging on literature. "We live and breathe by myths," I added. "There's no such thing as mythlessness—of getting beyond them. They can be re-shaped. They can be challenged. By great writers sometimes. Shakespeare questions the myth of revenge in Hamlet. Milton turns the myth of the warrior-hero on its head in Paradise Lost."

He looked at me and waved his hand. "Who reads Milton?" he said.

At the end of this remarkable evening—and it was remarkable, in uncanny ways I can scarcely describe—Fady Joudah apologized for what he feared was his rudeness and threw his arms around me as if I were his long-lost friend. I went home thinking about this and other acts of common decency, our uncommon words that still go with them.

For when our food had been brought to the table, Greg had asked me to say a prayer. Taking a deep breath, I had instructed everyone to join hands, and then gave thanks in the name of Jesus. Fady Joudah had looked at me and laughed. "Ghassan is used to that," he said. "His wife is a Palestinian Christian."

Paul J. Willis is professor of English at Westmont College. His most recent books of poetry are Rosing from the Dead (WordFarm) and Visiting Home (Pecan Grove Press).

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