Fady Joudah on Ghassan Zaqtan

Since the publication of his important 1988 collection The Heroism of Things, and especially over the past ten years, Ghassan Zaqtan has been a welcome presence for many young Arab poets, Palestinian and otherwise. After 1967, in Palestine and across the Arab world, Zaqtan and a few other poets of his generation found themselves in the shadow of a poetry largely concerned with gathering identity fragments of the individual in a collective mode. And they began to look elsewhere. Zaqtan, through quiet lyric, focused on the palpable daily cares, the molecular details that proliferate, and unravel as they proliferate, toward unknown destinations that cut vision down to size. ''This is my only profession,'' he writes in a recent poem,

to author a bend in the storyso we can prolong the eveningor make predictionsand matters bearable.
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. His poetry is replete with ''lost things'' that link up with each other and expand the maze. Various alleyways and corridors, windows and pots, bedsheets and letters, rooms and houses, connect to routes of escape from loss and memory. What amasses is constant dissipation, a perfect mess, an entropy of information. He shuttles his poetry between prosody and free verse, and between the objectively pithy and the obsessively thorough, the austere and the lavish, as two faces of indeterminacy's coin. As a lyricist, within his ordinary and observational stance, Zaqtan is as intense as he is slack and disarming. A mutual intimacy of transmission, of contiguity, exists between him and his subjects, ''gathering their sleeves from the corners of their seats / like a cold [he] gather[s] them.''

Zaqtan is also a novelist, an editor, and a filmmaker. His acclaimed second novel, Describing the Past (1994), illuminates his predilection for whirling inventories with which he has enhanced his poetry and transfigured his memory. The novel is a lyrical love story told from the standpoint of three characters in a swift tempo that manages a wealth of detail in fewer than a hundred pages. Likewise, the earlier part of his aesthetic project can be best summarized in the title of his seventh poetry book, a selection of his poems through 1994: Putting Description in Order. The result is an unfolding of catalog and sequence, an architecture all his own. This preoccupation with memory and witnessing has led the poet to the multiplicities of mediums and senses to which his language can give birth: portrait, sculpture, carving, photo, graphic, hymn, song, each in its space or counterspace, swimming in sequence or series, in colorful frescoes and narrative thread.

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A few years ago, I came across what would eventually make up half of Ghassan Zaqtan's tenth and most recent poetry collection, Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, in Al-Karmel, the international quarterly literary journal that Mahmoud Darwish edited for more than two decades. In two issues of the same year, Darwish published Zaqtan's long poem ''Alone and the River before Me,'' and his entire sequence poem ''Pretexts.'' Darwish so admired the long poem's differential, its aesthetic variables, that he suggested its title. I was so taken by the long poem that I still remember clearly the sense of having encountered one of the finest poems I have read: its private and collective enunciation, versatile diction, adjacency of classical and modern aesthetics, narrative and lyric, its insistence on dispelling dimensions of time and place in search of new language where what is learned is constantly destabilized.

There are many out there who feel strongly that Ghassan Zaqtan is the most important Palestinian poet writing today. Among them are his contemporary the Jordanian poet and novelist Amjad Nasser, who is a significant presence in Arabic letters, the Syrian critic Subhi Hadidi, and Mahmoud Darwish himself, as he stated in an interview a few years before he died. Yet this testimony and those who gave it are far from the clichéd conversation of inheritance per se. In ascribing significance to Zaqtan's poetics, one is not necessarily trying to establish a parallel national literary lineage—in the Irish or Polish manners, for example—where a poetry, justly and otherwise, is reconstructed into a narrative within the historical politics of the literary cosmos. Anyone who recognizes Ghassan Zaqtan's importance to Palestinian and Arabic poetry does so with a simple understanding of artistic innovation on a path of nonlinear continuity and trajectory. A Palestinian has come to ask us questions of the deterritorialized existence.

The need to explain a personal and a collective biography of the Palestinian poet and his/her poetry, while a necessity not particular to the Palestinian, is itself a quandary. Ghassan Zaqtan has his Odyssey, a common thread among all Palestinians, singular in each instance. 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. This would necessitate, among other things, a brief narrative of the poet's life: where he was born (in which Palestine); what displacement, dispossession, or expulsion he and his family have suffered; what activism and what resistance; was he ever jailed, why and by whom, and so on. Ghassan Zaqtan was born in 1954 in Beit Jala after his family was driven out of Zakariyya by Zionist forces in 1948. He eventually moved to Jordan, obtained a degree in physical education, and moved to Beirut and then Damascus and Tunis, before returning to Palestine in 1994. He now resides in Ramallah. His parents and grandparents are deceased. Their death in and of itself constitutes an immense weight for the poet. His father, Khalil Zaqtan, was also a poet, and a committed activist who started the first school in Dheishe refugee camp near Beit Jala. Ghassan's son, Shadi, is a musician and a singer. Here is the end of Ghassan's poem ''Khalil Zaqtan,'' from his 1988 collection The Heroism of Things:

And I will gather the house of your chucked absence.As if we were alone on earth...you dieso I can fold the falcon's wings after its departureand believe the silence that remains.
In his eighth collection, Luring the Mountain, published in 1998, his aesthetic project came to full fruition. Everything he touched seemed to enact a séance. And indeed it is the spirited interlocution with the dead that is a mark of a remarkable poet who is able to see ''in what the blind see / a sound in the garden'' and enter the possibility of unwriting himself, no longer the poet who's compelled to ''lean over seductive wisdom / pick it out of the commoners' death.'' He would achieve this unwriting more distinctly later in Straw Bird, but it can be argued that Luring the Mountain closed the book on a stage of Zaqtan's poetry and ushered in a more transformative approach to memory and elegy in the following two collections. Zaqtan's earlier poems seem almost haunted by the spirits of the dead. In Luring the Mountain he is constantly aware of his struggle with these ghosts, cognizant that it is ''Not Yet'' that he sheds this ''presence'' for another nature, even though he can sense he's on the cusp of it: ''Whenever I say it's time I went / the songs I thought would never return arrive.'' It's as if loss in his poetry has finally broken off into islands that seem separate on the surface but are still connected underneath. In ''The Islands,'' the poem from which his 1998 collection takes its title, the chore is that of a rower, luring a mountain to stay distant, to drift closer, a here and there at once.

Zaqtan's ninth collection in 2003, Biography in Charcoal, negotiates memory and the sudden nonarrival of it in the midst of violence and war after the eruption of the Second Intifada in Palestine in 2001, a recurrent apparition of absence and dispossession. The poems in Biography confront what confronts them, including the human, humanized enemy, who ''resembles the dead Arabs here.'' Though if Zaqtan's ghosts persist to ''swim like black horses'' in his sleep, he is able to enunciate the will to alter them: ''Whenever I fall asleep / a horse comes to graze my dreams.'' But what really seals this conversion, this exit in the face of ongoing destruction, is his convergence on his own biography, his own chronology. The dated poems in this collection are not trapped in a binary mode of truth and document, triumph and defeat, the heroic and tragic, action and resignation, storyline and moral. Charcoal and what is charred push the limits of expression and form, and pressure them toward new lines of flight:

Then the sound sculpts me until I disappearin order for those who saw to remember me.Thus the singerand the songare alike.
Zaqtan's chronologies of personal history are at their best when they simply ''water time'' and host life and language. When we wander into, or with, Ghassan Zaqtan's Odyssey, we encounter his still, quiet photographs (''Four Sisters from Zakariyya''), his gestures of paradoxical calm that search ''like the mad / for a gap in silence.'' We also engage his complex and brilliant knack for catalog and depiction, where the logic of clarity occasionally gives way under the additive weight of detail. In ''Amman 1966'' he neatly places the objects of memory behind a window, or in an ornate handheld basket that laughs at him as he weaves it, and he is caught not really knowing what to do with these objects, where to take them, or how to hold them: ''My appointment is astray / and my waiting is shadows.'' In this poem, as in many others, his propensity for syntactical ambiguity, absent verbs (or incomplete actions), resembles skipped, irregular contractions on an electric heart tracing without necessarily missing a beat. Here's a stanza from an earlier poem, ''Additions to the Past,'' in Luring the Mountain:

The closet's corner through the door's opening,and the door, when the hymns swim gathered like handkerchiefsin the darkness of the plains,the air's shadow and the novel,the one she didn't return to the shelf, or can't rememberif she did or not, its protagonistsfall to the ground deadand she sweeps them one                       by onewith broom, reproach, and supplication
One is swept into his spiraling registry without being given much chance to fuss about purpose. His proliferative series are more than a database of memory, more than an economy of desire or longing. In another wonderful poem, in Straw Bird, ''As If He Were She,'' Zaqtan's whirling inventory takes on narrative energy. Many might be seduced by its sense of mystery, but it is the process of sprouting and branching accrual that is magnificent. The poem is one of Zaqtan's many instances of becoming other, although we are not certain who and what. In fact, Zaqtan gives us a heads-up at the beginning of it:

Something wrong happened there at the starting linea minor error that accumulates its dark with the patienceand perseverance of the dead.
And the following corrective measures through a progressive series of ''or''s only intensifies this metamorphosis of he-she, she-he to the point of indistinguishability:

Orwhen the officer, picking his teeth, singled him out just like thatduring the midnight patrol. . . . . . . . .Or the scentthe scent that wakes him in the mornings, winter mornings,with a pair of Asian eyes that encircle him like a spring. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Orwhen he saw himself on the opposite lakeshore, wearinga light blue silk dress, while a few women laughed in the thicket.
Or it is, as Zaqtan says in ''Cavafy's Builders,''

the probability of improvisationthe tenderness of verbsand the solidity of narration
to which we grow addicted and full of return: the known and unknown form the commissure for memory and forgetting, desire and reflex, an implosion within the simultaneously expanding mind.

No doubt Zaqtan's contemporaneity is well informed by a deep knowledge of classical Arabic literature. The long poem in Straw Bird, ''Alone and the River before Me,'' echoes the fantastic primer to the genre of collected short stories, known as al-Maqamat, dating back to the tenth and eleventh centuries, specifically to al-Hamadhani's and al-Hariri's masterpieces of the same title, where narrative coherence is held within helical lyric, folkloric imagination, the prosaic and realist, adorned by a scattering of poetic lines. In Zaqtan's hands, this becomes a mosaic or chimeric architecture that connects the past to the future, the archaic to the genetic, and the continuum to the quantum. And in this peripatetic spinning, time is not linear or circular but porous and full of truncations and offshoots.

Similarly, ''Pretexts'' forges its own narrative, as a series of juxtapositions that insists on a taxonomy of description. By the time Zaqtan reaches Straw Bird, loss, violence, and absence are not visible in his rearview mirror; they have become ''Pretexts'' that mingle blithe lyrics and frivolity with folktales and ars poetica. In an imaginative sense, this gathers the above-mentioned modes in al-Maqamat into the modern art of the sequence poem. ''Pretexts'' exploits loss in order for song ''to spin us like two straw birds,'' a playful fragility to ''open a door / and close another shut.'' He has left his elegy behind. He has ''no reason to nurture funerals as others do.'' The process of catalog extends a ladder to the poet up and down the rank of pretexts for love and romantic antics with body and language, not land and nation per se. And ''the signs,'' although

                             thereabandoned on the pathsscrutinized by the ignorant,
become loose threads that hop, leap, and lead us to where ''the signifier and the signified get lost.''

This desire and design to move past traditional representation is a coup not only at the individual level for the poet but also at the collective level for the Palestinian who is still bound or defined through historical dates and expressions such as 1948, Nakba, 1967, PLO, occupation, settlements, refugees, right of return, and the like. In a mischievous or satiric manner, Zaqtan says:

What I knowand what I will knowbore me.
He proceeds to wander

behind the narrative . . .along with those who have returned from the heart of the textwhere houses don't take them to the stranger eveningand roads don't carry them to the friendly suburbs.
A double nonarrival that is hard to miss.

The title piece (''The Bird Follows Me'') comes as a canary in a coal mine. His straw bird is a construction collage, a folder of lyrical preludes he couldn't, for the longest time, unfold or ''retrieve from muttering.'' Actually, this bird had already announced its becoming in Biography when in ''Black Horses'' Zaqtan mentions, among the things entrapped and piling up within him, ''poem beginnings that flap like wings in my head.'' These preludes or poem beginnings have a significant, even revolutionary, impact on the poet's mind. For years they never took off: they defied incorporation into familiar poems. Yet they didn't go away or disappear. They were the ''Not Yet'' all along that Zaqtan sensed but could not command or submit to. And now they have become free to turn themselves into whatever fragility they choose: interludes, organs, and poem endings that are scattered about the body of his Straw Bird. The closing piece, ''Everything as It Was,'' highlights this well:

What led him over there in such cold weather? Not longing or curiosity but maybe fear or perhaps it was the chill in the room,though everything appeared as it was, as he wrote in an old poem he could not finish.
Just as Zaqtan does not know or want to know what to do with memory and its accumulations in Biography, he shifts this uncertainty in Straw Bird to the body of the poem: he does not know or want to know ''where the poem is, in its painful incompleteness.'' Instead, he is interested in moving vectors, his beginnings and endings released into orbits. Just when stasis seems to loom again, movement ensues, twisting and turning, toward the barrier, the limit:

he thought this kind of trickerywould befit the ending!
He could replace the ''grandmother'' with the ''mother''and observethe disintegrating plaster above the door's awningthe upside down chairwhere the mallow flowers stumble and recoverwithout being nursedand the gentle light through the back windowremains in its same old placeOnly the jasmine continued its climb, its eyes on the ceiling.
All the shifts in Ghassan Zaqtan's poetry—between memory and time, representation and transformation, elegy and praise, documentary and becoming—seem to have one central catalyst in common: recurrent doubt. It's as if his return visits to past, present, and future repeatedly end up in erasure, or rewriting, rather than in confirmation. In ''Remembering Sleep'' (the last of the ''Pretexts''), Zaqtan displays the acme of his hesitation. His questioning and unanswering heart's major concern is how to swindle itself:

Her effigy is by the edge of sleepand besides this my only trick is that the landbe seen or returned to its peopleand that I shall think like a falcon...or have I been saying this for twenty years,give or take, and here I am stillin the place still runningfree and mortgaged by presence!
Is this the same falcon whose wings he's been trying to ''fold'' as he said in the poem to his father in 1988? Actually, it doesn't matter to Ghassan that much. He is now more concerned with the paradox of ''still running,'' of simultaneous movement and immobility. And this transports us deeper into one of his art's essential forces. To read Zaqtan's poetry is to enter and exit through many portals that cannot be fully listed. The potential for discovery seems boundless, even for the poet himself.

Of these portals, the most noticeable is Ghassan Zaqtan's ''two wolves'' that we keep encountering throughout Biography and Straw Bird. One wolf emits the chatter of running rhythms, and the other displays the silence of an ascetic freeze (frieze), two indefinite states of dynamism and inertia. Like horses, or passageways, for example, the wolf roams the body of Zaqtan's poems in numerous capacities that don't add up to discernible sign or simple duality, making a cameo here and playing the lead role there, and at times the wolf is simply behind the camera. The wolf is poet, banished, bandit, lover, guide, companion, predator, prey, earth, nature, squatter, sprinter, deterritorializer, reterritorializer, and also ''unconcerned when awakened by the watchman of wishes.''

Ghassan Zaqtan's poems, in their constant unfolding, invite us to enter them, exit them, map and unmap them, code and decode them, fill them up and empty them, with the living and nonliving, the animate and inanimate, toward a true freedom.