Book Reviews

As If We Had Been There

by Hilary Plum | Contributing Writer

The Silence That Remains
Selected Poems
Ghassan Zaqtan
Translated from the Arabic by Fady Joudah
Copper Canyon Press, 2017

“As if we had been there”: this line guides us into Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan’s newest volume in English, our presence remaining in the subjunctive mood. That we are as if there attests both to our own status—as readers of literature in translation—and to the displacements within history and memory given form in this poet’s magnificent work. In these poems, any event, any place, any memory bears the shadow of the subjunctive: of the history that didn’t occur; of what is no longer ours; of how relentlessly memory transforms presence into absence. This shadow—as if—defines what, in the light of any moment, we may know. The line quoted comes from the poem “A Swallow”: “As if we were together / as if we had been there / with the dead who are there / as if over there.” This stanza considers the role—the place?—of the poem: as if a poem could offer a togetherness that wasn’t, a presence that is no more, in a place lost then or now; even the absence of the dead isn’t here. In these swift lines, we glimpse the knowledge of the fleeting, of the less-than-present, to which Zaqtan’s work is dedicated.

The Silence That Remains, Fady Joudah’s translation of Zaqtan’s earlier work—with selections covering 1982 to 2003—was published this summer by Copper Canyon Press. This is Zaqtan’s third appearance in English: Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, Joudah’s translation of Zaqtan’s more recent work, won the international Griffin Poetry Prize in 2013. The two volumes illuminate one another, each helping us to read the other: the unsimple spareness of the earlier poems; the suggestive, expansive precision of the later, such as the gorgeous “Pretexts” or the long poem “Alone and the River Before Me.” Describing the Past, a novella translated by Samuel Wilder, appeared from Seagull Books in 2016—an intricately elusive narrative set in the Karameh refugee camp, where Zaqtan himself was a child, before its destruction by Israeli forces in 1968 (Zaqtan was born in 1954, in Beit Jala, his family refugees).

Joudah’s foreword to The Silence That Remains notes that some of the early books from which he translates are barely, if at all, available in Arabic, and the originals he worked from were already subject to Zaqtan’s later revisions and republications. Thus many poems included in this bilingual edition do not readily find reflections in any mirror, as Joudah compellingly puts it, but “[inhabit] an in-between space where silences are performed. A genome’s dance with its phenotype”; and so this work is “uncorrected, so to speak, by what would betray the silences it generates.” As readers of these poems in translation, their originals neither here nor there, we find ourselves then fully and only “as if we had been there”: a state that the poem both describes and embodies—its text steadying momentarily, in your hands, here, while testifying to its own absences, there, then, now.

In other words, the line from the poem “The Stranger’s Song” that haunts me—“And something of life on the back of the hand / was narrating / forgetting”—at once describes life and text, each a form of forgetting, each eluding knowledge’s grasp. Throughout these poems, the call and response between here and over there, between now and then, seems to be echoed by a movement between touch and sight, as means to know what is close, what is far, neither knowledge quite complete. “A Swallow” concludes  “as if over there // is as close as our habit / of not coaching our fingers to see / … and the villages / … wish they never were.” The final couplet doubles loss: the loss of the villages so great to bear in reality that it is wished preemptively into the subjunctive mood.

The poems in Silence comprehend a breadth of Palestinian history, the twenty-some years they cover and decades prior—war, dispossession, occupation, exile, revolution, siege, resistance. One could call this a poetry of witness (as the jacket text suggests), though the term, with its simple sense of presence, seems too one-dimensional for this poet especially. Reading these pages, one often feels that war is everywhere, but when is it? It might be on a “Calm Day,” a day after yesterday:

No dead on the streets today
is a calm day,
traffic is normal,
there’s ample room for the procession
of yesterday’s dead

War might take form as an aftermath that is also a future wound, displacing our bodies from themselves, via metonymy, and into harm’s way: “That was when we found our shirts taut / toward the enemies’ arrows” (“Old Reasons”), or in “Their Absence,” when “what remains” are “their shirts // banners that tug / only at trees // and are not retrieved / a triumph.” The only triumph is that the remnants of those who are gone may still be seen, these shirts the echoes of bodies that were here. “When the singers begin their slow departure / from refrains,” the poem “Night Watch” begins, and when may this be? To begin to depart from repetition is an instant nearly impossible to name. Here “refrain” carries wonderfully its two senses in English: a verb meaning to restrain, from to bridle; and a noun for what is repeated in song, evolved from a verb meaning to break off. So that in “refrain” breaking off now means resuming, recurring; and repetition bears an intimation of force. And when, the poem goes on, “they’re done with all that,” that is when “we’ll dig / a small time for us in rock / and hide our children’s toys in its palms, / hide all fragile things.” All this “before we go out to meet the raiding wave.” Here we hide our fragile things not from time, as one might expect, but in time, poignantly: it is only within time that one may know what is fragile, if only for the moment it lasts. And now we ride out, a we that will break against “the raiding wave”: from this battle some of us will not return; we find ourselves among “all fragile things.” The poem gives a sense that this night is itself a refrain; the raiding wave has come before and will come again.

The later poem “Collective Death” picks up in what might be a moment after “Night Watch” ends:

Evening didn’t come without its darkness
we slept roofless but with cover
and no survivor came in the night
to tell us of the death of others

The first line tells us, simply, that the impossible didn’t occur: this evening was as dark as evening. The next lines arrange themselves to suggest that the others survived, and this was why no one bore news of their death; yet our reading corrects itself to realize that all the others may have died, no survivor left to speak of it. The poem ends in a state of time’s end, not a single but a collective death, the end of a people’s continuation, the end of us: “the women gave birth / only to those who passed / and the women will not give birth.”

The question of who we are and what will become of us resonates, as in “Sign,” whose refrain serves to describe the exile that Zaqtan and generations of Palestinians have endured, as well as the exile from the past, singular and collective, that time ceaselessly enforces.

Cities changed us
elevators changed us
the slanted roads swung us about

And then:

journalism changed us
and the narrow small rooms
our conversations

We find ourselves changed, to ourselves and each other; the places we’ve been have changed us—“until,” the poem concludes, “we ended up here / in this chrysalis.” This conclusion reverses what had seemed to be the poem’s direction, leaving us not after but before a moment of change. We are changed until we reach the moment before change: a chrysalis. The poet’s reversal here is both playful and prophetic: change will not cease; each sign signifies its imminence. What’s here and now is already only as if here and now; again the present awaits a future in which it must know itself, changed.

Zaqtan’s poetics of the fleeting illuminate not only how history and its forces are lived, as illustrated above, but the vivid traces that daily intimacies leave in us or make of us. “We Are There,” a love poem (it suits Zaqtan’s conversation with himself and his readers that a later poem is titled “We Weren’t There”), begins “This is what I say now that she’s taken everything” // The things that only I see will stay behind,” a solitude that reappears, changed, later: “Only the things I see will stay behind.” The poem’s last line—which characteristically both follows from and interrupts the syntax that precedes it—celebrates and mourns the love once known: “and also that we’re together, alone, in the poem.” The poem is the place where she and I still are, together, where I may know the past again by describing it; and yet in the poem she has already “taken everything,” and the poem is never a place where we may live. The poem is always there, but when may it be here? “When you grow up poetry will be your house,” a line in “Also the House” advises, a poem that begins with an evocation of the lost camp at Karameh—displacement imminent—and slyly notes that “I don’t remember who was it that said / to me or another” this line of advice, its tone at once encouraging and desperate. The poem is always only becoming a place to live, always announcing its loss of what it knows or means, its future incompletion, as in “Always,” which describes how the poet reads “the poem / the one that was supposed to have been finished / [ . . . ] and it wasn’t finished”:

For seven years
I finish it every morning then doze off
and by evening
I always catch it
opening its doors on the sly
and calling talk in

The phrase “on the sly” summons the question of how we, readers in English, enter these poems, through Joudah’s translation. Joudah’s agile chattiness and his ear for silence grant these poems both their spacious sense of absence and their quick presence; here the lyric subject moves through syntax like breath, vital motion more than stable center. One feels (I do not read Arabic) that phrases like “on the sly” may belong to this translator particularly, as might lines like “Your morning, that bird of slow talk” or “your house visitors are a bunch of tempters” (both from “The Stranger’s Song”), with the striking effect of these combined adjectives and nouns. Joudah often evocatively runs a word or phrase counter to idiomatic familiarity; or he asks that words bear the full burden of the multiplicity of their meanings. For example, the startling conclusion of “Stranger’s Song”—“Your lover’s window / has not slept / or overlooked you”—knows how “overlook” means both to ignore and to look down upon from above; both to see and to choose not to see. The tension between these meanings and the slippery negation (“not”) the syntax catches them in—inspiring and ending hope, turning the lover’s face away—deepens the absence of the lover’s gaze.

Critics versed in translation theory could usefully describe some of these characteristics as serving to “foreignize,” rather than “domesticate,” the work in English: slight ruffles in language that return you to the thought of the poem you are not reading, the poem in its original language. Yet the complex displacements in presence that Zaqtan’s and Joudah’s work performs seem to anticipate such description, so that, as in the best cases, poetry becomes a means to comprehend theory, rather than vice versa. Credit for the reader’s attunement is due especially to the translator’s foreword, an essay whose ambition exceeds the usual, more workmanlike role of such texts, carefully and insistently opening the poems to further interpretation, informing our readings but not determining them. Joudah considers Zaqtan’s use of silence, describing how “Across Zaqtan’s poems silences inhabit syntax, translocate within and alter it,” and extends from this to say, “The silences in this book are as universal and collective as they are individual and singular. Silence here is Palestinian silence.” “How does one write Palestinian silence into English?” is Joudah’s next sentence, and of course the book that follows is then an answer, an “answer—a translation at best—[that] demands a willingness to receive and accept.”

Thus asked to receive, to read the echoes of silence, the reader hears again the words of “Not for My Sake”: “speech and its loads / are not mine / before me / all of it was.” In the face of the immensity of this task—to hear the silences of history and memory; to receive the speech that is not yours; to have survived, for now, as if for this moment, before the text—the poem refuses to leave us alone. The poem offers its voice. “You have no clue,” the poem “The Lover’s Song” begins, “I visit you every night / to tell you my latest dream // Together we sit.” Together poet and reader watch someone else watch over the dead: “The song isn’t ours / the fire in the plains not ours, / someone’s guarding the dead there.” Of course this moment is yet another as if, the poem presenting a dream it insists we visit each night, escaping and returning together, as if we could ask of one another, as if we could ask of the passing form of the text: “Life passed / don’t / leave me here” (“A Voice”).

Hilary Plum is the author of the novel Strawberry Fields (2018), winner of the Fence Modern Prize in Prose; the work of nonfiction Watchfires (2016); and the novel They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013). She teaches creative writing at Cleveland State University and serves as associate director of the CSU Poetry Center. With Zach Savich she edits Rescue Press’s Open Prose Series.

Image: Cymbals, 5th–8th century, from Palestine, Sbaita