The latest in Joel Swann’s series of 21 reviews treating the CUHK Press collection Poetry in Conflict covers the work of Palestinian Ghassan Zaqtan.
Ghassan Zaqtan – 加桑·扎克坦, The Deadin the Garden – 公園裏的死者 (CUHK Press: Hong Kong, 2015), 63pp
The poems of The Dead in the Garden feature in a series of short books on ‘poetry and conflict’ and evoke the horrors of war and atrocity more fully than others in that series: but also consider the very nature of witnessing and testifying to those horrors. As such, this collection of poems is certainly ‘political poetry’, but is better thought of an example of the ‘poetry of witness’, a phrase first used by Czesław Miłosz in the early 1980s, and in recent years used with great effect by Carolyn Forché. The first poem in the collection, ‘The Pillow’, suggests that this function of poetry is hardly worth celebrating; seeking repose from ‘the bullet in my heart’, the speaker makes a request:
if war knocks
he’s taking a rest
In their English translation, at least, these final lines of the poem closely emulate spoken language, and suggest how the reluctance to encounter war itself is also a weary reluctance to speak in response to it, however much both are obligations. ‘The Pillow’ is a fitting introduction insofar as it recoils from the very things it must report on.
That same child-like obligation characterises one of the forms of witness in this collection, of memorializing: rather than memories of celebrating, Zaqtab’s poetry is haunted and troubled:
I want to memorize you like that song in elementary school
the one I carry whole without errors
my lisp and titled head and dissonance…
The little feet that stomp the concrete ground with fervor
The open hands that bang on desks…
All died in war, my friends and classmates… […]
and wherever I go
I hear them
I see them.
Perhaps these memories are poignant, but the stomping and banging seems troubling in equal degree. Another poem remembers the voices of the poet’s father and the novelist Hussein Barghouti, but it is ultimately the speaker himself who has to utter the ambiguously reassuring message – ‘And my voice: / You’re not alone in the wilderness!’. Memories may demand to be recorded, but they do not come with any comfort.
If the poems here are reluctant to observe, they can also be reluctant to reveal anything: ‘Don’t open the window / don’t wake up / I beg you don’t wake up’ reads the poem ‘The Dead in the Garden’. But there are even problems with knowing what is there to be seen, and the collection engages questions closely how the description of experience and assembling of evidence works. ‘An Enemy Comes Down the Hill’, for example, begins by trying to understand what is entering the written:
When he comes down
or is seen coming down
when he reveals to us that he is coming down.
Waiting and silence
his entire lack
when he hearkens before the plants.
These opening lines start by settling on the limitations of what is seen – what he ‘reveals to us’, whether consciously or not – and goes on to record ‘his entire lack’ as he moves out of view. The poem later turns the point of view to the top of hill, and finally to the natural setting itself –
While he was coming down
the mountain caves continued to stare
and blink in the cold.
The ‘stare’ of the mountain caves in its intemperate surroundings suggest intense attention rather than slack-jawed spectatorship – though the point may be that there is not so much of a difference between the two. If seeing only receives a ‘lack’, then the human witness is in no better position to process and see what is happening than the empty cavities. Zaqtan’s poems often speak powerfully, but their confusion about what to do with the words of their testimony can often make for unsettling reading.
 For example, see her article ‘The Witness of Literary Art’ (2011) https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/detail/69680 and the Norton anthology Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500-2001 (2014).
Joel Swann lives and works in Manchester.