Ghassan Zaqtan’s The Silence That Remains speaks to the truths that live in the gaps between the episodic and ephemeral, marked “history,” “tragedy,” and “trauma” before our collective consciousness sails on. Zaqtan examines the space that is left between these flashes, and the forced reckoning of those left after the news crews retreat—the episodic nature of history and how personal lives continue on between the bullet points. There is a delicate redirection of our attention in this collection to the lives of people, with all their intricacies and enormities, in the margins and footnotes of historical trauma. Look at the people, these poems tell us. There, we will find the true magnitude of the cost of devastation.
This collection was compiled and organized from many other collections by its translator, Fady Joudah. Ordered temporally, Silence reveals Zaqtan’s penchant for alteration and revision, a lack of reverence for the set text. Some poems exist in different versions than their previously-published forms, others share the same title. His poetry lives in a way that other poetry rarely does, as he resists the tendency to imagine poetry statically and instead insists on the journey of each poem continuing, lending a fresh, timely currency to his verse and to his subject matter. His poems wend along through history, both personal and communal, preserved and (nearly) lost. This quality makes Zaqtan’s work (and particularly this collection) increasingly transferable and insistent on its continued relevance. Now especially, as trauma in Syria fills our news feeds and newsreels, the ways in which we memorialize such tragedy take on a painfully timely resonance—and unavoidable visibility.
Zaqtan’s experience, however, stems largely from his experience with conflicts in his native Palestine and later with violence in Lebanon. Born a Palestinian poet near Bethlehem in 1954, he identifies with those certain elements of the diverse Arabic poetic tradition. He has lived and written in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Tunisia, and a sense of place informs his poetic approach. In “Fingers,” found toward the beginning of the collection, Zaqtan asks, “What’s that ringing in the brevity of silence, / delicate between destruction’s instant / and fire’s eruption?” His answer:
Unrelenting and wise
fingers disassemble the horizon
into houses and send it back
to the beauty of dirt, iron, and people
Zaqtan articulates through his poetry, and particularly through this collection, that what remains, and what is built in that space, is defined by what has been taken. And in that sense, he places great evidence on physical space, belonging to that space when your home, your territory, the land that your ancestors made their own, has been taken from you. That land, once you are robbed of it, becomes the factor that defines you and informs the emotional and psychological landscape around you. In an interview with PBS’ Jeffrey Brown, Zaqtan explained, “For this uncertain place, for uncertain life, which we have in this area, we have to protect our personal history. A complete people has lost its future, has lost the location, has lost its place. And, obviously, poetry is one of the most expressive forms in order to reach the people. This is why the poets were the first to remind these people of their identity.”
In the poem “Khalil Zaqtan,” which eulogizes his late father and was originally published in a 1988 collection, Zaqtan writes:
And I will gather the house of your chucked absence.
As if we were alone on earth
[…] you die
so I can fold the falcon’s wings after its departure
and believe the silence that remains.
This image of the house made out of “chucked absence” builds into Zaqtan’s theme of loss creating space. He extends this concept of building out of emptiness in his emphasis of the poem as a built space or landscape, using the language of physical place to describe the intangible or abstract. In “Khalil Zaqtan,” this house is the loss of his father. The poem “A Swallow” applies this perspective to the process of writing poetry and perhaps reveals something of Zaqtan’s concept of the poetic process. The poem begins describing its author: “Maybe he came out of a hole / in the evening’s wall,” “he became a carpet for the poem.”
A great deal of Zaqtan’s power lies in his ability to overlay our mental high-resolution photographs of war zones (public trauma, media narratives) with people we recognize, faces we know. He writes, “Two faces in catastrophe: / my father and his horse.” The minute details of people and things render the true face of loss clearly. The poem “Another Death,” already devastating in its sense of devastation-as-routine, begins “Her corpse is in front of the door,” but continues:
her standing there, singing at night, the glare of her silver comb
her knee that darts lightning our way
her glass rings
her henna-washed hair and pagan handshake
her laugh by the door
her gist in throwing her hair back or letting it down
She is seen not just as a body, but as all of the moments witnessed and all of the habits of the woman herself, the individuality painted vividly where, otherwise, she would become a number. In this capacity, Zaqtan prevents us from being able to to abstract these events, tying our inevitable private and mundane similarities, our small individual habits, to these public narratives which otherwise can only evoke sympathy without empathy. He builds for us a physical landscape, layering it with the moments and the people it witnessed—in peace, in war, and after:
the metal that tumbled
and whistled and howled
and sparkled in the space of the abyss
and in the middle of the roar
exactly there, in that corner
where coffee windows used to open in your eyelids
The precision of place is emphatic: “exactly there, in that corner.” It is important to get that corner right. It further emphasizes the seemingly inconceivable coexistence of these peaceful moments with the trauma that followed and that, but for memories, erased them. Rendering them here is Zaqtan’s rejection of that erasure, and his refusal to separate the peaceful and the traumatic events that have inhabited these spaces, as he layers these experiences and sensations over the same physical space.
This depiction gives the devastation a tangible human cost, and the contrast makes the loss more sharply felt for the fact that it was not, and never was, inevitable. Zaqtan uses the pinpricks of the quotidian, the peacefully banal, to sketch the outlines of the ineffable last reality of loss, deftly inserting his realities into the mental and emotional landscapes of those who will never physically witness those truths. In its telling of those truths, one of the poems that strikes me is “Their Absence.” It begins “and what remains,” bringing to mind the title of the collection, and its answer: silence. What remains is their absence, and this absence is stated in the presence of what have left. The poem reads:
And what remains
but little little
and their shirts
fabric that spreads on trees
banners that tug
only at trees
and are not received
The banner of a nationalist conflict loses any honor in victory as it hangs from the body of a child. Objects lose their identity without the people they are connected to: a shirt becomes mere fabric without the child who once wore it. Humanity infuses these objects, and that humanity is then preserved in those same objects as evidence that humans lived. They were there.
Only a great poet can make you feel such grief and shame with the description of a small cotton shirt, can make you see the suggestion of a body and of a whole life lived inside of it—how the shirt fit against warm skin, present and dynamic. We don’t know what has happened, not overtly (in the sense that we, most of us, weren’t there—and none of us, living, reading, were the child). The context, however, is transferable, in the sense that this is what war does, what natural disasters do. This is what inhabiting these spaces, post-devastation, is like—living in the ringing silence of after. We are never told why the shirt flaps, deserted in the tree, but the weight of context resolves the final image. Zaqtan elevates this silence as the most pure form of communication, the most universally and instinctively understood. In his introduction to Silence, Joudah writes, “If silence is sacred language, golden, then everything else is inferior translation.” Rather than the absence of communication, it is instead the most pure form of it.
Formally, Zaqtan deftly crafts in short, delicate lines. His words would weigh too heavily and hang too simply for the sustained, breathy, and ornate line; each line says what it needs to say and says enough with little. Zaqtan’s manuscript is measured and cut into simple, observational truths which are constructed to reveal but not to dictate. He relies on the collective ability of an audience to fill the silences he leaves for us, knowing our innate similarities will guide our realizations. His language is sparing but not sparse. It is pared down to its densest core, the most suggestive words alone and undiluted in their force, darkly suggesting to us what we already know but perhaps do not yet see. We, unlike the people Zaqtan gives voice to, are not forced to make our lives in the aftershocks of this history. He paints for us life after the dust settles.
Silence resists our tendency to abstract history, news, and distance. Zaqtan’s poems read as necessarily internal, but they externalize distance, be it physical, emotional, psychological, or the distance of privilege—or lack thereof. The invasion of Lebanon, for example, took place as he was writing—a rocket literally burned down his Beirut apartment and many copies of his own poems. For me, this recalls Cameron Awkward-Rich’s “The Cure for What Ails You”: “cruelty, after all, is made of distance.”
Formally, Zaqtan refuses finality in his poems—an absence of final punctuation. Whether or not we can chalk such formal decisions up to difference in cultural or linguistic conventions, this absence creates the effect of a denied ending, a resistance to comfortably folding these scenes into the past or separating these stories from ourselves. As a poet, Zaqtan is never finished with the poems, and we, as members of a global society, are never finished with his subject matter. In “Always,” he writes:
Seven days ago was Thursday afternoon
I read 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
This volume is beautifully produced by Copper Canyon Press with the Arabic (verso) printed alongside its English translation (recto). As each script is read in opposite directions (English left to right, Arabic right to left), Zaqtan’s words stream outward from the center. The Silence That Remains is a collection to reflect on and return to, a thoughtful meditation delicately rendered.