In Qantara, ArabLit editor M Lynx Qualey shares thoughts on Palestinian poet-translator-doctor Fady Joudah’s Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance, particularly the parts co-written with Syrian poet-translator-doctor Golan Haji:
Footnotes can be the most vibrant, layered and interesting part of a book. If the main part of a text sits enthroned in seamless authority, then the footnotes below are a place for multiplicity and doubt. Just so, there are multiple and sometimes contradictory voices in Fady Joudah’s latest collection of poems, Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance (2018).
In “form and diction”, the award-winning Palestinian-American poet tells us, the collection is his. But it also brings in different poets, while threading between Arabic and English. There is an entire section, Sagittal Views, crafted in collaboration with Syrian Kurdish poet Golan Haji. And this is not the only joint work in the collection: “Epithalamion” was co-written with poet Deema Shehabi; “Kohl” borrows lines from classical Arabic poetry; and “I Dreamed You” is an adaptation of Joudah’s own translation of a poem by Hussein Barghouthi (1954–2002).
All poetry builds on the bones of other poetry, using the salvaged fragments of beloved (or hated) lines. But Joudah’s house of footnote-poems draws other poets into the heart of the process. Joudah and Haji make particularly rich conversational partners. Both are acclaimed poets and translators, one from Arabic to English and the other from English to Arabic. Both studied medicine. Both are fearless essayists.
The poems in their co-created Sagittal Views section were, as Joudah notes at the end of the book, written in English entirely by him. But they were “based on our meetings, phone conversations and e-mail correspondence in Arabic.” He adds: “The proportion of ‘original work’ per author varies from poem to poem.”
The titular “sagittal view” comes from their shared medical background, referring to a vertical cutaway of an organ, as seen from its left side. The poems, then, show a cross-section of the world, sliced so we can view the detail squirming within.
The violence of shared and overlapping griefs – Palestine and Syria – experienced through the tendrils of the Internet: “The hell of pictures on the web. Faces of the dead on Facebook will wait for your walk home. A woman who awakened your lust when you were a kid was killed in the morning while talking to her sister on the phone. First a blast then stillness”
Connections beneath the skin
The first poem in the section is the evocatively and contradictorily titled, “After No Language”. It is animated by both the fairy-tale surrealisms that wind through Haji’s works and the sharply carved silences that stand around – and slice through – Joudah’s.
The poem begins with, “A silent feeling of an invisible punishment or one seen through cataracts, a sentence that isn’t meted out and doesn’t end[.]”
From this first line, the reader already has the nightmare feeling that some unseen punishment is coming at us from an unpredictable direction. The sentence is both unsaid and unending, something beneath and beyond language.
Later, a Haji-esque narrative surrealism appears when the narrator reports:
a while back I saw a commercial in black and white for a detergent: its customer was imprisoned in a soap bubble that can’t be breached, a second transparent skin he can’t exit before the commercial ends; I think it was inspired by a Chinese man who was jailed for life as a child inside an iron ball: as he grew the penalty – the ball grew until it was no longer possible to tell his blood from the ball’s rust, and I can’t remember what he was punished for
This frightening penance is both foreign (Chinese) and also domestic (an advertisement for detergent). The black-and-white commercial is both verbal and silent, the detergent-man imprisoned in a bubble that can’t be breached. The poem ends by telling us “no silence offers answers:” an unfinished sentence, allowing us to escape the bubble into the blankness of the page beyond.