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The Earth in the Attic
by Fady Joudah
Yale University Press, USA & UK, 2008,
ISBN 978-1-55659-241-6, pbk, 326 pages
Liberating the Narrative
New poets are published daily; still, amidst that plethora it is rare to find a voice, a book, which does not merely promise future accomplishment but delivers a palpable, considerable present achievement. One such is Fady Joudah’s The Earth in the Attic, winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition, and the first collection of a Palestinian-American poet who is also a physician and a bilingual, now internationally recognised, translator of poetry from the Arabic notably for his award-winning translation of Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry in The Butterfly’s Burden.
Joudah’s own poems defy classification, not because they perplex, but because of their remarkable power of synthesis. His mode is the lyric, with its concinnity and necessary music, but his lyrics compress, contain and then liberate the matter of narrative : allegory, fable, folktale, parable, documentary. He is a superb, seductive storyteller; still, his reader never knows if the tale into which s/he is led will end with children’s bodies hanging from bayonets (“Atlas”) or with a reconciliatory glass of sage tea (“The Tea and Sage Poem”). Sometimes an anecdote closes in wry humor. Yet Joudah does not “use” the lyric to convey information: rather, it is the information, the content, that is the soul and lifeblood of the form.
The fifteen-poem sequence “Pulse”, establishes the scope and framework of the book, as it moves from an American professor theorising war to “a desert night east of the Atlantic on the verge of rain” and a doctor's observations of the intimate bystanders of war in their dailiness. These poems have various local habitations, two (although never named) suggest themselves immediately: Darfur, where Joudah worked on a six-month mission with Médecins Sans Frontières, and the omnipresent, impossible “home”, a village in Palestine whose colours, odours, textures and cadences are reflected in any and every other setting – whether an exiled father’s American garden or a refugee camp in the Sudan. Figs, grapes, the sycamore tree, a mule on a dusty road, the distant sea, sage tea. But in vivid counterpoint to these images with their risk of nostalgia is the language of a doctor’s unduped intimacy with the human body, and a constant intercourse between bodies and landscape, underlining unbroken connection.
In these poems, there is a pervasive sense of the discrete existence and humanity of the other – whether a grandmother in Darfur, a lover perceived through her own complex history, a patient in an American hospital ward, a parent haunted by the Nakba. Some poems encapsulate a story, not “the poet’s” on a page: “Scarecrow”, in which a peasant woman is stripped to refugee status; the parable of “the humanitarian man” and his dog in “Pulse 14”, a woman’s voice recapturing a distant childhood in “Mother Hair”. Throughout there is a persistent sense of a shifting but individual interlocutor: lyric though these poems are, the poet is addressing, engaging in dialogue, more than his own interiority.
Fady Joudah is on his way to establishing himself as a significant American poet, and a poet of the polyglot Arab diaspora, but also as a “world” poet, as we now think of Adrienne Rich, Adonis, Hans Magnus Ensenzberger, Vénus Khoury-Ghata, Adam Zagajewski, Forugh Farrakhzad, George Szirtes, Derek Walcott and Mahmoud Darwish: poets whose work’s implications reach far beyond their own specificities and peregrinations to at least potentially engage an international readership.