Fady Joudah’s 2009 book If I Were Another was a gorgeous translation that brought a loping, precise beauty to the work of the preeminent Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, just a year after his death. Interviewed by BOMB Magazine shortly following the book’s release, Joudah was asked how being a translator influences his own poetry. “I think it simply expands my syntactical and vocabulary meadow,” he replied. “It was an amazing editing experience, tonally speaking . . . Darwish changes his diction over these long poems (the selections spans 15 years) and also develops dialogue. Chorus becomes echo and scene. Voice becomes character.”
These shifting ideas of voice and register are also evolving in Joudah’s own work. His first collection, The Earth in the Attic (published as the winner of the 2007 Yale Series of Young Poets), is a feat of lyric verse that marks the arrival of Joudah’s singular voice: spare and full of white space, these poems concern everyday people living in the everyday world—which for Joudah is charged with politics, identity, exile, loss, and war. “The Bedouin Poem,” below, which will appear in his forthcoming collection, Alight, takes up this same constellation of issues but feels like a departure. The single voice has fractured. Whether the voices of the characters—a Bedouin with his family in Texas—bleed into the poem and jostle for attention, or the poet himself has become slyer and more allusive, readers get to see Joudah’s keen narrative instinct at play.
The Bedouin Poem
“The moon, in its Islamic shape, looked down.” T. Roethke
A fish in the tank, you say, is better than ten at sea, but it simply
ate all the other fishes in the tank, grew huge and ugly, and when
looked up on the Net, it turned out edible, a delicacy, in fact, in
some true marine community.
A step-dad, the Bedouin man put on a pair of flowery kitchen-sink
gloves, his wife and her children cheered his fearful hands.
The fish plopped out to hardwood floor sound-effect on a Texas
farm, or maybe it was carpet. Grilled and a memory, all who were
in the room wolfed it, except the daughter who was startled out of
sleep unto the scene, and the grandmother “who wore her lavender
mourning and touring veil like a Mohammedan.”
Later, the wife and children wanted a dog. To convince the
Bedouin they told him the puppy of litter and giveaways they
had found was instead one abandoned in a cemetery on burial
day, where an old bereft woman was kneeling “in her Sunday
black dress, and touching the ground with her forehead like a
Mohammedan.” Now, in love, the Bedouin naps on the floor with
the puppy by his armpit.
In his mother’s house there was room for anyone at the last supper.
Such is time, a hound or a pit-bull, what names may bring. The dog
never barks at a soul in town whom the dead mother knew, loved
A Palestinian-American born in Texas and raised in Libya and Saudi Arabia, Fady Joudah is now an doctor at a veteran’s hospital in Houston and a field member of Doctors Without Borders. He has also translated Darwish’s The Butterfly’s Burden and Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan’s Like a Straw Bird it Follows Me. Joudah’s next collection, Alight, is forthcoming this spring from Copper Canyon Press.