Writers at Rutgers: Ghassan Zaqtan (EXTRA CREDIT)


On Wednesday, February 26, 2014, Rutgers University held the first Writers at Rutgers reading of the new year at the New Brunswick campus student center. The writer that graced the university with his presence was Palestinian poet, Ghassan Zaqtan. Hailing from Palestine, Zaqtan uses his poetry to convey the accounts of life, rage and hope that he encounters everyday while living in a country faced with constant military conflict. Because he only recited his poems in Arabic, it was hard for me to grasp such accounts, although the energy and animation that he used while reading revealed a great sense of passion. Only after he read his poetry, when famous Palestinian-American poet, Fady Joudah, translated the poems, was I able to identify such accounts and why Zaqtan expressed them so passionately. Hearing the English translations of the poems made me appreciate the Arabic readings of them more, for the Arabic language is more expressive and elegant. After the readings, the audience asked both Zaqtan and Joudah a number of questions. Once all questions were answered, the event concluded.

Although I found poems such as “Glee” and “A Man in 1966” quite compelling, “Black Horses” was my favorite. I found the following stanzas particularly interesting:

and when I fall asleep

I find a horse grazing in my dreams

whenever I fall asleep

a horse comes to graze my dreams.

On my desk in Ramallah there are unfinished letters and photos of old friends,

a poetry manuscript of a young man from Gaza, a sand hourglass,

and poem beginnings that flap like wings in my head.

I want to memorize you like that song in elementary school

the one I carry whole without errors

with my lisp and tilted head and dissonance…

the little feet that stomp the concrete ground with fervor

the open hands that bang on desks…

In the beginning of the poem, the speaker refers to horses as ghosts, ghosts that come to life as the speaker views loss through his surroundings. With this in mind, it becomes clear that when the speaker sleeps, these ghosts appear in his dreams. They “graze,” meaning that they simply occupy such dreams for long periods of times, as a horse grazes fields all day (13,15). The first two lines of the following stanza describe the temporal nature of human life. The “unfinished letters” are unfinished, past tense, because they were not finished at the time they were written, they can never be finished (16). Who they were written by has changed and therefore the subject matter will not match up with what has already been written, making it impossible to finish it. The “photos of old friends” emphasize this further (16). Photographs capture a unique point in time and after it is taken, that instance can never be replicated. In the two lines that follow, the speaker switches from dwelling on the past to focusing on the present, ” a sand hour glass” and the present and possible future, “a poetry manuscript of a young man from Gaza” (17). It is interesting how the young poet is from Gaza, a region in which military conflict is commonplace; the young poet creates in the midst of destruction. The “poem beginnings that flap like wings in my head” refer to the speaker’s tendency of giving material objects life in an idealist space, like the ghosts that appear through the empirical and appear in the speaker’s dreams (18).

In the last stanza, the speaker fixates on a particular ghost and yearns for a clear memory of the person that it represents. It may occupy his or her dreams, but it is not a coherent representation of what once was. The speaker wants to remember this person, the same way he or she remembers a song from youth. The speaker calls for a concretization of the memory of the person “stomp the concrete floor,” “hands that bang on desks” (22, 23). All in all, the speaker seems to focus on the passing of time and how we as human beings fall victim to the changes that it induces. Although we would like to choose what we remember, we cannot.


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