By Carol Fadda كارول فضة
My conversation below with Philip Metres took place in June–July 2020, in the midst of the earlier months of the Covid pandemic. Rereading Shrapnel Maps while isolating at home, I reached out to Phil with a question about his fourth book of poems. This question turned into a two-month correspondence about writing, Arab identity, power, genealogy, and solidarity.
Little did we know that the excerpt of our conversation below would be published in the midst of Israel’s horrific and ongoing war on Gaza. As of the publication of this piece, over 14,500 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed by the Israeli military, and hundreds of thousands are injured and displaced in what is being widely acknowledged by scholars and human rights organizations as the genocidal annihilation of Palestinian lives. We grieve all the lives lost and call for Palestinian liberation and justice.
(Carol Fadda): Can you speak to the genesis and process of writing Shrapnel Maps? How would you describe the poetic impulse defining this book as a whole?
(Philip Metres): In the Afterword to Shrapnel Maps, I write that “Shrapnel Maps is my journey to clarify the question of belonging in a land with so many different names that to try to speak them all is to become crowded with history: Canaan. The Land of Israel. אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל. Palestine. فلسطين. The Holy Land. The Levant. The Middle East. The journey began at our family dinner table, questioning my sister in the late summer of 1993. She had just returned from Bir Zeit University in Ramallah, and burned with stories: settlers shooting at crowds, checkpoints, house demolitions, prison torture—a litany of atrocity, as if she’d been flung into an upside-down world behind a mirror. I wondered if she’d been brainwashed. It was the opposite of what I’d read in the newspapers. Her courage to stand in the truth of what she saw compelled me to look farther. Subsequent friendships with Palestinians and Jews corroborated, complicated, and added texture to her stories” (160).
But I’ve been puzzling over this question again after an interview with David Naimon for his podcast “Between the Covers.” He asked me the same question and I started to wonder when I first began hearing about Palestinians and Israelis. My father traveled to his parents’ homeland, Lebanon, in 1969, a year or so before I was born, but didn’t return for decades. From my birth, political instability, the Civil War from 1974 until 1990, and my father’s work in the U.S. Naval Reserve made it impossible for us to go. Even now, the U.S. government still has explicit travel restrictions on citizens traveling to Lebanon. When I finally was able to visit Lebanon in 2019, thanks to an invitation to give a talk at the American University at Beirut, I still had some fear about going—fears that turned out to be ludicrous—another internalization of Orientalism, really.
So though I don’t remember talking about the politics of the Middle East around our dinner table, it’s hard to imagine that it never came up. After all, the instability in Lebanon is intimately connected with the 1948 Nakba, the influx of Palestinian refugees, the development of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon, sectarian fighting, and Israel’s invasion in 1982. But again, either I’ve repressed memories of it, or I was too young to understand. All I have is a deep sadness around the very word Lebanon, a sense of some impossible longing between us and all that Lebanon meant (the Old Country, as we called it, which we recreated in food and stories).
My dad and his family made sure that we felt proud to be Lebanese, and since I look the part, my looks would have garnered a lot of attention at family events. It was embarrassing for me, but when I went to Lebanon and saw so many kindred faces, I felt a feeling I cannot explain, such a sense of belonging that I kept wanting to tell people about when I “went back” to Lebanon, though I’d never been there.
My family wouldn’t have even used the term Arab until the past couple of decades, which, as you know, has a whole sectarian backstory. (The other day, my Lebanese neighbor, who was walking by, stared at my tee shirt with Darwish’s line, “Record: I am an Arab,” and said, “no, you’re not! You’re Phoenician!”) The sense of division between Arab Christians and Arab Muslims would lead most Christians to summon another whole genealogy. At the same time, I heard plenty about the Jewish story and Israel—both in Catholic Mass, in my religious education (I read Hebrew Scripture in high school), and in my education around the Holocaust in particular.
When we were growing up, my sister and I frequently chose research projects related to the Arab world. I wonder now if it was a sort of ancestor hunger, a homeland longing. It’s what animates my new book project, Fugitive/Refuge (2024), tracing those journeys literally and in the imagination. It’s undoubtedly part of the reason my sister traveled to Ramallah to study Arabic.
Finally, there was the context of the Persian Gulf War, the first Iraq War, in 1991, after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. As I was in college, I began getting a political and history lesson in the Middle East, and the twin U.S. imperial strategic investments, oil and Israel. PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s decision to support Saddam Hussein turned out to be nightmarish for Palestinians throughout the Middle East, particularly in the Gulf, who were expelled for a second time. The failure of the U.S. anti-war movement, and the pathological media coverage of that war, haunted me for years, and became a key part of my dissertation in graduate school, which emerged as Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront, since 1941 (2007). Seeing the U.S. as an empire really began at that moment for me.
If there were a (single) poetic impulse behind Shrapnel Maps, it was to engage in a journey into a more embodied form of imagined understanding the lived experience of Palestinians and Israelis, of Arabs and Jews; around that set of intimacies gyre the related question of the ethics of neighbors, and the larger question of imperial projection, nation-building, and erasure. For me, Shrapnel Maps is neither a work of propaganda or deconstruction, but a quest to find a place where justice and peace might meet, where all the names and histories might also be recognized and held, and where others might encounter other others.
CF: These personal and familial genealogies that you carefully trace in thinking about the poetic impulse behind Shrapnel Maps is so interesting to me. I believe that we are inevitably shaped (intellectually, creatively, emotionally) by these genealogies and experiences and they cannot be separated from the questions and ideas that animate our work. My own experience involves a reverse trajectory or journey, so to speak, to the one you outline above. Born and raised in Lebanon, and having lived in Lebanon throughout the war and its aftermath, I arrived in the US for the first time in 2000 to pursue my PhD studies. It was so alienating and upsetting to be faced in the US with an extremely limited if not completely nonexistent knowledge of the Lebanese war, the Israeli invasions, Palestinian dispossession, US imperial interventions abroad, all of which punctuated every aspect of our everyday lives in the Arab world. The predominance of a central narrative in the US mainstream that celebrates Israel and demonizes Arabs or renders them invisible put me on a long-term trajectory in my scholarly work, for one, to trace and emphasize literary, cultural, and political counter-narratives that trouble the singularity of the US narrative about us. I think my investment is ultimately one that not only asserts (or reasserts) a presence that was previously erased or sidelined in the US imaginary, but one that exposes and lays bare power inequities that center certain perspectives and narratives and not others. Which means that this is a project about knowledge construction, emphasizing how knowledge is produced, how certain knowledges become “mainstream” while others are sidelined or marginalized.
Why is it important for you to place these varying cartographies and positionalities in conversation with each other within the context of the Shrapnel Maps and the broader genealogy of your work? What do you think is gained through such a curatorial assemblage, and what might be lost?
PM: I’m grateful for your reflection, about the importance of laying bare power inequities that center certain perspectives, rather than being interested in, say, dialogue between sides that clearly have different access to power.
I’ve been passionate about and have worked for peace, justice, and human rights for Palestinians for many years. That has taken many forms over the years—from early conscientization and activism in groups like the Committee for Peace in the Middle East at Indiana University during the 1990s, where I befriended a number of Palestinians and worked on raising awareness about such policies as house demolitions (a practice of collective punishment by the state of Israel), through my work advocating for and bringing Palestinian writers to my university. In 1998, I published a story in the Bloomington Independent about two Palestinian friends, fellow graduate students. The first thing I learned was that neither felt safe using their actual names in the story. The second thing I learned was that even the fact that these two students, who had overcome so much just to receive their education in Palestine, were able to come to IU required advocacy by their faculty sponsors. Finally, and this is what really stuck with me, was that, after reading the story, one of the students told me, quite literally, to “write me out” of the story. Too many of the details would endanger the lives of other Palestinians who found themselves in the same predicament, living without permits in caves in the West Bank while attending Birzeit University. This student, from Gaza, recalled the journey he would take to study in the West Bank. He had to travel to two other countries—Egypt and Syria—just to make it to the university. And that was before the complete imprisoning of Gaza a decade later. He said,
It was very unsafe to live there [near Birzeit University]. When I think about it now, I can’t imagine how I lived through it. In the first year, I lived in an ancient house set in a cliff; there was fungus everywhere. We lived there because it was far from the town and if Israeli soldiers came, they might not find us and throw us in prison. We lived in the mountains, never put lights on. It was miserable. Many Gaza students wanted to rent this place. We cooked with these tiny stoves, and smoke would cover everything…. Once, the Israeli soldiers arrested all the students—American, Israeli, Palestinian—and in prison separated the Gaza students. Even now, it is not safe for Gaza students to live in the West Bank.
In order to publish the piece, I had to bury his story as an anecdote inside of the other student’s narrative, who had more privilege because she was from Bethlehem. I carried that with me for a long, long time. I wrote about it in my poem, “Letter to My Sister,” published in To See the Earth.
Katherine, when you came back
to our oak and maple suburb,
unreal, occupied, you caressed an olive tree
pendant, talked of ancestral homes
bulldozed for settler roads, olive groves
torn from the ground, your Palestinian love
unable to leave, his passport denied
at the airport. He’d never tell what he did
to be detained, words that could be taken
against your will. Instead, he gave you
this olive tree to hang around your neck,
said a country is more important
than one person. I don’t know.
I’ve read emails of the new torture—
an overhead projector behind a prisoner,
turned on, until he feels his head
will catch fire. Last week, over baklava
and tea, rain pounding the door,
“Ashraf” spoke of barbed wire, boycotts
and curfews—how his dozen siblings split
into sides. Israeli soldiers
hurt you, and we wanted them to hurt.
We couldn’t imagine any other way.
I wrote his story down. We met
again. He said I still didn’t understand.
He said, write me out, keep only
the general outline, not how I slipped
through checkpoints or where I hid
when they came for us. What I wrote or said,
each revealing detail, could spell
someone’s end. When the story appeared
in the Voice, he only ghosted its margins, shadow
to a place not fully his. But there’s no story
without particulars. What resistance could live
on the stale bread of statistics, the drought
of broken accords? It almost requires
bloodstained walls of a mosque,
prostrate backs shot through—a visible sign
of an invisible disgrace. Today, I open
the newspaper, try to peer between the grain
of a photo: a staggering crowd, arms entwined
and straining, as if to hold something back.
It could be us, facing a danger constantly
off-screen. No, we were born here.
On the stove, potatoes boil.
NPR segues labor strike
and missile strike with witty violin.
Twilight, I’m looking out the window,
trying to strike a few words
into flame. The dark lowers its wet sack,
then hoods the whole house. Outside,
something is falling. I strain to see it
past the glare of the kitchen light.
I wish I could share with you the look of fear on his face when he imagined how this story could do harm to himself and others. There is a degree of pain and trauma for Palestinians—and even more so for Gazans—that I will never totally understand.
At the same time, I would sometimes grow weary of the narrowing victimology that tends to accrue around the dominant narratives of Palestine. This is a typical trap of American progressive activism—that it centers the activist, creates noble victims of the other, and misses so much reality and possibility. I also found myself aware of the need to address Jewish audiences about what was happening in Israel and Palestine. There were times when I would use Israeli human rights sources like B’Tselem rather than Palestinian ones like al-Haq, because I sensed that Palestinian sources would not be believed. I’m still ashamed.
Traveling to my sister’s wedding in Palestine in 2003, friendships with Palestinians, and the many books, films, and news that I absorbed—all these enabled me to see the textures of lives that could not be reduced to victimhood—or resistance, for that matter. After all the dominant narratives of Palestinians and Israelis emerge from a complex of individual, collective, and political stories, and so much humanity is lost.
As an artist, I want to abide with people and stories in ways that widened my wonder for Palestinian persistence and vitality in particular, alongside the more familiarly grinding depictions of the impossibility of Palestinian life, alongside understanding the fiercely obdurate self-protectiveness and pride of Jews and Israelis. I want to put these voices in dialogue on the page, perhaps because in life there is so much that conspires to separate them—not only national identity (history, politics, culture, and language), but also the machinery of occupation—literal borders, walls, and fences. The biggest walls begin in the psyche, or extend through the psyche via systems of power and separation—what Jeff Halper, the American Israeli who founded the Israeli Coalition Against House Demolition, calls “the Matrix of Control.”
The danger, of course, is that people judge that 1) I have effaced the extreme power imbalance between Israel and Palestinians (which is astonishingly wide, more than people might think); 2) I am engaging in a project of reconciliation, and therefore a kind of normalization of relations, when so much injustice and human rights violation persist; or 3) I have engaged in my own kind of erasure of Palestinians. A Jewish nationalist reader might judge that I have created a moral equivalency, or that I’ve held Israel to an unfair standard, or that I’ve not adequately represented the complexity of Jewish life in Israel. It’s up to the reader to decide whether I have succeeded in addressing the systemic power differential, the questions of representation and erasure, etc. I hope that my resource to lyrical and documentary methods opens the work in both directions, toward proximity to the human predicament as well as a view of the systems at work that oppress, divide, and cause violence. I’d be curious to hear what you think.
CF: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about issues of neutrality, objectivity, bias, and how they get discussed and perceived, especially in artistic and literary works. I recently was reading with my students Joe Sacco’s introduction to his book Journalism, where he questions the emphasis in US journalism on neutrality and balance. Sacco reflects on his own selections in his comics journalism, stating that he opts in his works to side with and highlight the experiences of those with less power and whose stories are less well known. He agrees with British journalist Robert Fisk, who says: “I always say that reporters should be neutral and unbiased on the side of those who suffer.” Now of course the poetic medium is different, but I’m very interested in thinking about such stances in relation to creative, scholarly, and pedagogical choices: what texts we select to teach in a course, even what kinds of courses we offer as professors, or what we decide to analyze in our scholarly work, what books do we review, whose voices do we highlight, how/whom do we mentor, and in the case of creative work, how do we curate different voices and positionalities on the page. I think of these choices as political choices, ones that acknowledge and attend to power inequities.
I definitely see the importance of producing complex narratives that emphasize multiple points of view, and wanted to follow up on your comment about how readers might engage with your work, specifically Shrapnel Maps. I guess the first part of the question is whether you have a certain readership in mind when you write. Whom do you envision your readers to be? Also, as you point out above, you cannot control readers’ assessment of whether the poems “succeed in addressing the systemic power differential, the questions of representation and erasure” etc. With that in mind, and given the current political moment, with more annexations of Palestinian land in process, and the power differentials between Israelis and Palestinians becoming more and more visible, I’m wondering how you would respond or engage with readers who might have some of the concerns you outline above? Do you think the writer has a responsibility to address readers’ and critics’ input and analysis?
PM: I suppose my first reader is always myself, as I try to come to some kind of understanding, or to mark what I don’t or cannot understand. Then, the next readers are those who are close to me by reason of friendship, human and poetic. By the time Shrapnel Maps came out, I wanted to hold close to me readers as varied as Palestinian friends and Jewish friends, who are often posed as opposite sides of a boundary line both ideological and geographical. I wanted to imagine my friends who were descendants of the Nakba and the Shoah, reading this together, in their own spaces, in their own realities. I wanted, also, and crucially, to write a book for a reader who might not know a thing about Palestine or Israel, or whose knowledge was incomplete enough that they might be able to traverse the book and not fall into utter confusion—that it would include them in some way.
In some respects, I think I’ve been thinking about Jewish readers in particular. Palestinians, after all, are born into an inescapable knowledge that comes with dispossession and exile. Fady Joudah told me he didn’t think Shrapnel Maps was for him. I think that’s a fair judgment. At the same time, it wouldn’t exist without him and his friendship, and the friendship many others: Naomi Shihab Nye, Deema Shehabi, Randa Jarrar, George Abraham, Zaina Alsous, and people who are not in the literary world, who nonetheless shared their lives with me. Nahida Halaby Gordon, who admitted not really liking poetry, loved the fact that I worked with her story and materials in “Returning to Jaffa.” Mosab Abu Toha, likewise, read “When It Rains in Gaza,” and pronounced, “you are a Gazan,” a compliment that was far beyond what I could have hoped for.
On the other side of the wall, unwavering Jewish support for Israel has been a key component to the status quo in U.S. foreign policy. The combination of political realpolitik and the Israel lobby—bolstered by Jewish and Christian Zionists—has led to a near-unanimity in congressional voting on all matters concerning Israel and Palestine, entirely leaving Palestinians out of the equation. The response from Jewish readers of Shrapnel Maps has been noteworthy. One Jewish reader and high school teacher told me that “We have to get people in the same room and willing to stay there. There you go; my dime's worth. I'm in, Phil. My heart and head hate what my other country (Israel) is doing. But my heart and head also cannot push away my protective nature and at least some understanding of what it is to live in Israel every day. So I'm paralyzed and that's no good because then the status quo wins and the status quo is not acceptable to me.” An Israeli wrote to me, after hearing my interview on “Between the Covers,” “I am filled with so many things to say. First please allow me to commend you on your courage in the project. When I reached the place in your interview where you were brought to tears and you made the statement that only through holding both narratives with respect can we hope that others will also do so and a true peace can be achieved, I literally lost my breath. Those are the words I have been trying to find for so long.” These are the kinds of utterances that give me hope for change. Maybe it’s foolishness. I’m sure that some people will judge this project as appropriative, taking up space that one should spend listening to Palestinians. But Palestinians and Israelis, Arabs and Jews—they are all my kin.
I think it would be impossible to read Shrapnel Maps as anything but an indictment of what has happened, and continues to happen, to Palestinians—and that responsibility for what has happened is something that Israel needs to bear. While Israel should bear its part, it should be in the context of responsibility-bearing that has both regional and international dimensions. Arab states that never granted Palestinians full citizenship, and ones that evicted Jews—they, too, bear responsibility, as does Britain and the U.S., for their imperial muscling.
Ultimately, I believe that poetry can contribute to social change, and I would hope that Shrapnel Maps would be part of a wave of social, spiritual, and political transformation. Personally, I would hope that Americans see that any U.S. aid to Israel would be contingent on restoring human rights to Palestinians, and that would include answering the long ignored question of sovereignty. I don’t have precise contours of what the restoration of Palestinian rights and justice looks like, because that is up to Palestinians. But calling for a single, democratic state—given that the two-state solution seems to be an impossibility at this point—seems rational, even if it’s still unthinkable for most Jewish nationalists, those invested in Israel as primarily and finally a Jewish state. Peter Beinart’s piece in The New York Times in July 2020 represents a possible sea change in the conversation within Zionism about Israel’s future and its relationship to the Palestinians that it rules. So in many respects, my hope is that Shrapnel Maps shows a path toward creating a space where the dignity, rights, and future of Palestinians and Israelis would be possible.
I recall what William Stafford said, at some point: I’m not interested in being right. I’m interested in doing good. What I think he means is that, at times, it’s easier to point out the wrongs of others, but much harder to step into injustice and violence and try to change those structures. We cannot shame people into change. That work, the work of changing hearts, is longer and harder. I believe that’s my work. In the end, my heart quails at revolutionary blood-letting. I know that’s my privilege talking, and I understand that it’s easier for me to say that than it is for a young man in Gaza or Jenin or someone who’s a refugee who has been expelled entirely from Palestine to say that. But I’m interested in finding ways of outlasting our own fear and vengeance to find the space where people can belong to place and to each other.
CF: What is the role of documentary poetics in Shrapnel Maps and how does it differ from your preceding work, including Sand Opera, for one?
PM: I’d be interested in hearing the differences for you as a critic and reader!
CF: In my readings of both Sand Opera and Shrapnel Maps, I found myself turning again and again to the Afterword of each of the two books, carefully following and appreciating the context and background information you provide there for the poems in these books. You reference the sources for the found material included in the poems, the historical documentation, speeches, maps, and other archival materials. I think these contexts are crucial for reading the poems and rooting the voices and experiences we encounter in them in material histories and realities, which are never neutral or impartial. I’m left wondering what happens if the reader does not have access to that information and those contexts. Should we think of those contexts as part and parcel of the poem? Should/could the poem stand alone without knowing for instance what documents the poetics are drawing from? When I teach Sand Opera, I always turn the students’ attention to the Afterword and assign complementary readings that provide some context for the torture carried out by the US military at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, the events of 9/11 and its aftermath, and the “War on Terror” in general. But the question remains: how much should we emphasize those contexts and to what extent does that take away from the poems? In other words, are the original testimonials at the heart of the “echo/ex” poems in Sand Opera, or the maps that frame the poems in Shrapnel Maps’ “Unto a Land I will Show Thee” section, part and parcel of these poems? Is it absolutely necessary to know the origins and contexts of the original documents in order to see how they are poetically repurposed, so to speak? What I find interesting about Shrapnel Maps, especially the “Theater of Operations” section, is that your use of documentary poetics in it is coupled with fictive monologues by Palestinians and Israelis “dramatizing,” as you write in the Afterword, “a fictional suicide bombing.” How important is it for you that your readers know that these poems are a mix of fiction and archival documents on the one hand, while the “echo/ex” poems in Sand Opera on the other hand to the most part draw on actual testimonials and other documents?
PM: As Edward Said has argued, I believe that text and context are inextricable. The fiction that they can be separated is a Western literary one; the New Critical paradigm, that a text could be read in some sort of a vacuum, was a response to criticism that swarm and drown the text entirely. But it also began to look suspiciously like a kind of ahistorical reading practice, a privileged (but ignorant) reading strategy, where race, class, gender, sex, and history could not play a role. The objective correlative of a settler colonial aesthetic practice. However, just because context is crucial, context should not be read in a deterministic way, robbing both author and reader of choice and chance.
Despite the fact that I was born here, I despaired at the willed and taught ignorance of fellow citizens of this country. It’s true that my poems require learning, not learnedness, for most Americans. Because the truth of our country has been willfully hidden from us, or we have turned away—and sometimes both. I remember, with winces, how often I was told in graduate school that my poems were didactic. What that meant, in part, is that I challenged my reader to learn something that they didn’t know, or saw the space of a poem as a place where knowledge could be dropped.
Still, I would want readers of my work, first and foremost, to have an experience of the work. In the end, that’s what art can do most effectively, even immortally. To immerse us in an experience so fully, that we are changed by it. Knowledge comes so much more easily out of experience and the questions that those experiences induce. To me, that is the order of things when it comes to art.
But it’s an art that requires something of us. Not mere aesthetic appreciation, but also ethical engagement. I’m not sure it’s possible to read the testimonies of Iraqi prisoners, or a Palestinian refugee, and not be gutted on some level, and not want to know why it happened, and how it could be redressed or repaired. It’s not possible for me, anyway. I suppose that, though I’m passionate about the transformative possibilities of art, I also see that my work involves a wounding. What I mean by that relates to theories of trauma. It’s a cliché in psychological circles, regarding an individual’s trauma, that what one doesn’t transform, one transmits. The implication is that the work of each person is to transform that trauma so they don’t simply pass it on to the next generation, creating a chain of intergenerational trauma that never allows a society to heal. I think of the words of IRA volunteer and hunger striker Bobby Sands: “our revenge will be the laughter of our children.” Can you imagine a more beautiful revolutionary statement? But in a lot of my work, particularly in the arias of Sand Opera and in the broken sonnets of Shrapnel Maps, the trauma is not transformed. I am wounded. The reader is wounded. Because there is no beauty and no redemption in that scandalous social sin, the sin of torture, the sin of oppression, the sin of violence. To try to redeem that suffering via art is to lie. And yet, the irony is that for those who have endured that suffering, it looks like healing. It looks like being seen. I’m recalling how an Arab scholar reached out to me after reading Sand Opera. I thanked her for writing about it, so that the voices of Iraqis who were tortured at Abu Ghraib could be heard. She shared that she was Iraqi, and I then apologized for what my country had done to hers.
This was her response:
Dear Professor Metres, you needn’t apologize for a crime you are not responsible for. We are all victims of abhorrent policies and false propagandas. A relative of mine passed away six months after he was set free from Abu Ghraib camp. He was a very talented and respectable University Professor, but something changed in him. I could see the pain in his eyes, though he kept silent all the time until his death. Your book enabled me to understand his internal conflict. I realized after reading your book that the trauma of torture and of his humanity and manhood, which had been raped, haunted him until he passed away. Thanks for your book, which has spoken the unspeakable.
I still can’t believe that my poems made it to her, and that those poems might help her own process of grief was more than I could ever imagine when I wrote them.
I’ve been thinking about your question about the fictional suicide bombing of “Theater of Operations” for a few days. No one has yet asked me about my decision to make the bombing fictional. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more at peace I am with it. It’s the only part of Shrapnel Maps that is fictionalized. It’s true that many lines in “Theater” are adapted from documents, interviews, and news stories. Take, for example, the unforgettable story of Ismail and Abla Khatib:
Ismail & Abla to Ahmed, their son
your body full / of fragments / harrowed was thy brain
spilled over your clothes / you / already not
of this world / in the shadow of our difficult / we plant
your heart inside / a teenaged girl you will
never touch / liver we bury / in a baby you will
never raise / elderly you’ll never be / kidneys
we resettle in alien skin / your lungs now breathe
for two who could not breathe without you
we know your toy gun looked / death
in the eye but why / did they have to shoot you
twice / & now inside “the enemy” you rise
behind the lines of inside / you live
& see for yourself what none of us can see
ourselves / ourselves from the outside
Stories of children getting shot by security are all too common; in my own city, 14-year-old Tamir Rice was gunned down by police in 2014 for holding a toy gun. But an actual Palestinian couple decided to donate their son’s organs to an Israeli hospital. These and other stories come directly from news reports that I’d read in the past twenty years. One could not make up such a story—it’s more unbelievable than fiction. Their reasons for donating his organs were not some kind of Christian forgiveness, interestingly enough. They were an astonishing act of insistence on their own humanity, and, even more poignantly, an attempt to reach inside the hard hearts of those who see them as less than human.
Ultimately, the pain of a suicide bombing, and the ethics of representing an actual bombing, were too massive for me to feel as if I could do it justice. The people—all of the people—whose lives are ripped apart: if one were to do this in a fashion that would honor the victims, it would require a nearly-impossible task of abiding with them, and working with them, to make sure that they felt that the poems did justice to their loss. I don’t want to appropriate or aestheticize actual human tragedy, even though I see these bombings as fundamentally tragic. I can’t get to the place that Frantz Fanon wound up in Wretched of the Earth, calling anticolonial violence an assertion of humanity for the colonized person. It’s an eye-opening claim, one that many Palestinians have embraced, along with other colonized peoples. But anticolonial struggles often become so perverse in terms of violence that, even if the colonized rise up and end up replacing the colonizer in a war of revolutionary liberation, the new boss is sometimes no better than the old one. Look at Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, or the mullahs in Iran, or any number of other examples. My understanding is the Palestinian militant organizations ultimately saw that the tactic of suicide bombing—itself a sort of outrageous act of last resort—was defeatist.
So yes, fictionalizing such a bombing offers the work a slight bubble, to say that this could have happened, and has happened, and can we encounter that tragedy in the imagination?
CF: The “A Concordance of Leaves” section in Shrapnel Maps includes several poems with the title waraq in Arabic. This word has multiple meanings: it can mean leaves (as in the section title), paper, documents, depending on the context in which it’s used. A couple of other poems in this section also include translations and transliterations of Arabic words, and another poem is titled “Zeitoun” (olives). Can you speak about your use of Arabic in these poems and the role of language generally in your work? How are the tensions of translation mapped across this section or the work as a whole?
PM: Translation is something that has been at the heart of my poetry practice. When I was living in Russia and studying Russian poetry in the early 1990s and could no longer put together words that made enough truth or beauty of the chaos of the life I witnessed around me, I sank my literary efforts into raising the voices of Russian poets, translating them into English. It has yielded four books of poetry in translation, work that I’m grateful exists in the Anglophone world. I thought for a time about focusing entirely on Russian studies, but decided that I had work to do in my own culture. I always loved the fact that the word translation is rooted in the notion of “bearing across,” and the work of bringing one language-reality into another has weight that is both aesthetic and ethical in nature. I also noticed that, once the Soviet Union fell, the energy behind promoting dissident writers from Russia evaporated. Translation, after all, was mobilized as a Cold War strategy against our enemy. And that’s part of the reason why I wound up in English literature studies.
Translation is always political, of course, and translating into English has to bear the weight of bringing something into the culture of the empire. When translating, are we erasing the particularities of the original, making commodities of exotic others, or are we making a cultural intervention, attempting to change Anglo-American literature, culture, and politics? One hopes that our translations perform the work of cultural change. But there is no guarantee, and we are implicated in systems that are larger than our intentions.
Shrapnel Maps is thinking about translation, though it’s not really a work of translation. I chose the title “A Concordance of Leaves” because “concordance” contains multiple meanings that rhyme with the text—agreement, union, an index, etc. The “leaves” are not just the pages themselves, but also the various flora woven throughout the poem, as well as the problematics of exile, which haunt Palestinian life. I love the fact that “waraqa” works similarly in Arabic. In Concordance,” the Arabic elements began from a very literal source: I was keeping a journal of Arabic words and phrases when I visited Palestine in 2003, trying to find ways of communing with this new part of our family, thanks to my sister’s wedding.
The first versions contained only my transliterations, but then I added the Arabic, thanks to some consulting with fluent friends (Fady Joudah, mostly). The transliterated pronunciations, not surprisingly, reflected the Palestinian and Levantine accents local to that region. After one edition, I added the Arabic original. Much to my horror, in one publication, the Arabic was rendered backward—a typical error of pasting in Microsoft Word. I began to be fascinated by the obstacle of Arabic for an English speaking reader, so I added the titles in Arabic, without translation. I recently interviewed Mosab Abu Toha, the Palestinian writer from Gaza who founded the Edward Said library there, and asked him about writing in English, the language of the empire that contributed to his displacement. He wrote:
It is true that I feel strange finding myself writing poetry in English. I first started to share my thoughts and creative writing in English on my Facebook page, especially during and after the 2014 aggression. I felt it necessary to address the English-speaking world. Not necessarily the governments but the people who stand in solidarity with our just cause, and who are doing their best to affect their governments. When I write in English, I feel like being free from the confinements of my existence in Gaza, even if briefly. We are trapped in Gaza, we are attacked from time to time by Israel, and we experience the ramifications of the political rift between Hamas and Fatah since 2007, Fatah being the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. It is still ironic that I feel more free in English when it is the language of the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the notorious declaration that promised the mainly Arab-populated Palestine to Jewish immigrants, and the declaration why I find myself unsafe in my home with my kids and wife, why I find myself sometimes writing about melancholy dreams and thoughts.
Though as a whole, Shrapnel Maps is a text of invitation, I wanted to create moments that would beguile and confound an English-speaking reader. Arabic language functions as a rupture in the English reader’s experience of the text, which feels appropriate. The text, on some small level, replicates the estrangement one feels in a new or strange place.
Other poets, of course, have been experimenting even more wildly in bilingual poetry. I’m thinking of the transliterations of Suheir Hammad’s breaking poems and, even more elaborately, Zeina Hashem Beck’s recent work. These poets are creating work that defies the conventions of both English and Arabic poetry, imagining and instantiating a language-world that they already live and participate in. It’s a world in which I wish I could be totally at home.
Overall, Shrapnel Maps constantly employs the trope of translation. Not only in the use of Arabic in “Concordance,” but also in the Google Translate hash of titles in “Unto I Land I Will Show Thee.” In that section, which moves between vignettes of encounters in my Orthodox neighborhood and ekphrastic renderings of old maps of the Holy Land, you get titles like, “Is most true and the most considerable of all for the entire Land of promise, from Dan even to Beersheba, a description of the” and, even more ludicrously, “Panel [board] concerning the country of Canaan, the natural Israel, Palestine, and the Jewish holy land called: was aforetime the Paradyse, full of good fruit, grain, wine, balsamic, oil, etc. But after the Emperors Vespasian, Titus, and Hadrian burned, and roughened, and destroyed it, it is a barren, miserable country, a oed wuest place, bit at the end of the world [Adam Reissner, Frankfurt aum Maim, 1563].”
Titles themselves began as inscriptions, as descriptions, of works that needed context. Translation, likewise, moves from literal renderings of other texts into contextualizing moves. I was fascinated by the fever of Western cartography, which is an attempt to master, to designate, and control spaces that defy its simplifications. The many European maps of “the Holy Land” that insisted on reading the Bible back onto that land—as if there could be no contemporary existence in those spaces—suggest a proto-Zionism that paved the way for the Jewish nationalist version that accelerated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But what I wanted to do in the poems is to trouble that clarity, to puncture holes in that airtight story. Here’s one of the poems:
Panel [board] concerning the country of Canaan, the natural Israel, Palestine,
and the Jewish holy land called: was aforetime the Paradyse, full of good fruit, grain,
wine, balsamic, oil, etc. But after the Emperors Vespasian, Titus, and Hadrian burned,
and roughened, and destroyed it, it is a barren, miserable country, a oed wuest place,
bit at the end of the world [Adam Reissner, Frankfurt aum Maim, 1563]
I cut and paste the title of the German map into Google
aforetime the Paradyse
trying to find its rightful name, as if calling something
by its rightful name, it might appear
Reissner’s map is 228 x 320 mm.
Or, to convert into inches: 9 x 12.5
A oed wuest place?
In Reissner’s map, Jerusalem is a topographic tabula rasa
onto which the Temple of Solomon, as written, hovers
A quest location?
A local question?
making way for a return
But what if translations mistake, convert, or erase
A oed wuest place
This poem, and its failed Google Translate language, helped me imagine a place that no language can finally master, in that strangely untranslated phrase, “a oed wuest place.” Not an odd waste place—which I later learn is the proper translation from Old German, but “a oed wuest place,” a place beyond the machinery of translation.
CF: What is the relationship between documentary poetics and the act of “radical listening” that you discuss elsewhere (Adroit Journal)?
PM: I talk about this a bit in The Sound of Listening, where I reflect on the attempt to “model the dialogical at the heart of vital political poetry—poems that include and amplify many voices but also enact a kind of listening” (6). To say that I’m trying to practice a poetic of radical listening is to imply that my work is, at least in part, an attempt to abide with otherness, to be proximate to different stories, to be occupied by them, and to be changed by them in the process of encountering them, imagining an architecture where they might all be held.
CF: I like this idea of being proximate to otherness and difference and at the same time be occupied and changed by them. That is important for it pushes the engagement beyond the tropes of humanizing the other, to center one’s own role in contributing to constructions and understandings of difference. The impulse for me is not to merely empathize with Others’ suffering because that brings with it the danger of reductive engagement and ultimately reasserts power hierarchies. The challenge is to get the reader to that place of proximity that is coupled with an investment in being changed and thus pursue radical shifts rather than in imparting empathy. But is it too much to tag all that onto poems? I don’t know. I know though that the pressures of highlighting unheard voices and unrepresented experiences falls on the shoulders of the artist of color, with of course the risk of their work being dismissed as “too political,” as propaganda. But the luxury of not engaging is not one that we can afford now, as Arab Americans, as people of color, living in a settler-colonial state. How do you contend with these pressures, expectations, and challenges as an Arab American poet, scholar, and professor?
PM: This predicament is something that I’ve been trying to work through in all of my books: how to engage the heart (empathy, etc.) and the mind (knowledge) of readers in a way that induces real change, not just dilation of empathy that makes the reader feel good about their tears and their widening heart. Solmaz Sharif has written elsewhere about her great distrust of the thing called empathy, empathy as an end point, and I agree with that. However, there are kinds of empathy—some empathy wounds the reader into action, or empowers the reader into examining and trying to change. Humanists sometimes tout empathy as some kind of civilizational cure-all, and it’s not. But it can change people. Look at Uncle Tom’s Cabin: it apparently changed a lot of people’s hearts about slavery in the United States. It may be bad, tear-jerking, sentimental literature, but it also rocked white people awake.
If poetry has often functioned on the level of lyric transformation—“you must change your life,” as Rilke has the state of Apollo admonishing us—it has also offered us wider ways of examining systems of oppression and our own implicatedness. That’s why I turned to so-called documentary poetry, as a way of exploring the systems that produce Abu Ghraib, that produce the expulsion of Jaffa, etc. That’s why looking at Standard Operating Procedure manuals alongside testimonies is crucial. That’s why considering maps of the “Holy Land” is as important as tracking the personal interactions between Arabs and Jews. They inflect each other. They are connected. A recent interviewer, Karthik Purushothaman noted that I wrote in Behind the Lines, “war-resistance poems that test the limits of lyric poetry—extending the lyric through use of narrative sequencing, collage, disjunctive techniques, dialogic structure, multiple voices, documentary sources, discursive heterogeneity—offer a re-visioning of the possibilities of poetry engaged with the political realm” (14). He called it the thesis statement of my career. In many respects, I think he’s right.
So how do I contend with these pressures, these responsibilities, as an Arab American poet and scholar? They are so stitched into my soul that they don’t feel like external pressures. They are already internal to who I am. When I was in graduate school, twenty years ago, I had to write an ars poetica, and I wrote that to be a writer from a marginalized community while writing in an empire was like carrying a heavy backpack, a backpack filled with history and politics and pain, that I couldn’t put down. I see now that this backpack is also filled with prayer beads and baklawa and icons and family stories and a lot of love—love that is resilient and durable and proud. So I won’t put it down, and I won’t hide it. I’m happy to carry it. For those who came before me, those who struggle now, and for those who come after me. It’s the least that I could do.
CF: Being both a writer and a teacher, do you think your investment in teaching your readers as you say “something that they didn’t know” shifts or changes in the space of the classroom? How does knowledge production within the classroom, given the immediate connection to students that teaching involves, compare to the way you envision your connection to readers?
PM: This is a very good question. In a lot of respects, Shrapnel Maps is also the fruit of teaching the course “Israeli and Palestinian Literatures” since 2006. That course employs a contrapuntal approach, as Edward Said discusses in Culture and Imperialism, requiring students to engage with the literature and narratives of both Israel and Palestine from various historical moments, moving back and forth, week by week, to enable a wider picture to emerge. What I discovered was that, in addition to the unaligned students, both Palestinian and Jewish students end up learning entirely new dimensions of this relationship, than they have when educated in their own communities. Much unlearning takes place—knowledge destruction as much as knowledge production. I’ve written about the course extensively elsewhere, including how the course was attacked by a member of the community, who ended up accusing me of anti-Semitism and preaching Jewish hatred. I hope that what I have shared with you thus far would allow you to come to the same conclusion that my Dean came to, which was that the course was rigorous, and intellectually and ethically honest.
But the course has changed over the years, as I became more and more aware of the flaw in my own method of teaching in counterpoint—that even to “teach the conflict” (to adapt Gerald Graff’s term) was to miss the power dimension at play. This is no contest among equals. And we have seen how scholars like Steven Salaita and Norman Finkelstein have lost academic jobs because of their work on Palestine. So the course has challenged me to become more challenging, to focus on justice as much as peace. I do want the course to be a journey for the student, as I want Shrapnel Maps to be a journey for the reader. At the end of every class, beginning in 2006, I would show photos and talk about my time in Palestine, to share a bit of what motivates me personally. As that time receded, I found myself longing to write something that might make it last beyond my own faulty memory of it.
The first long poem, “A Concordance of Leaves,” was born precisely out of that desire. My notes for that presentation, and my journals from that visit, were the raw materials. I shared my regret about my slowness of process to a former teacher, Catherine Bowman. Seven years had passed since that visit for the wedding. She told me that her Tarot reader had shared that the soul lags seven years behind the present. I felt so seen! That summer, when I looked at that file and started working on it again, this poem kept calling to me, and I kept answering. Once something like a form emerged, more and more sections, like iron filings, kept drawing to its magnetic north.
CF: There has been a wonderful increase in the number of poetry books by Arab American writers in the past few years, with many vibrant and strong new voices coming to the fore. Who do you think are some of the up and coming voices that are breaking new ground? How do you see their work shifting the landscape of Arab American literature?
PM: In 2008, I stated that Arab American poetry was undergoing a renaissance. I was mesmerized by this sudden gathering of incredible poets, as if drawn together by the four winds, who wound up in Hayan Charara’s anthology Inclined to Speak (University of Arkansas, 2008). But I stand by that assertion, and double down on it. It’s as if al-Mahjar, the Pen Group, of the early 20th century (Gibran, Rihani, et. al.) had skipped a century and given birth to us. And it’s true for American poetry in general—the writers of color are standing up and standing out in myriad ways. This phenomenon is, no doubt, connected to the building of community-centered institutions like Cave Canem, Kundiman, and RAWI (Radius of Arab American Writers) that help foster relationships and nurture younger writers. Adding to that, the Arab American National Museum and its Arab American Book Awards, as well as the ability to connect on social media and via group text regularly, has raised our visibility and enabled us to connect in safer spaces.
From our community, the elders, the living classics, are Lawrence Joseph, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Etel Adnan—distinct and distinctive in their aesthetic range. Of the middle generation, Khaled Mattawa, Fady Joudah, Suheir Hammad, Hayan Charara, Zeina Hashem Beck, Farid Matuk, Deema Shehabi, Mohja Kahf, Carolina Ebeid, Lena Khalaf Tuffaha. Of the younger generation, poets like Marwa Helal, Hala Alyan, Zaina Alsous, George Abraham, Safia Elhillo, Leila Chatti, Omar Sakr, Ahmad Almallah, Noor Hindi, Tariq Luthun, Andrea Abi-Karam, Jess Rizkallah, Peter Twal, and Jessica Abughattas, among others. These would be among my favorites. Every time I turn around, there’s another one, or whole bouquet, blooming up.
Of these poets, Palestinians are prominent and deserve special attention: Naomi, Fady, Suheir, Deema, Carolina, Lena, Hala, Zaina, George, Jessica. Some like Naomi and Fady, have done considerable translation, bringing many Palestinian poets into English. To counter the erasure of Palestinians, to let them breathe, we need to open spaces that have been foreclosed to them by the powerful—the ahlan wa sahlan where we are all family, and are all welcome home.
Philip Metres is the author of ten books, including Shrapnel Maps (Copper Canyon, 2020), The Sound of Listening: Poetry as Refuge and Resistance (University of Michigan, 2018), Pictures at an Exhibition (University of Akron, 2016), Sand Opera (Alice James, 2015), and I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky (Cleveland State, 2015). His work—poetry, translation, essays, fiction, criticism, and scholarship—has garnered fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ohio Arts Council, the Watson Foundation. He is the recipient of the Adrienne Rich Award, three Arab American Book Awards, the Lyric Poetry Prize, and the Cleveland Arts Prize. Metres has been called “one of the essential poets of our time,” whose work is “beautiful, powerful, magnetically original.” He is professor of English and director of the Peace, Justice, and Human Rights program at John Carroll University. He lives with his family in Cleveland, Ohio. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram
Carol W.N. Fadda كارول فضة grew up in Beirut, Lebanon where she earned her B.A. and M.A. from the American University of Beirut. She graduated from Purdue University with a Ph.D. in contemporary American Literature and is currently Associate Professor in the English Department at Syracuse University. Her research interests in Arab American Studies, critical race and ethnic studies, women’s and gender studies, and transnational and diaspora studies interrogate structures, logics, and manifestations of US empire, militarization, and exceptionalism that determine the lives of racialized communities across the US and the SWANA region. Her first book Contemporary Arab-American Literature: Transnational Reconfigurations of Citizenship and Belonging (NYU Press 2014) engages an array of Arab American literary and visual texts from the 1990s onwards that contest the conceived boundaries of the US nation-state and transform hegemonic forms of national membership and citizenship. She is the recipient of an NEH summer grant, a Future of Minority Studies Fellowship, and a Syracuse University Humanities Center Fellowship, and is the co-recipient of a Mellon Foundation grant. Her essays on gender, race, ethnicity, war trauma, cross-racial solidarities, and transnational belonging have appeared in a variety of journals and edited collections. She serves as the book series editor of the Critical Arab American Studies series, published by Syracuse University Press.