Reviewed by Donna Spruijt-Metz
Philip Metre’s fourth full length book of poetry, Shrapnel Maps (Copper Canyon Press, 2020) is an epic, beautifully crafted, deeply felt book of poems in 10 sections. A Concordance of Leaves (section II) and Returning to Jaffa (section VIII) were published earlier as chapbooks (Diode Editions)
In Shrapnel Maps, Metres interrogates the Palestine-Israel dilemma. The speaker starts by introducing his relationship, as a Catholic Lebanese American, with his neighbors in his predominantly orthodox Jewish neighborhood in University Heights, Ohio. He does this through three poems and an erasure. The poems are entitled One Tree, then Two Neighbors, and then Three Books. Here is a line from the first poem of the first section, which tells of a conflict over a tree between his wife, who loves the tree, and the next-door neighbors, who want it cut down because it blocks the light.
same story: two people, one tree, not enough land or light or love.
The poem sets the scene for the entire book.
In section II, he widens his lens as he chronicles his first visit to Palestine to attend his sister’s wedding. This is a compassionate narrative in single twenty-nine-page poem, separated into 1-2- page sections that are comprised of 1-2- line stanzas, with each stanza separated by either an open or closed parenthesis. The recurrent partial parentheses amplify the themes of division and boundary crossings. Each poem has the same Arabic title, ‘warak’, which means ‘leaf.’ Everything about Palestine is new to him. After his arrival, he is stuck in a taxi for hours, in traffic and then lost trying to find the small village of his destination. He really needs to go to the bathroom. He asks the taxi driver if he can stop somewhere, meaning somewhere with a bathroom, and the taxi driver laughs – this isn’t a friendly place. Tells him he will have to pee at the side of the road or not at all. He finally can’t take it, and in the midst of barbed wire and possible snipers, he tells us
[…] / I bouldered hillside
until barbed wire & unknown tower
& pissed, half in ecstasy, half in terror
a sniper’s bullet would chauffer me
from this place—pants undone, penis in hand—
Metres is a keen observer, yet he regards the world lightly – without immediate judgement – and writes down what he sees and experiences in profound, condensed utterances. He seems to effortlessly navigate these lands—and ideas—that are rife with mines and snipers and Uzis. He says
If Wadi al-Nar is the Valley of Fire
If we must travel beneath the level of our eventual grave
If we arrive & they ask us how are you, we are to say Thank God.
In the ensuing sections, Metres’ lens zooms out to examine ever larger relationships–the Israeli state and the Palestinian refugees, Jewish and Arab literature, Zionism and the Nakba, one woman’s return to what had once been her home in Jaffa. Voices of Jews, Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs–all get a chance to speak here. Everything is in juxtaposition. In Section IV, Theatre of Operations, each poem is in the voice of a different personage–and the juxtaposition is stark and powerful. For instance, poem 5) Yael, opens with:
in the Bible there’s no West Bank no Green Line no
Occupied Territory / just where the forefathers
lived & we want to live & pray […]
and later in the same poem
someone will want always to kill us / to erase
us again & now we say we will not let them
And then in poem 7) Salim is given a voice:
To lift my arms as if in praise / when they strap it beneath
my shirt, to feel the ice-cold shell / against my chest, it is promised
hatching into blood-heat. To imagine myself already
dead, yet buoy in the wash / of capillaries pulsing like web,
every strand tensile, agleam. To tread the streets now paved
over my father’s house & to be held / up at the checkpoint
between my village & what is left / of our groves of lemon
In Shrapnel Maps, Metres models a certain kind of engagement. In a recent interview, Metres remarked that he doesn’t claim neutrality–rather, he is trying to engage in a radical project of listening and paying attention to the ways in which we hear and can’t hear the realities of other people. Often, things are framed so that ‘we’ are included and ‘the other’ is left out. How easy it is to see our own suffering. How hard it is to see the suffering of others.
Section VI. Unto a Land I Will Show Thee is once again, like the first section of the book, set in University Heights, where Metres lives with his family. But now the reader knows more. The second poem in the section, entitled [ ], opens with
In the Heights, we calculate the statistical risk of greeting strangers,
memorize geometry of eyes. Study arabesques in concrete sidewalk
slabs as we draw closer to or further from templates on opposite ends
of our town: Catholic and Jewish, Greet the stranger gingerly, as if
our words could bruise or batter.
and then closes with:
Assonance of Sabbaths
side by side, we scan the prosodies of hemline and headgear, imagery
of unveiled front room windows, stanzas where we display the wares
of our faith, as if on sale, hoping our enormous gods will notice, lean
down, and scoop us up.
Metres is economical and yet lyrical—his gaze never leaving the possibility of dialogue. Towards the end of the book is the poem My Heart Like a Nation, which is dedicated to Yehuda Amichai, one of the great Israeli poets. Here, Metres writes with such clarity:
did what we had to do,
you wrote, which in translation
Yehuda, I want your clarity—
to love you, not close the gates
of my heart like a nation
trying to make itself a home
but winding up with a state.
Throughout this book, Metres brackets, reframes, is constantly aware of what gets included and what gets left out. He knows that he may not be entirely neutral, as an Arab-American, but he is radically listening across the boundaries of self and other. It should be said that I am a Jew. So, for the duration of Shrapnel Maps I am, in a way, ‘the other.’ Reading the book for first time, I felt invited into a place where the emphasis was on finding our shared humanity, rather than on all that separates us. This virtuosic book opens new channels for radical listening, for dialogue between us. Count me in.
Donna Spruijt-Metz is Professor of Psychology and Preventive Medicine at the University of Southern California, where she works to improve the health of underserved populations. Her first career was as a classical flutist. She lived in the Netherlands for 22 years and translates Dutch poetry to English. Her poetry and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in venues such as the Los Angeles Review, Copper Nickel, RHINO, The Cortland Review, and Poetry Northwest. Her chapbook, Slippery Surfaces was published by Finishing Line Press in 2019. You can find her at www.donnasmetz.com
Philip Metres is the author of six poetry collections: Shrapnel Maps (Copper Canyon, 2020), Pictures at an Exhibition (University of Akron Press, 2016); Sand Opera (Alice James Books, 2015); Returning to Jaffa (Diode Editions 2018) A Concordance of Leaves (Diode Editions, 2013), winner of the 2014 Arab American Book Award; and To See the Earth (Cleveland State University Press, 2008). He has also translated the works of Russian poets Sergey Gandlevsky, Lev Rubinstein, and Arseny Tarkovsky. Metres is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Ohio Arts Council, and Watson Foundation, as well as the Cleveland Arts Prize. He teaches literature and creative writing at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio, where he lives.