Echo has no compass: we trace each other’s dermatomes
No ecstasy without betrayal: not all who live in flames are saints
Great art needs no nation: in memory country size is one
Great nations need great art: soliloquy a mother tongue
— from “Footnotes to a Song”
It was not until I sat down to write this review—in so much as I yet feel myself capable of calling my scribbled thoughts about poetry a review—that I realized I’m following a piece about Ghassan Zaqtan’s latest novella, Where the Bird Disappeared, with a look at the latest collection of poetry by Fady Joudah, Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance. I came to Joudah first as a translator of Zaqtan’s poetry so I was not unaware of the concurrence. But I am typically reading at least two books of poetry and two books of prose at any given time, so the crossover is never so obviously bound, thus it is only now that I’ve become aware that the titles of both books include a form of the verb to disappear. A timely happenstance. However, although it is impossible to underestimate the importance Ghassan Zaqtan’s influence on an entire generation of Arab poets, Joudah included, the experience offered by the latter’s work is distinctly his own.
Fady Joudah is a Palestinian-American poet, translator and physician living in Houston, Texas. If I was conscious of the fact that he is a doctor, I don’t think it really registered or made its presence known in scattered poems I’ve encountered in the past. But his medical profession and scientific curiosity comes through in his work, along with a love of art, literature and nature. So does the legacy of war, destruction and conflict in the Middle East, and the varieties of experience of exile. His poetic territory is wide; his passage through it is intimate and acutely observed. As poet Mary Szybist contends in her praise for this “intensely vulnerable book,” Joudah is:
forging a lyric that works at the crosscurrents of reportage, myth, and dream where false imagined boundaries—of gender, nation, family—fray and unfold, and there are possibilities other than ‘to go mad among the mad / or go it alone’. . . (his) gifts for articulating the intersections of bewilderment, tenderness, rage, and grief are fully alive here.
The physician’s attention is very much evident in the early poems in Footnotes. “Progress Notes,” for instance, opens with the poet’s assessment of his own asymmetrical visage:
My left eye is smaller than my right,
my big mouth shows my nice teeth perfectly
aligned like Muslims in prayer.
My lips an accordion. Each sneeze
a facial thumbprint. One corner
of my mouth hangs downward when I want
to hold a guffaw hostage. Bell’s palsy perhaps
or what Mark Twain said about steamboat piloting
that a doctor’s unable to look upon the blush
in a young beauty’s face without thinking
it could be a fever, a malar rash,
a butterfly announcing a wolf.
before moving on to find a future echo in noted in one of the cadavers in his anatomy classroom:
But the colonel on table nineteen
with an accessory spleen had put a bullet through
his temple, a final prayer. Not in entry or exit
were there skull cracks to condemn the house
of death, no shattered glass in the brain,
only a smooth tunnel of deep violet that bloomed
in concentric circles. The weekends were lonely.
He had the most beautiful muscles
of all 32 bodies that were neatly arranged,
zipped up as if a mass grave had been disinterred.
Or when unzipped and facing the ceiling
had cloth over their eyes as if they’d just been executed.
Gray silver hair, chiseled countenance,
he was sixty-seven, a veteran of more than one war.
I had come across that which will end me, ex-
tend me, at least once, without knowing it.
Medical and medicinal imagery continues to resurface routinely throughout the collection, woven into both the political and the personal (which are never mutually exclusive here) infusing both with an intimate humanity:
The hour of the grackle, and a mother
not menopausal, solitary with endgame lung
tumor in a foreign country
and what makes one foreign:
she hasn’t seen her son for three or five
exilic or immigrant years,
citizen or national stints, a keyword
a thrombus dislodges
in heart or head
for infarction’s infraction
—from “The Hour of the Grackle”
Although much of Footnotes reflects the poet’s specific experience in America (“Palestine, Texas” is a telling, gently ironic send-up of the tendency of the same place names to occur so ubiquitously across the American landscape that they lose resonance with any original roots), his concerns reach far beyond national boundaries. This is rendered most explicitly in the central section of Footnotes, “Sagittal Views” which is the result of a collaboration between Joudah and his friend, Syrian Kurdish poet and translator, Golan Haji, who now lives in Paris. Drawing on their meetings, phone and email communications, all conducted in Arabic, Joudah translated and formed their words into chilling evocations of loss, sorrow, and resignation:
Over dinner we spoke of the game of recurrence dissolving into an old dog’s tail, loquacious desire far from the borders of the body, yet is the body’s. What’s inside and doesn’t come out to skin or what’s outside and doesn’t touch us. Victims, we told ourselves, will inherit the future one day, but souls will linger distant from redemption. Don’t follow the signage and keep your eyes on the phrase. News of the explosion will hang around. The hell of pictures on the web. Faces of the dead on Facebook will wait for your walk home. A woman who awakened your first lust when you were a kid was killed in the morning while talking to her sister on the phone. First a blast then stillness. You were late to dinner. You had lost your way to the restaurant. You couldn’t have known she had just died, and what you thought were Klee’s paintings in the gallery clawing your afternoon nerves was her calling your name one last time.
—from “After Wine”
Poetry, at its best, invites re-engagement. Demands it, even. I was so enamoured with the anatomy of Joudah’s wordplay that, on my first passage through Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance, I was so intrigued to see where his wonderings would lead that I did not linger as I might have on another initial journey. I read this book with an unexpected urgency. But as I returned to it with an eye to sorting out my responses, I encountered new depths, new heights of emotion. And at times in the seemingly simplest passages. For me, the prose poems—“Horses,” “An Algebra Come Home,” and “Alignment” to name a few—hold a particular power, but the entire collection is so strong, so varied, that there are boundless rewards to be found in the generosity of Fady Joudah’s pained and passionate poetics.
Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance is published by Milkweed Editions.