by Philip Metres
Copper Canyon Press, 2020
$20, purchase at Bookshop.org
Reviewed by Carolyn Ogburn
Philip Metres’s Shrapnel Maps engages the conflict between people sharing the region that is Israel/Palestine. Metres is a Lebanese Arab-American and a Catholic who currently lives with his wife and children in a Cleveland neighborhood largely populated by Orthodox Jews. He has described Shrapnel Maps as a practice of “radical listening,” a fractured narrative told through multiple perspectives. Its synthesis rests in the body of the reader.
Shrapnel is often (inaccurately) used to refer to the hard fragments bound together within a casing before being shattered through explosion. In fact, according to Webster, shrapnel is “a projectile that consists of a case provided with a powder charge and a large number of usually lead balls and that is exploded in flight.” Metres’s collection functions as both: a container of singular perspectives, which are necessarily fragments of larger understanding, and a record of such fragments.
Metres frames the ten sections of Shrapnel Maps with images of Israel/Palestine drawn from a variety of sources (a postcard, a map of Israel taken from his daughter’s Sunday School homework, photographs taken by the author), and these frames acknowledge the complexity of perspectives against which any new writing engaged with this place, history, and peoples must posit itself. These images are rarely presented in their original form; rather, they are manipulated through erasure and collage. For example, in a series of erasures created from Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, Metres visibly wrestles with the colonial gaze. From Twain’s bleak depiction of Palestine, Metres pulls lines like: “they entered the country with their verdicts already prepared.” Other included text was taken from the postcard by Mitchell Loeb in 1947, cropped by Metres, to draw Jewish tourists to visit Palestine (“See ancient beauty revived”) or culled from Christian Sunday School syllabi with a similar purpose (“Fill in the Blanks: Adele’s Sunday School Homework”). In “Panel, [Board], Concerning the country of Canaan…” Metres examines maps, “trying to find its rightful name, as if called/by its rightful name, it might appear.”
For Metres, radical listening relies upon “‘listening and (paying) attention to the ways in which we hear and don’t and can’t hear the realities of other people.” This practice also requires the poet’s interrogation of his own perspective, questioning the filters through which his viewpoint is framed. Two poems in the collection are written to be read aloud by multiple readers: “Three Books [A Simultaneity]” comes with the directive, “Readers of columns one and three can repeat every line as they descend the page,” and “Bride of Palestine: to be read by four people simultaneously.” The resulting smatter of collective voices result in a din, with individual words and phrases surfacing according to the ear of the listener.
Metres often employs visual effects in his poems. “Theater of Operations,” for example, is a collection of sonnet monologues that also provide a three-act dramatic narration for a suicide bombing, with the final poem becoming a visual destruction of the sonnet form. “A Concordance of Leaves,” published in 2013 as a chapbook, is the book’s second section. Here, Metres titles each poem in Arabic script and places an open parentheses [like so: ( ] between each of the two line stanzas, reversing their direction midway through as if offering a slow opening and closing before the final, chilling coda. The use of the parentheses, coming as they do between shifts in perspectives, creates a questioning gentleness that’s unlike other poems in this collection.
In “The Dance of the Activist and the Typist,” Metres could be describing the role of the poet-witness when he writes:
she inserts the inked ribbon of herself
between the black roller of history
and the alphabetic metal legs
of that inverted insect—rifles
through the air the targets / scatter / she can’t
help it / something in her / grows each time she turns
to face the rifle
There is a sense throughout these poems, even those written from an individual perspective, of an overarching narrative distance; we are aware that there is a poet writing from the perspective of someone else. This distance is not without tension, as it draws the reader’s own perspective into play. What is our obligation to these poems? Do we belong in these poems, or are we coming across the stories like Twain once did? When a mother’s son is a suicide bomber, how should we react?
In the afterword to Shrapnel Maps, Metres quotes Aaran Davidman: “Conflict is not complicated like a car engine, but complex like a forest.” These are poems about belonging—to a place, to a people—when the definition of belonging means that others do not belong. The Irish poet and theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama, who provided a blurb for Shrapnel Maps, has said, “Belonging creates and undoes us,” which is exactly the tension found here.
“I don’t give non-Jews pretzels,” says a young neighbor to Metres’s daughter as the two girls play together in a park near their home. “(But) I can give them to my dog.” In an interview with David Naiman on the podcast “Between the Covers” Metres said, “[I have a] hope and desire that the work itself can model a dialogical way of being in the world and then can be activated in dialogue—actual dialogue—with people for whom passport and identity are part of, but not ultimately defining, a person and how they belong.” At the end of “[The Daily Contortions],” the girl breaks the pretzel stick and gives one “savory splinter” to Metres’s daughter.
The Broadsided poem in the Book:
“The Trees in my Chest” by Philip Metres. Art by Sara Tabbert. Published April 1, 2020.
Three Questions from Broadsided Press; Three Answers from Philip Metres
Bsided: The opening poem, “One Tree,” you’ve positioned yourself between two bitterly conflicting perspectives—that of your neighbor, who would like to cut down a tree that divides your property so that his garden can grow, and of your wife, who loves the shade that the tree offers your own yard. Three times, you deny any part of the conflict: It’s not me, I want no trouble, it’s not me. Is it possible to deeply witness conflict, as you do in this collection, without participating in that conflict? And has your answer to this question changed over time?
PM: The witness is, almost by definition, part of the situation being witnessed—it comes from a root that means “one who testifies.” Yet when witnessing violence, we don’t always speak out. Silence might protect us, but it can also make us complicit. In Shrapnel Maps, we (writer and reader) face and witness conflicts both small (the fight over a tree’s shadow in a back yard) and large (Palestine and Israel), the small within the large and the large within the small.
“One Tree” is one of those poems that changes for me, as I have changed, when I read it. Through writing it, I had to confront the fact that my aversion to conflict, my desire for peace, can come at great cost. Our animal responses to conflict are typically fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. This poem is about freezing. What shook me about the poem is where it went—back into childhood, where I learned to manage conflict by trying either to disappear (freeze) or to be the model child (fawn). A few months ago, I recited the companion poem (“Family”) to my sister, who was visiting, and we both started crying. I’d read the poem scores of times, but when I was with my sister, it came home again.
One of the things I had to wrestle with, after publication of Shrapnel Maps, was that its allegiance to complexity, its rhetorically obliquity, and its longing for peace may have obscured—for some readers–the critique at the heart of the book for the dispossession and erasure of Palestinians. Could I have been more direct? Have I, in the process of depicting the conflict, even contributed to that erasure? These are questions I sit with.
I’m currently working on a theatrical adaptation of the book that concerns the winding (and ongoing) journey of one person moving from passive (and complicit) witness to (active, yet perhaps still-complicit) participant in justice-seeking and peacemaking.
Bsided: In “A Concordance of Leaves,” written in response to your sister’s wedding, your first visit to the region, you’ve placed an open parenthesis mark between each stanza () and reversed the direction of the mark midway through the poem )(, as if closing the implied parenthetical phrase. Each of these sections are called “waraq,” which means leaf, and this word is written in Arabic at the top of each page; I learned both what the word meant and how it sounded only in the Between the Covers interview you did with David Naimon.
There’s such a visual resonance between the parenthesis and the Arabic letters that I didn’t miss not knowing what the word meant, but, later, I felt a deep shame that I not only didn’t know but didn’t even know how to look up a word for which I couldn’t easily reference in a search engine, lacking a shared alphabet. Other poems are simply vocabulary lists, simple phrases and terms shown in both Arabic and English, and these have the phonetic spellings included as well. Could you say more about your intentions in using Arabic in these two specific ways within these poems?
PM: When my sister got married in Palestine back in 2003, I had the chance to go to the Middle East for the first time. Though my father’s family is from Lebanon, we had never traveled there before for a host of reasons, not least of which was the Civil War. My relationship to Arabic is one of longing—the tatters that I know are not enough to feel the language. When I went to Palestine, I kept lists of words that I was learning and began a slow process of trying to recover the language of my ancestors. I doubt I will ever be fluent, but I want to taste the language, to enter into its temples.
My use of Arabic language without translation means that some of the writing would be inaccessible to non-Arabic readers. I hope it’s not so much a provocation as an invitation. The bilingual text resists easy consumption; it won’t reveal itself to the non-Arabic reader. There is much, of course, about other cultures that we presume to know (see Orientalism!). When someone speaks to me in Arabic and I don’t understand them, I also feel ashamed. Other Arab-American poets, from Suheir Hammad to Marwa Helal to George Abraham, have also been working through this bilinguality. The scholar Sirene Harb has written interestingly of the phenomenon of bilingual poetics in her book, Articulations of Resistance.
Bsided: You graciously shared “The Trees in My Chest” with Broadsided Press, a poem from your next collection. In this poem, you write (if I’m reading the poem correctly) of history as “a room in a house/we cannot see, nor imagine ourselves/out of.” This encapsulates for me, in a way that is gutting in its implications, the limitations of mutual understanding, but it doesn’t feel like a hopeless poem. You mentioned that you wrote this as a part of an Advent practice. Could you share how the liturgical year shapes your writing practice?
PM: I don’t have a regular practice of Advent or Lent writing, but every couple of years, I dedicate myself to reading/writing as a way of being with God first thing in the morning. That’s where “abu ghraib arias” came from—a Lenten writing/reading practice through the torture testimonies of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. I recently have been working with the psalms, in a series called Plague Psalms, which will appear in the next book. There is an idea in Ignatian spirituality that God is in all things. A priest once told me that he was praying over my book, and the concept shook me: one can pray over anything. Reading and writing can be acts of prayer, contemplative encounters with creation and with the divine. When I’m feeling the fullness of faith—flickering and evasive as it is—I want to believe in transformative possibility. I want to hope. Hope against hope. That the future isn’t foreclosed, that history has yet to be written.
Carolyn Ogburn is a writer who lives in the French Broad watershed of western North Carolina where she does any number of things for love and for money.