Philip Metres is the author of ten books, including Shrapnel Maps (2020), The Sound of Listening: Poetry as Refuge and Resistance (2018), Pictures at an Exhibition (2016), Sand Opera (2015), and I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky (2015). His work has garnered a Guggenheim, a Lannan, two NEAs, six Ohio Arts Council Grants, the Hunt Prize, the Adrienne Rich Award, three Arab American Book Awards, the Watson Fellowship, the Lyric Poetry Prize, and the Cleveland Arts Prize. He is professor of English and director of the Peace, Justice, and Human Rights program at John Carroll University, and lives in Cleveland, Ohio.
Philip Metres’s Shrapnel Maps collates ten sections and a world of violently splintered geographies. An immersive engagement with the enduring Israeli occupation of Palestine, Shrapnel Maps seeks to listen to the various religious, cultural, and political archives that produce place and belonging in this land. Drawing language and insight from across these archives, the poems in this collection imagine forms of radical listening that seek to uncover that utterance of relational possibility which the official archive buries and renders silent. Brave and challenging, Shrapnel Maps asks hard questions but creates a courageous space in which to have these conversations. This collection is a site of assembly, confrontation, and repair that challenges us to re-imagine our relationships with our inherited pasts, to meet the challenge of addressing the pain and alienation produced by these long global histories of place-based violence.
I was lucky to be able to speak with Philip Metres about the process and vision behind this collection, the challenges endemic to such an inquiry, and how the poet’s capacity for radical listening may lead our collective imagination outside of violence and into repair.
Nanya Jhingran: The title of your book, Shrapnel Maps, functions as a concept-metaphor for the collection’s explorations of diasporic existence and how people live and experience geographies splintered by war and occupation, which have been lodged, as shrapnel, in their bodies and words. I suppose this is a chicken-or-egg question, but how did you come to this title? Did it help articulate the collection, or vice versa?
Philip Metres: The title of the book, Shrapnel Maps, emerged from a line in the poetic sequence called “Theater of Operations,” a set of fractured monologue sonnets I began writing in 2009, imagining a suicide bombing in Israel from over twenty perspectives. The book is polyvocal and polyhedral, many-voiced and many-sided—inspired, in part, by Edward Said’s notion of contrapuntal reading. In Culture and Imperialism, Said encourages us to read the canon “to draw out, extend, give emphasis and voice to what is silent or marginally present or ideologically represented in such works.” Contrapuntal reading, for him, “must take account of both processes—that of imperialism and that of resistance to it, which can be done by extending our reading of the texts to include what was once forcibly excluded.” I wanted to compose contrapuntally—to center marginalized, erased, exiled, or obliterated voices, but I wanted to bring them into contact with voices from the other side of walls. So while I draw partly on postcolonial theory, I’m also thinking about peacebuilding and what John Paul Lederach calls the “moral imagination.” I’m not talking about mere “dialogue,” insofar as this term obscures power asymmetries of those in conflict (Palestine and Israel), but the dialogic in a multifoliate way, situated in and illuminated by structures of power.
At some point, I grew obsessed with the maps of the land and the ways in which they projected all manner of reality on an already-inhabited place. Said’s notion of “imagined geographies” informs that as well. Maps, of course, project a reality (a narrative), make an assertion. I was struck, as a Christian, by how so many of the old European maps were proto-Zionist in their very conception. They fixated on a frozen place-time of Hebrew and Christian scripture. I wanted to wrestle with my own tradition’s ignominious contribution to projection and erasure. Maps explode, quietly at first, and then more volubly. Shrapnel flings. Diaspora ensues. And shrapnel becomes its own kind of map.
NJ: The incredible cover art by Syrian artist Tammam Azzam paints an arresting visual metaphor for the work of excavation and repair undertaken by the poems in the collection. The book also reads, so to speak, other visual texts like the “Visit” posters by Mitchell Loeb. There is a sustained visuality to the poems in this collection. In your writing process, how do you find yourself engaging the visual? Do you engage the work of particular visual artists or artists working on other non-textual mediums?
PM: I’ve always been obsessed with visual art—just today, my 14-year-old daughter and I were looking at paintings by Edward Hopper, talking about how his paintings work the space between solitude and loneliness, the longing for interiority seen from outside. When words fail me, I look to visual art and music for inspiration. Ekphrasis is one of my favorite compositional strategies.
As with Sand Opera, I wanted to create a book that engaged with the visual in an explicit, but surprising way—not images of Abu Ghraib torture, but fingerprints of Saddam Hussein. Or in this case, not bulldozers collapsing houses, or shrapneled bodies, but tourist images, fantasy projections of the land. Those innocuous images cover over so much. Ironically, I ended up having to learn Photoshop, and it felt surreal to perform my own erasures of images like Mitchell Loeb’s travel advertisements of Palestine. Those were my final touches of the book. I look forward to what the reader experiences without my tendentious explanation.
NJ: From the very beginning with “Three Books” in the first section, the collection announces its deep attention to the textuality of occupation and historical erasure. Over the course of the collection, these concerns with textuality move beyond the question of representation into a desire for inscription: both a “praying to be written” and a “writing ourselves back.” You engage textuality across a plethora of archives: religious scripture, travel writing, tourism pamphlets, not to mention the state’s documents. In “Passages Marked,” the speaker imagines the body of the inscriber of the announcement titled “Instructions to the Arab Population,” a rendering of which precedes the poem, and imagines with it how the document itself has traveled “carefully across borders.” In this movement, a whole sensorium is developed around the document. At the same time, this poem contains language from elsewhere, too. Can you say more about how you encountered what seems like a remarkably inchoate, multisensorial, and conflicting textual archive around Palestine as land and country? How did you deal with the sheer volume of bodies, and words, and books, and reams of paper that all noisily interact within the space of the book?
PM: This is a wonderful question that I hope a scholar will assess. It’s frankly terrifying to enter into such contested territory as what you term the “conflicting textual archive around Palestine as land and country.” Of course, I read dozens and dozens of books, trying to answer the most basic questions—but so did Jared Kushner, apparently. I’m not a historian by training. I’m a writer, an artist, a scholar, a translator, a listener, a human creature. This work came out of over twenty-five years of investigation and inquiries, the persistent vexatious wondering of a person trying to understand. From relationships, research, and the imagination, these poems emerged—more or less in that order. So, for example, out of a friendship with Nahida Halaby Gordon, a Palestinian refugee from 1948, I got my hands on that Haganah leaflet you reference. It burned in my mind for months. It seemed to be a door into understanding what seemed impossible otherwise to understand, and seemed still up for debate: what created the Palestinian refugee crisis? Or to say it another way, why did Palestinian Arabs leave in 1948? They have long argued that they were expelled by force and by fear. Israelis and those who support the Jewish state argue that they left of their own accord. The Haganah leaflet indicated a level of coordination that suggested otherwise—gathering the men in the center of the city, asking for the Jaffa municipal archives to be secured for purposes of further land claims, etc. That Jaffa archive has “disappeared.” Archives—at least as material repositories—are never complete, and are often curated and withheld by the powerful.
For example, the first place the Israeli Defense Force headed, upon invading Beirut in 1982, was to the PLO Research Center, in order to abscond with their archive. In the words of Thomas Friedman, “There were no guns at the PLO Research Center, no ammunition, and no fighters. But there was evidently something more dangerous—books about Palestine, old records and land deeds belonging to Palestinian families, photographs about Arab life in Palestine, historical archives about the Arab community in Palestine, and, most important, maps—maps of pre-1948 Palestine with every Arab village on it before the state of Israel came into being and erased many of them.”
In a conversation among fellow Arab American writers called “Beyond the Land of Erasure” (Iowa Review), I posed the idea of a counter-archive, “not against but its own thing.” Poet Marwa Helal concurred, writing that the notion of archive isn’t enough, proposing that we adopt poet Zaina Alsous’s notion of the “retrospeculative.” After all, the archive often implies a stable repository of knowledge or materials. Zaina then shared the work of African-American historian Alexis Pauline Gumb, who identifies as a “speculative documentarian” and calls the archive “time travel technology.” I have struggled with the term documentary poetics because its name fixates on a formal procedure—working with documents—rather than on a poetic-political vision of what’s possible. For one thing, I felt that documentary poetry as such seemed to get frozen into an elegiac relationship with time and its materials. We need elegy, we need grief, but not being frozen in grief. What can the future look like?
When I say that I’m trying to situate Shrapnel Maps as a dream of a new past, calling on an ancient future, I mean that neither the past nor the future are fixed, and in this apocalyptic age, we need to go further back to find a way out of the nightmare of the present-future. It’s about witnessing the palimpsest—not selecting a single history, but the many histories of that place, of that being-in-place. As Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan notes, “if you want to belong to this place, you have to belong to all of its history and respect 10,000 years of civilization.” And probably even longer than that—to the aeons of creaturely belonging.
NJ: Absolutely, and I also think what’s striking in Shrapnel Maps is how this responsibility of listening extends not only to humans but also all the myriad forms of life that inhabit our ecosystem. Poems such as “One Tree” and “Ode to the Oranges of Jaffa” acknowledge not only how the walls and borders that rip people from their lands and neighbors also issue an astounding violence upon nature, but also how these organic subjects too exhibit agency, refuse human bordering. Of the olive tree in the serial poem in “A Concordance of Leaves”: “consider the olive: it gnarls as it grows,” a critical listening is at play here, too. I find that so many scholars, poets, activists are thinking through ecological violence as an enduring form of phenomenological settler violence. Both Alexis Pauline Gumbs and Zaina Alsous are thinking about these multi-species histories of “creaturely belonging.” I’m curious about how you came to the writing of these poems and imagining the sorts of agency and insight that the orange trees and the brambling vine present in this too-human history of violence and loss?
PM: This ecopoetic consciousness permeates the book, but I became aware of it very late, in the poems “When It Rains in Gaza” and “Future Anterior.” As I write, I heard the tapping of rain on our roof, and recall how I kept watching a video of a rainstorm in Gaza, hearing the clatter on tin roofs, the sudden flood of the streets, with a strange combination of happiness and sadness. A UN report from 2012 declared Gaza would be unlivable by 2020—because of water shortages, among other basic reasons. Water is the key to life, and even more so in the arid zones of the Middle East. I think about the people there every day.
I think of Raja Shehadeh’s book, Palestinian Walks, all the layers of time and presence that violent settlement and occupation obscure.
During my research of maps, I remember also seeing satellite and drone photos of the land—some by Fazal Sheikh—and it looks like the brown flank of a great animal. Like a living creature. Isn’t this Turtle Island? Isn’t the earth our mother? Or, as I put it in “Future Anterior”: “From a certain height, in a certain light, / stretching across a plain // the land resembles warm skin // If you live long enough, // you can almost see it // breathing.”
How do we come to belong to the lands we live in ways that move beyond the arrogance of mere dominion? We need to go back, to examine the old ways again.
NJ: I have been thinking so much about these lines from “Marginalia with Uprooted Olive”: “in the / margin to turn / outside is to / riddle the inside / congratulation din / you stake your right / stalk and scrawl / across the white lawn / of law.” I find it so compelling how you recast the site of the margin as a space of a budding sociality that has been absented, written out, of the page of the law. This book is so interested in inscription and textuality, can you say a little more about the Marginalia poems and how they are thinking about inscription and absence?
PM: Perhaps dominant narratives are what rule the pages of history. What’s in the margins? Who’s in the margins? What voices aren’t being heard? What lives are missed? I think of Gayatri Spivak’s question: Can the subaltern speak? It’s in those margin-spaces where our ears must bend, and our eyes must search. The form of those poems invites us to bracket the dominant narrative and attend and bend to the hidden or obscured. I love your term, “budding sociality,” as if some collective were on the verge of some spring, some great unfolding.
NJ: In poems such as “A Tour of Deir Yassin as Broken Ghazal” and “Palaestinae quatuor facies ˆ,” I am blown away by how you use language from news reports, dispatches, documents, announcements, even power points (what a remarkable institutional genre and how it is trafficked into the violent world of documentary presentation!) and weave them into poetic forms such as the ghazal, which bring with them their own long genealogies and affectivities. The ghazal, for example, comes from a long Persian tradition of sung poetry and has been traditionally understood as a song of yearning or even obsession for the (unachievable) beloved. While writing these poems, I’m wondering how you were thinking about form? I’m especially curious how you experienced the conversation or collision between the formal constraints of bureaucratic and journalistic documents and your own engagement of particular poetic forms?
PM: I’m obsessed by form as such—poetic and otherwise. Words finding form, form finding words. My own poetic education involved the widest possible reading, from experimental language poets to formalist poets, from indie musicians to hip-hop artists. I love the so-called traditional poetic forms, but nearly always want to crack them apart. Or, perhaps more accurate, find form at the edge of ruin and fracture. That relationship to form feels natural to me. While I admire the dexterous magic of Marilyn Hacker (a true genius), I find my work tends to look a lot more like the poetry of friends like Marwa Helal, Mark Nowak, Tyehimba Jess, George Abraham, Solmaz Sharif, Samiya Bashir. Sometimes that means adapting traditional forms in untraditional ways, as in my use of the haibun for the poem “Family,” or the fractured sonnets of “Theater of Operations.” I love, as well, invented forms, like Helal’s arabic or Terrance Hayes’s “golden shovel.” Isn’t “traditional” form always unnatural, and even more so when it’s weighted with the history of a poetic language and culture? Isn’t it true that all forms also invite being undone or remade? Think of Shakespeare’s revolt against Petrarch. “A Tour of Deir Yassin as Broken Ghazal” is probably as far as you can imagine from a traditional ghazal, but as you mention, its subject seems perfect for a form that thrives on coupled dis-unities and longing for the beloved. “Palaestinae quatuor facies ,” by contrast, is in a form that I call a polyphonic—a poem meant to be read by two or more speakers, sometimes simultaneously (if it’s a simultaneity), sometimes just following the staggered form on the page. The choral poem, if you will. The compositional principle, always, is about revelation—what happens when these voices and textualities meet?—what will I hear or understand that I haven’t heard or understood before?
NJ: In your recent essay “(More) News From Poems” (2018), written as an update to “From Reznikoff to Public Enemy,” you track the emergence of a radical practice of investigative/documentary/social poetics, which you find to be more a mode of practice than a genre. Strikingly, you find that this emergent assemblage of documentary poetics disassemble imperial archive(s) through a sort of radical listening such that the “labor of documentary poetry moves toward the articulation of a collectivity with its own language, its own stories.” In working on Shrapnel Maps, what were some ways you found yourself listening to your documents and archives? I suppose another way to ask the question is to say, how does radical listening manifest processually in your encounter with the archival document?
PM: This is a great question, and I wish I could answer it. I relish not knowing what I’m doing, feeling my way in the dark. It’s like taking a stethoscope to a book—is it even possible? Perhaps I approach the question of employing documentary materials as an investigator, a detective—though I’m not simply seeking the evidence, but the vision beneath the fact. I’m not interested in documentary poetry’s regurgitation or even recovery of unknown facts, but the interplay between the formation of knowing in the face of those facts.
In Sand Opera, I felt utterly possessed—really being overcome by the language of testimony and trying to keep my own head above its waters. With Shrapnel Maps, I felt as if I were already far underwater, seeking the end of water in the shimmering light above my head. The narratives of Palestine and Israel—in their broadest senses—were known to me, but what was unknown to me was what it might feel like to be inside and outside of their structures of power.
As a poet working with documentary evidence, I want to learn something, not to prove something, I want to be opened again to what the document shows and cannot show—and to create a space where a reader might encounter that directly. In this way, it’s like writing every other poem, moving between a resolute tenacity in your vision and a nimble openness to what you cannot yet see, and trust that you will know when your tenacity should give way to flexibility, and when your will should cede to the poem’s will. There were many poems that never made it into Shrapnel Maps. The book’s origins go back as long as I’ve been writing poems; this morning, I recalled a poem that I wrote in grad school over twenty years ago called “Litany,” which detailed the names and positions of various torture procedures used in Israeli jails—basically, a documentary poem before I knew documentary poetry.
The danger for the poet is when “the story” is already well-known, and there’s no listening. The poem “Litany” was always a cri de coeur in the shape of an activist bulletin. It was the poem as bullhorn, but not the poem shaped like an ear. Listening is the hardest, yet most important discipline and practice—I want to say (suddenly, inexplicably) of healing. Of healing the rupture between ourselves and the other, ourselves as other, the other as ourselves. That healing may be known by other names: love, justice, peace, belonging.
NJ: In the middle of the poem titled “When It Rains in Gaza,” the following lines: “(this is not news, this is not poetry).” I am absolutely blown away by this moment. In all my (limited) reading around the emerging phenomenon of “documentary poetics” or investigative poetry, it is this interstitial space between two negated genres (not this, but not this (its?) other either) that it seems to inhabit and speak from: the labor is to get at the space of the truth or of the reality between what the news or the poetic lay claim to per se, by themselves. Can you say a little bit more about this? Why work between these sites/genres/mediums? What sorts of insights does it enable for you? What kind of story (if any) does it allow one to tell? Or what sort of commentary or mediation does it put forward on these genres?
PM: I’ve always been fascinated by serial art, both narrative and otherwise, and have bridled against the (purported) monology of the lyric poem, and so I entered into these experiments out of a vexation with the scope of poetry as practiced by contemporaries. The long version of this answer would be my research into and writing Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront (2007), seeking how American poets wrote in dialogue with the peace movement. How to write poetry distant from the scene of battle, at the center of empire?
If you’re interested in “When It Rains in Gaza” in particular, check out my essay, “Of Seeing, the Unseen, and the Unseeable: Technology, Poetry, and ‘When It Rains in Gaza’” in New Ohio Review.
Yet I have always felt a little sadness that I haven’t found my way to write poems that are simply beautiful, nakedly loving, plainly illumined. I sometimes feel as Anton Chekhov did: “I would like to be a free artist and nothing else, and I regret God has not given me the strength to be one.” I wish that I didn’t need to carry so much into what could be such a feather-light genre as poetry. I don’t write these poems because I want to be a political poet. On the contrary, I write these poems because they insist on being written. They are writing me.
But maybe there still is time. Muriel Rukeyser somehow made her way through “The Book of the Dead”—in all its genius—into other modes of poetry and prose.
NJ: Can you say how you came to the organization of the book? Is there a narrativity or sequentiality to the ten sections or are they meant to be more episodic? I’m curious to hear if there were other versions of or visions for the book and how you came to this one?
PM: I find myself vexed by my inability to answer this question with any kind of coherence—but if I were to hazard a principal of organization, it would be dialogical, temporal, and geographical. First, I hope that the order of the manuscript enacts the dialogic impulse, insofar as the poems and sequences wrestle with each other, as I center different perspectives. Second, the book invites a reverse chronological reading, going backwards in time but that doesn’t hold all the way through. (Incidentally, something similar happened with Sand Opera. Neither book is strictly chronological, though the book roughly follows an order of composition.) If I’m not mistaken, some kind of deepening happens. We dig further into the question of belonging. Third, the book is itself a kind of shrapneled map of the (imagined) geographies of (the) land. We leap from place to place, Cleveland to Toura (West Bank), to Jerusalem/al-Quds, back to the U.S., to maps, to Jaffa, to Gaza, to exile and diaspora—all of these places and times reflecting different predicaments of subjectivity.
I would hope that everyone reads the book—and really, all of my books—from beginning to end. There’s a mystery in its structure that I don’t entirely understand. I want to say that the book grew like some sort of coral reef, beneath the surface of my consciousness, but that’s not entirely true. It was more like building a house—you realize that, despite your floor plan, a necessary room is missing, and then another, and so on, until a shambling mansion grows where only an outbuilding once stood. I was scared by its size, but had a hard time imagining it any smaller.
NJ: In your essays and edited collections, you talk about the importance of poetic communities, of doing this work in collectivity. So many poems in this collection are dedicated to people. Who are some poets and thinkers whose work you find this book in community with? Who are its cousins?
PM: All of your questions are really three or four questions, each more interesting than the other. I have felt great love and comradeship from so many different communities—the habayeb of RAWI (Arab American writers, the aforementioned Marwa Helal, Hayan Charara, Fady Joudah, Deema Shehabi, Randa Jarrar, Lawrence Joseph, Hala Alyan, Khaled Mattawa, Naomi Shihab Nye, and so on); poets and writers of diaspora more broadly (Ilya Kaminsky, Samiya Bashir, Solmaz Sharif); writers of color (Tomas Morin, Tyehimba Jess, Mike Croley, Kiese Laymon, Yusef Komunyakaa, Hasanthika Sirisena, Ru Freeman); and dear friends who came through my universities as students or colleagues (Dave Lucas, Chris Kempf, Danny Caine, Paige Webb, Rebecca Black, Simeon Berry, Adam Sol); fellow translators and Russian emigres; the list is long and boring, like Magnetic Fields’ “Book of Love.” I’m old enough to be embarrassed by the riches of friendships and their precious evanescence. There are too many to name, and too few to know as well as one should. And those are just the living comrades. The book also has poems for Mahmoud Darwish and Yehuda Amichai, two poets I care about. I also wanted to write poems dedicated to the stalwart activists for justice and peace in Palestine and Israel, people like Emad Burant, Rabbi Arik Ascherman, Jeff Halper, and Huwaida Arraf, and the work of groups like B’Tselem, Al-Haq, Israeli Coalition Against House Demolitions, Rabbis for Human Rights, the Center for Jewish Nonviolence, Christian Peacemakers Teams, the International Solidarity Movement, and many others.
I want also to recommend to readers to read Palestinian and Israeli writers. I’ve been teaching a course on the subject for nearly 15 years. From the Palestinian side, I teach Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun and Returning to Haifa, Sahar Khalifeh’s Wild Thorns and Passage to the Plaza. From the Israeli side, I teach David Grossman’s The Smile of the Lamb, S. Yizhar’s Khirbet Khizeh, Savyon Liebrecht’s Apples from the Desert. I’ve welcomed and taught a number of Palestinian and Jewish writers for readings and class visits, including Fady Joudah, Randa Jarrar, Naomi Shihab Nye, Deema Shehabi, Nahida Halaby Gordon, Hala Alyan, Marilyn Hacker, Erika Meitner, Yossi Klein-Halevi, and Jeff Halper. Read them. They need to be heard.
I like to share with students the history text Side by Side, which illuminates two different versions of the story, told by Palestinian and Israeli historians. When we are in conflict, we need to understand the story the other is telling about themselves. What good does it do to say “your story is wrong” without even knowing what the story is? That said, we are not talking about a conflict between parties of equal power. Over a century ago, the Balfour Declaration explicitly excluded acknowledging the political and national rights of Palestinians; the dream of Palestinian sovereignty has never seemed farther than now. Millions of Palestinian refugees still long for return. One could argue about the reasons, but justice feels very far. Every American needs to understand the role of the United States in this asymmetry of power, and to explore what the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement is about. Is there a kind of belonging that doesn’t erase the other’s right to belong?
If I were to name a few “cousins” for Shrapnel Maps, I would say, off the top of my head, Mahmoud Darwish’s oeuvre, Tyehimba Jess’s Olio, Aaron Davidman’s Wrestling Jerusalem, Marwa Helal’s Invasive species, Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, Edward Said’s After the Last Sky, Antje Krog’s Country of My Skull, the work of Svetlana Alexievich, George Abraham’s Birthright.
NJ: As myself a teacher, I am curious if you have found the classroom to be a site amenable to this sort of sustained dialogics? How do you find that your teaching and your experiences engaging these histories with students in the community of a classroom shaped this book?
PM: In teaching courses such as “Peacebuilding,” “Israeli and Palestinian Literatures,” and “Irish Literature and Peacebuilding,” my general goal is to introduce students to the moral imagination as a working capacity of compassion, complexity, creativity, and courage (cf. John Paul Lederach’s “The Moral Imagination”). I call upon students to become active peacebuilders and justice seekers. So many of my students want the right positions, the right answers—in short, to be righteous and have righteous indignation about injustice. I get it. It feels good to be righteous. But where is the love? In conflict, in war, everyone thinks that they are right. So I’m hoping to develop in them the capacities to deal with the discomforts of complex problems, to move beyond the binaries, to engage in the emotional and intellectual turmoil, and to seek other ways of seeing and being. We always begin with that goal—building our capacities for moral imagination, which often involves unlearning as much as learning. In my course on Palestine/Israel, Israel/Palestine, I take the students on a journey, shifting the focus week to week, so that they have to inhabit different subject positions, looking at the same events with different eyes and frames. We talk about the toxins of anti-semitism and Orientalism—what they are, and how to confront them in ourselves and in the world. I do my best to make the clearest arguments for why each “side” acts the way it does, trusting my students will have to work out their own views, trusting that they will be changed by this, and will be able to change the world through this process.
In a very real way, Shrapnel Maps came out of teaching that class. At the very end, I would talk candidly about my goals for the class and show slides from my sister’s wedding in Palestine. I wanted to find ways of talking about my own experiences so that they knew more about what drives me to engage in this fraught place. Looking at the photos again and again, I found myself, in 2010 or so, suddenly writing lines to honor that journey and marriage. That became “A Concordance of Leaves.” Shrapnel Maps isn’t positionless, of course, a study in liberal neutrality. No, it’s not a Rorschach blot. But it is an attempt to engage in radical listening.
NJ: This is a project of such massive ambition and scope. What were some lessons you took away from the process of writing this book?
PM: That the past is never over, but it’s also not a tomb. It’s a rich humus from which we come. My hope is that poetry can help us remember what we have not yet known in the bones, that through it, we can listen to our ancestors enough to acknowledge them, but not so much to be overcome by them. I’ve written elsewhere that poetry is a dreamspace to wrestle the present and imagine past the past, into a future where all can belong.
The journey of this book helped me address my own anger and grief about grievances near and far, and healed me of their burning fires. Things that have happened in my neighborhood, as well as things I witnessed while in Palestine and Israel. Of course, I want justice and peace for Palestinians and for Israelis. I want it for my family, in all my relationships. And I want it for myself.
But I also began thinking about all the places I’ve lived, craving to learn the history of the land, and of the Indigenous communities who have lived here and whose presence and history has been erased. I’m still astonished, for example, that I lived a few hours from the largest Indigenous city complex in the United States—now known as the Cahokia Mounds—and I never learned about it in school. It’s an outrage, really. We need two Truth and Reconciliation Commissions—one for the Indigenous people of the U.S., and one for African-Americans. We need to learn the fullness of our history in order to create a different future. There are so many myths that have erased the truths, that have justified the unjustifiable.
In the end, I want Shrapnel Maps to be part of a conversation, part of a further listening. I’m ready to listen. Let’s talk!
Through writing the poems, I wanted to become human, as if for the first time. In some ultimate way, the poems are the form and content of what I learned, am still learning, and have yet to learn.