by Fady Joudah
Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon, 2014.
97 pp. $15 (paperback)
While the title of Fady Joudah’s third book of original poems, Textu, signals the missive of our era, the text message (hear in the title: “text you”), the poems also feel internal, private. The book, first published only in e-book format in 2013, is filled with 160-character poems that move through various waves of an individual consciousness, rippling with erotica, medical work, literature and mythology, war and politics, fatherhood, nature, food, and much popular culture and punning. The restlessness of the poems, individually and across the book, speaks to both form and content, as the poems were written on a phone, ostensibly in a rush, in transit, from job to home, from automobile to airport, while somehow absorbing the high-paced periphery of the rushing world and simultaneously riffing, digressing, moving into the interior of the individual psyche.
In the individual poems’ “epigrammatic terseness,” a phrase used both by Agha Shahid Ali and Stephen Burt/David Mikics (respectively, in Ali’s introduction to his anthology on the ghazal, Ravishing DisUnities, and Burt’s/Mikics’s introduction to their anthology of the sonnet, The Art of the Sonnet) the textu is able to stand alone as epigram but usually is most powerful in sequence (183, 14). It is Shakespeare’s sonnets, in fact, that Textu often resembles. Both groups of poems have subtle yet noticeable (especially upon re-readings) thematic sections, as well as varied and recurring motifs and dictions. Like Shakespeare’s sonnets, the poems in Textu draw from various discourses and dictions that do not always match their obvious subject matter, and often collide with each other. As Stephen Booth writes of Shakespeare’s sonnets:
[…] Shakespeare makes a word or phrase do double duty. He regularly places a word or phrase in a context to which it pertains but which it does not fit idiomatically; the context dictates the sense the word or phrase must have, and that sense is colored by the sense and context the word or phrase ordinarily has. (138)
In a four-page span early in Textu, Greek mythology is a subject via four figures: Eurydice, Ariadne, Penelope, and Persephone (6-9). The female figures’ various imprisonments, whether in underworlds, labyrinths, or marriages, is written with a kind of lyricism that decontextualizes them. “A Thousand & One Nights” begins: “Surely Penelope had sex / in her husband’s absence” (8). Here the speaker, like many poets have done before, speculates about the periphery of canonical stories, in order to re-vision tradition. Joudah, too, questions the basic premise of the myth of Odysseus and Penelope, but what happens next in the poem is Joudah’s alone. The poem ends:
With slave men and women
Folks in other words
the blind could not see. (8)
Here, the speaker moves beyond the decontextualization of scenario by also decontextualizing language. Penelope’s story is not only subversive, but the peripheral characters of slaves are here made central to the textu by speaking of them in current 21st-century discourse. Of course, an “undocumented” person would not have existed in Homer’s time, and so here Joudah troubles the line between “slave” and “undocumented,” both in our time and that of ancient Greece. The final couplet, too, subverts the word “blind,” which not only refers to the “documented,” privileged citizenry of the world, whose eyes define dominant ideology, but also to Homer, the blind oracle who sits atop the Western literary canon.
The theme of borders, and the attending tension between citizen and refugee, resonates throughout Textu. While knowledge of an author’s biography is not always useful to understanding an author’s work, it should be pointed out here that Joudah is a Palestinian who was raised, like most Palestinians, outside of Palestine, and currently practices medicine in Houston, Texas. Joudah, a physician, has worked for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)/Doctors without Borders, an international NGO whose volunteer doctors serve people in war-torn regions around the world. (Also, Joudah is an award-winning translator of Palestinian poetry, including the poems of Mahmoud Darwish.) In Joudah’s poem “Right of Return,” the title’s geopolitical predicament is sung of in the diction of biotechnology, state interrogation, neological lit-crit, and astronomy:
of present-absent organ views
triumph over the paranoiac-critical method
searched for if reached gone. (73)
In this poem, the heavy title provides the speaker’s entry into a decades-old controversy via dictions that quickly shift in register. If the Palestinians were granted “right of return” to Palestine in 1948 by the United Nations, but this Palestinian right of return has been perpetually excluded by Israel from any so-called “peace process,” then Joudah’s mind, his fingers on the keypad of his phone, thinks of the predicament as a kind of technological invasion of the human body, whether in hospital or airport; then the mind’s retrospective gaze as something to be verified/repudiated in an era of mass paranoia; and, finally, a migratory star that eludes telos, eludes touch upon touch. Thus, within the space of a text message, 160 characters, Joudah quickly puts several levels of torque on the axis of the fundamental question of human rights, of homeland, and the irresolvable world spins. In the same way that Shakespeare investigates love, loyalty, eros, and legacy via newly emergent discourses in Renaissance England, Joudah uses current public discourses to explore fundamental human themes, such as autonomy, dignity, erotic and familial love, and borders that should act as portals but mostly act as barriers.
In Joudah’s textus, the question of imagination versus reality is not just an aesthetic one. In “The Chosen,” Joudah writes, “every morning is imaginary / & every people is invented” (16). The beauty of this couplet is obvious in terms of its “epigrammatic terseness,” again to quote from Ali and Burt/Mikics. But the political (if “political” is not too shabby a word for issues of human rights) ramifications are also to be reckoned with. It has been argued by the located, ruling classes that the displaced, ruled classes — Palestinians, Bedouins, Romani, and other peoples, often nomadic, diasporic — are not an authentic people or nationality, but an “invention.” It should not take a close reading of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, or any other academic discourse, to see the fallacy of this argument, the truth that all peoples are culturally and historically “invented”; but, alas, this is the argument many displaced peoples face — their lives, in fact, are threatened by it.
The poet Nick Flynn has written that “each [textu] feels like a daily meditation or prayer.” Indeed, these poems should be read sequentially, attentively, repeatedly. In Textu, Fady Joudah has invented a form that sings in our bad times of our bad times, but with a mind so restless in its intelligence, so thrilling in its humor and irreverence, and so large in its hunger for love and art and life, that the reader will be startled, over and over, back into this world.
Ali, Agha Shahid. Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2000. Print.
Burt, Stephen and David Mikics, eds. The Art of the Sonnet. Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard UP, 2010. Print.
Joudah, Fady. Textu. 2013 (e-book). Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon, 2014. Print.Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Ed. Stephen Booth. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1977. Print. about the author