Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2014. 118 pages. $15.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)
In Javier Marías’s novel The Infatuations, the narrator describes how, in the two days following a murder, a flurry of news articles appeared about it. After these two days, she says, “the item vanished from the press completely, as tends to happen nowadays.” She explains:
People don’t want to know why something happened, only what happened, and to know that the world is full of reckless acts, of dangers, threats and bad luck that only brush past us, but touch and kill our careless fellow human beings, or perhaps they were simply not among the chosen. We live quite happily with a thousand unresolved mysteries that occupy our minds for ten minutes in the morning and are then forgotten without leaving so much as a tremor of grief, not a trace.
A collection of poems that takes its form from the text message necessarily raises similar questions about attention, and attendant questions about empathy. Each poem in Fady Joudah’s Textu was composed on a smart phone’s text message screen, and is “exactly 160 characters long, specific to text message parameters.” Aren’t text messages the epitome of what we glance at in passing, and then just as quickly forget, in that often-described stream of information and stimulation?
This book is not a reductive critique of this stream, or what it is doing to us. Neither does the collection let its premise—the textu form—justify itself without inquiry, as though shaping a poem according to the strictures of a text message necessarily makes the poem interesting. Instead, the form feels central to these poems, and to what they are doing. Joudah has pointed out that for most people in the world who can’t afford unlimited texting, exceeding the character count means incurring additional costs; the character is a unit of economic value. The constraint of character count in the book, then, is not only a new kind of meter. It is also a metonym for the ways in which our language and our relationships are constrained by the world in which we live: by taking their form from one born of late capitalism, the text message, what these poems implicitly suggest is that all of our communication—and all of our poems—are shaped by this system, whether we would prefer to hold our attention on this fact or not.
It is fitting, then, that even as Textu asks us to consider the context in which lyric poems are made, it draws on and locates itself within the lyric tradition. The textu form shares the lyric’s feel of intimate address, the “u” in “textu” suggesting an interlocutor to whom the poems are addressed. And the poems in the collection take on, among other subjects, the conventionally lyric subjects of natural beauty, loss, and desire.
One of the most salient aspects of the book, and of how it could be said to both invoke and interrogate the lyric, is its relationship to tone. If there is a consistency to the self who moves through these poems, it is a consistency of restlessness, shifting in emotional register with relentless energy. Consider the lightning-speed changes in tone in the opening lines of “My Funny Life”:
My Funny Life
is one caboose after another
caboose in Arabic meaning nightmare
Consider, too, the variety of voice, from “an older veteran I was caring for // in the emergency room” who asks the speaker, “Do you know why I like Persians?” and then answers, “Because they are not / Arabs”—to this, in “Vigil”: “sometimes I wake up in bed on my knees / sleep-praying.”
The collection’s range of tone and voice is matched by its astonishing breadth of diction and subject matter, containing okra “fresh and leftover,” co-pays, olive trees, Zeus, Emily Dickinson, John Ashbery, King Lear, jellyfish, “my first two-lipped tulip,” and the Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon—site, along with the Sabra camp, of a massacre of thousands of civilians in 1982. These startling combinations of vocabulary and historical reference work to produce an incisive clarity; in “A Thousand & One Nights,” for example, Joudah writes:
Surely Penelope had sex
in her husband’s absence
With slave men & women
Folks in other words
the blind could not see
We think we know what story we are in—we think we know this story about Penelope—and then the term “undocumented” throws both the ancient story and our own contemporary moment into sharp relief. Who, the poem forces us to ask, do we see or not see now?
The restlessness in Textu should not be confused with a superficial gaze. On the contrary, Joudah’s poems are characterized by what Ellen Bryant Voigt has called “ruthless attention,” which the speaker turns equally on himself, on the medical profession (Joudah is a physician, and has worked with Doctors without Borders), and on dynamics of giving and receiving. “& poets who get paid as much,” Joudah writes in one poem:
wholly we listen to them
Don’t get all Che on me cheri
my patients “my”
as if I own them
and, in another:
that night the war ended
our weapons your war
the camp’s clinic was burned to the ground
our clinic your health
In “The Old Man Who Wept,” one of the most beautiful poems in the book, Joudah cuts against any too-flattering self-portrait by rendering the lengths of time the doctor has known the patient, the old man, as digits (“7,” for instance, instead of “seven”); we all know, when texting, that to write anything in shorthand is to imply that we don’t actually care that much. And yet—“For 4 summers / he’s shared with me // a basketful of lemons / from his lemon trees,” Joudah writes. The poem ends with the speaker going out to his own lemon tree “bent low this year.” “I’ll share with him // my lemons,” the speaker says, before addressing the old man directly: “Please come back for 1 visit more.”
These poems depict violence and pain vividly, and they couldn’t be said to offer a balm for that violence; even the speaker’s attempts at ethical action come under scrutiny. But, in their witnessing and observation, in their precise, unwavering attention, they offer a kind of corrective: paradoxically, it is through their refusal to romanticize—through, in a way, their ruthlessness—that an actual quality of care and regard comes through.
In the last poem in the book, called “Conscience,” Joudah writes:
When we learn how an infant in the womb
sleeps precisely in a parent’s pose
say with fist closed
pillowing the temple
What will become
of the poem
It seems clear here that the womb for the poem, the place that makes the poem and shapes it, is not the individual poet, or at least not the poet set apart from the world in which we live. This is the world the poems have evoked, made visible, with its casual cruelties, its wars, its caterpillars and ice-cream trucks. Here is what the last poem doesn’t need to ask: What is becoming of us?
Textu doesn’t offer a simple answer to this question; it deflects both sentiment and cynicism, as though both were too easy. The mistake in reading this book would be to think that you could simply “scroll through,” as Nick Flynn wrote, praising it. Or rather: that you could do so without it leaving a trace.