Last week, I received my copy of Ghazals for Foley in the mail. James Foley was an American journalist and my classmate in the MFA program in fiction at UMass Amherst. Jim’s death at the hands of ISIS and the images released online following his death in August of 2014 shocked the world—those who knew him, certainly—and many, many who didn’t. Foley’s close friend, poet Yago S. Cura, another classmate at UMass, conceived of and edited Ghazals for Foley. This anthology, subtitled “A Collection of Ghazals and Ghazal-Like Poems” is a tribute to Jim’s spirit, life, and work.
A short story by Jim, previously published by Hinchas Press, is also in the book. Contributors include poets Martin Espada, C.S. Carrier, Benjamin Balthasar, Daniel Mahoney, Susie Merserve, Ethan Paquin, Connolly Ryan, Andrew Varnon, and fiction writers Shauna Seliy, Brian Jordan, Matt Basiliere, and myself (all from UMass Amherst). Two other writers whose work I particularly admired were that of journalist Clare Morgana Gillis, who was captured with Jim in Libya, and Jim’s friend from his Teach for America days, poet Daniel Johnson.
Johnson’s compact, stunning poem, “Ghazal for James Wright Foley,” begins with an epigraph: “The idea of walking ahead on my own through the desert as if compelled by a magnet is insane.” –James Foley in his Syria journal. Johnson’s ghazal moved me nearly to tears with its plaintive, heartbreaking refrain:
Kinetic friend, you moved like light in a mirrored room. Come home.
Raqqa. Damascus. Aleppo. Homs. You rarely took a room. Come home.
We’ll read Borges aloud–burn windfall in the pit–spark a joint.
You’d leave a parting gift, a rebel scarf or Turkish cartoon. Come home.
You crashed your Civic reading Chomsky in Chicago traffic.
Who now will shatter the day into such bright ruins? Come home.
I killed a bat in Olanna’s room, its body the size of a grape.
I laid it in the trash on eggshells like broken stones. Come home.
Roethke in his journals wrote–The cage is open. You may go.
If sunlight bleeds under your cell door, Jim, never the moon. Come home.
Whenever I think of ghazals, I think of our former UMass professor, the late Agha Shahid Ali, who is credited for bringing the form back into usage within contemporary American poetry. The ghazal, often about love and longing, is also naturally elegiac in form. As Cura writes in the introduction to the anthology, “Using the ghazal’s form to ‘speak’ with Jim made sense to us, I guess, because of how the repetition crescendos, and because the form has addressed separation, mourning, and loss for centuries.”
How do we mourn? How do artists and writers make sense of grief, of insanity, of what cannot be resolved or reconciled? Jim died, but that is not the end of his story.
Our classmate Daniel Mahoney’s poem, “Ghazal of Witness,” delivers one answer, one response. “These are the names: Lorca, Hikmet, Tyndale, Foley. Their words / speak louder than their deaths. Their work is a ministry of witness.”
Recently, Jim’s childhood friends, filmmaker Brian Oakes and writer Heather MacDonald premiered the documentary film they made about Jim at Sundance. JIM: The James Foley Story was shown on HBO last month.
In an interview in Vogue, Oakes said:
That image of him that the world got to know, him in the orange jumpsuit, what I wanted to do with the film was recontextualize that image. James Foley has become a symbol of many things. People have used that image for political agenda, to sensationalize terrorism . . . I felt a responsibility because I knew him. I was very protective of my friend. I think by telling his story, what he was doing as a journalist, that image becomes a completely different thing . . . For me it was a way to take the image away from its intended purpose and reclaim it for Jim.
In another publication, LATF USA, Oakes said:
It was always amazing to me that Jim was in Syria three years ago telling the stories of civilians being bombed by their own government and living in just horrible conditions. . . . Now we are witnessing the largest refugee crisis since World War II. The journalism he was doing in Syria is so relevant. And that’s important. Jim’s work matters. He is in the news for how he died and he would have been horrified by that. He never wanted to be the story.
Jim loved life and he loved people. As Oakes said, Jim would not have wanted to be the story. Still, I know he would understand the need for those who knew him to want to share their stories and create a fuller picture of his life and work.
In my attempt to deal with Jim’s death, I scoured my parents’ basement for boxes from that time in my life. I found a photo, his workshop comments on two stories, and some of his writing. I was looking for evidence that he existed outside of the nightmarish news cycle of 2014. We had known each other, we had been young and in our twenties together. That world existed.
As with Oakes and MacDonald, I think my hope in writing something about/for/to Jim was also about trying to replace the disturbing images and rhetoric I had seen in the media with the memories and knowledge I did have of Jim: salsa dancing with him in Hadley, drinks at the World War II Club in Northampton after readings, driving to Springfield to one bar or another; his voice, his laughter, his face across the table in workshop, in class.
At his memorial, friends showed footage of Jim as a handsome, awkward teenager on a high school quiz show on New Hampshire public television—an image I would never have seen in any other circumstance. In my poem, “The Granite State,” I write about watching that clip of the Granite State Challenge, the innocence of that time in his life, in all our lives.
I quote from Jim’s workshop letter to me—as if by using his words, I could, in whatever way, resurrect my memory of him, add to the picture of him (he was a careful, thoughtful reader):
I like the pathos you lay out there, your writing is risky, barbs underneath a fleecy texture.
They are his words—his handwriting, syntax, diction (pathos, barbs, unreality, venture, flux, desires), his script, his scrawl, his thinking across the page—and therefore matter.
The verse beginning with Jim’s words ends with mine: “This memory. / I am pleased you call my writing risky. I will replace all other memories with this memory.”