I always love reading Fady Joudah’s poetry and sharing it with you on the blog. This poem, “Canopus,” is from his most recent collection Tethered to Stars (Milkweed Editions, 2021).
Canopus is the second-brightest star in the night sky and the brightest star in Carina, a southern constellation. It’s a first-magnitude star not visible north of 37 degrees latitude.
Be an owl, not even a sunflower
turns its head 270 degrees,
but may the need to ask me about my darkness
never command you. Be a sunflower,
grow old to face east, warm in the morning,
kind to insects and bees, and may our overlap
be two: light and light in mouths that vary
the ninety-nine names for snow.
Fady Joudah has published five collections of poems: The Earth in the Attic;Alight;Textu; a book-long sequence of short poems whose meter is based on cellphone character count; Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance; and, most recently, Tethered to Stars. He has translated several collections of poetry from the Arabic and is the co-editor and co-founder of the Etel Adnan Poetry Prize. He was a winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition in 2007 and has received the Arab American Book Award, a PEN award, a Banipal/Times Literary Supplement prize from the UK, the Griffin Poetry Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is an Editor-at-Large for Milkweed Editions. He lives in Houston, with his wife and kids, where he practices internal medicine.
My friend Fady is one of my favorite poets. He recently had a longish poem out in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and if you click on that link you can read it as well as listen to him reading it. I don’t think he expected how much traction this poem would find, but my guess is that’s just his humility. If you are interested in reading some of Fady’s very short poems, you should check out his book Textu (Copper Canyon Press), which were poems all initially composed on his phone as text messages, in a time when text messages were limited in length like tweets are.
The rats are invisible.
The bats are beautiful.
Here’s the livestock and fish market,
and there’s the institute for the biologic.
We’re ravenous. Our hunger travels
in fueled suitcases packed with desires.
The virus is real,
gave up its passport,
stops for no officer
save immunology’s guards
in epidemiology’s tribe.
For decades, millions die every year:
from TB, poverty and malnutrition, attrition,
pneumonia, diarrhea, millions the count
of Spain’s, England’s, or Italy’s population
annually wiped off the earth,
untouchables outside history,
and though their geography be
diverse, it’s short of total.
The pandemic is real.
If hospitals are overwhelmed,
the virus will add to the otherwise
preventable deaths and lawsuits.
Diabetes, heart disease, kidney failure,
our bread and butter,
and organ transplants
may be placed on hold:
people, there is no human system
for this sort of pandemonium
and there won’t be
unless echo is one.
But if so many die
in a single season,
what will happen to life insurance
firms? If one percent
of Americans die in one swoop,
what will become of grief?
What if rent and mortgages,
utility bills, phone and car payments,
student and small business loans
are waived for a month,
pardoned? What if CEOs
give up their salaries
for 8 weeks so that the faucet
drips the tub full
with buoyancy for all?
The virus is indebted to no one.
Distances close in on us.
The curve and the herd and this
much death on our soil.
Antibiotics, globulins, gloves, masks,
and numerator to denominator
as yin to yang, if we’re lucky,
when the virus returns
it will be wearing less imperial clothes.
Every 2 minutes a child dies of malaria.
Infomercial, how many minutes in a year?
Malaria lyses more than the blood of children
and their mothers. Extreme measures
against the virus should be taken.
This pandemic, one sorrow,
one love, this pandemic hangs
on a strand of the helical tongue.
This pandemic brings me back to eros.
And to hysteria’s translation
in the mind. Pleasure evolved
out of life inside life
wanting no more than life itself.
Then things got sweet,
has some capitalist features
yet isn’t capitalist, and we know
what else evolution isn’t,
we’ve been unimaginative of late,
since we’ve run out of land
but not out of real estate:
the virus teases us
with the bliss to come
after detention is served.
To hold the estranged.
To touch strangers.
An ecstasy worth waiting for.
And our detention is the earth’s respite
from our jets and flues
and wireless energy.
A little rest, not for long.
So, extreme measures, why not?
Have you been displaced by war,
scattered by wind, tattered by abundance?
In the last fourteen days,
have you experienced the endemic flare up
like a bad knee, immobilizer bad,
a migraine in the dark?
healthcare a human right,
and infrastructure, infrastructure, people,
culling of militaries, monopolies,
but who’ll go first?
20 million Iraqis ravaged for generations.
20 million Syrians and 20 million Yemenis.
And the curable after excision
with clear margins. The virus doesn’t speak,
doesn’t want to be written,
doesn’t give voice to the voiceless
or pay low wages
to the lowly. And the looting,
always the looting. This kind of talk
is part of the problem not the solution.
Still as a friend said: amidst all this
uncertainty and concern
the camellia in my garden
is glorious and serene
in the knowledge of Spring.
Far and near
the virus becomes our alibi
to obey more in sickness and in wealth.
Far and near the virus awakens
in us a responsibility
to others who will not die
our deaths, nor we theirs,
though we might, but must direct
our urgency to the elderly, our ancestors
who are and aren’t our ancestors.
And to the compromised.
The virus won’t spare the poor
or the young or anyone
with architecture primed for ruin.
This August the quarantine on small joys
should lift. Fifteen years ago this August,
I came back from Darfur
to Hurricane Katrina: it was mostly
Anderson Cooper on TV.
In Gaza the virus breaches
the siege as document of science
and will not exit. Israel offers
to track the virus on cellphones
of the infected, a treasure trove.
Does economy lament? Is it an individual
or a corporation? Can it repent?
Can capital grow catatonic
or speak Chinese?
What is avarice with God or without?
Let’s not say the virus is blaming the patient.
Lacking objectivity these words
don’t dismiss progress, the sample size,
who’ll analyze the data,
or who’ll get the bailout?
Without people there’s no power over the people.
How much for a mosquito net?
Three a year per person
if the swamp isn’t drained
and heaven’s mouth isn’t shut?
During the carving of the Panama Canal.
During penicillin fungating
in shrapnelled limbs.
During smallpox and sex.
What if a pandemic kills
far fewer than other non-pandemic ailments?
The panic’s in the pan,
and vaccines are real.
An organism lives to reproduce
its servant, master, and host.
We’re all equally small.
And after survival,
which shall not be pyrrhic
if measures are enforced,
surveillance will multiply,
careers will be made,
grants will be granted,
a depression aborted, attenuated,
and a call to papers:
spend a penny, save a dime,
invest a nickel, make a quarter.
The birth rate exceeds the mortal wound.
Our overlords will return us to our dreams of forgetting.
And our lords,
who aren’t in heaven,
give us this day
and lead us not
but deliver us
and the pulverized,
if they’re still warm,
if light enough for the breeze.
Go to this month’s first Poem-A-Day to learn how to participate in a game as part of this year’s series. You can have just a little involvement or go all the way and write a cento. I hope you’ll join in!
Fady Joudah is a practicing physician. His most recent poetry collection is Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance, and his forthcoming one is Tethered to Stars, both from Milkweed Editions.
So we come to the end of another National Poetry Month, and I’ve loved sharing these thirty poems with you, and I realize I haven’t included enough prose-poems, a form I rather like.
Here is one by Fady Joudah, a poet who is also my friend who also lives in the same city I do (more or less) whom I also don’t see very often for long stretches at a time and then we find ourselves in the same place over and over again for a few weeks or a few months. I love that.
He and I were both coincidentally featured at a reading in February. Then both coincidentally featured on a radio program last week. Who knows what will be next or when?
Here is his poem “Palestine, Texas” from his latest collection Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance — which, by the way, is absolutely wonderful, if not his best thus far.
“I’ve never been,” I said to my friend who’d just come back from there. “Oh you should definitely go,” she said. “The original Palestine is in Illinois.” She went on, “A pastor was driven out by Palestine’s people and it hurt him so badly he had to rename somewhere else after it. Or maybe it goes back to a 17th century Frenchman who traveled with his vision of milk and honey, or the nut who believed in dual seeding.” “What’s that?” I asked. “That’s when an egg is fertilized by two sperm,” she said. “Is that even viable?” I asked. “It is,” she said, “on rare occasions, though nothing guarantees the longevity of the resulting twins.” She spoke like a scientist but was a professor of the humanities at heart. “Viability,” she added, “depends on the critical degree of disproportionate defect distribution for a miracle to occur. If there is life, only one twin lives.” That night we went to the movies looking for a good laugh. It was a Coen brothers’ feature whose unheralded opening scene rattled off Palestine this, Palestine that and the other, it did the trick. We were granted the right to exist. It must have been there and then that my wallet slipped out of my jeans’ back pocket and under the seat. The next morning, I went back. With a flashlight that the manager had lent me I found the wallet unmoved. This was the second time in a year that I’d lost and retrieved this modern cause of sciatica in men. Months earlier it was at a lily pond I’d gone hiking to with the same previously mentioned friend. It was around twilight. Another woman, going in with her boyfriend as we were coming out, picked it up, put it in her little backpack, and weeks later texted me the photo of his kneeling and her standing with right hand over her mouth, to thwart the small bird in her throat from bursting. If the bird escapes, the cord is severed, and the heart plummets. She didn’t want the sight of joy caught in her teeth. He sat his phone camera on its pod and set it in lapse mode, she wrote in her text to me. I welled up. She would become a bride and my wallet was part of the proposal. This made me a token of their bliss, though I’m not sure how her fiancé might feel about my intrusion, if he’d care at all. “It’s a special wallet,” I texted back. “It’s been with me for the better part of two decades ever since a good friend got it for me as a present.” “He was from Ohio,” I turned and said to my film mate who was listening to my story. “Ohio?” She seemed surprised. “Yes,” I replied quizzically. “There’s also a Palestine in Ohio,” she said. “Barely anyone lives there anymore. All of them barely towns off country roads.”
Fady Joudah has published four collections of poems, The Earth in the Attic, Alight, Textu, a book-long sequence of short poems whose meter is based on cellphone character count; and, most recently, Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance. He has translated several collections of poetry from the Arabic. He was a winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition in 2007 and has received a PEN award, a Banipal/Times Literary Supplement prize from the UK, the Griffin Poetry Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He lives in Houston, with his wife and kids, where he practices internal medicine.
The world is too much with us. This poem, which I think about often, is a reflection of that.
. wouldn’t hurt a spider
That had nested
Between her bicycle handles
For two weeks
Until it left of its own accord
If you tear down the web I said
It will simply know
This isn’t a place to call home
And you’d get to go biking
She said that’s how others
Become refugees isn’t it?
Fady Joudah is a Palestinian-American poet and physician. He is the 2007 winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition for his collection of poems The Earth in the Attic. “Mimesis” appears in his book Alight, published by Copper Canyon Press.
Just being around Fady Joudah causes my brain to operate in lyric, to think in snatches of poetry as ephemeral as they are light.
Simple phrases formulating in my head about the most ordinary things become filaments of verse, appearing in my mind’s eye as I think them and then disintegrating to make way for the next fragment at such a rapid pace I can’t even stop long enough to write them down. Suddenly a simple self-command such as “park the car on that side of the street” becomes a metaphor: the busy downtown street is now a rainy gulf teeming with waves of traffic, my car a tiny craft pitching forward to a parking meter that in my imagination faintly resembles a dock strewn with fallen flowers.
Sometimes I wonder, if this is the effect he has on other people, what must it be like to live inside his brain?
Fady’s Textu (published by Copper Canyon Press) is a collection of short form poetry launched only as an e-book, in part due to the nature of the genesis of the form: the poems in this collection conform to the length of a text message, exactly 160 characters, each poem determined in part by character count. The first thing I thought when I began reading them was, My students will love this. So many of them feel intimidated when I ask them to write a poem. For so many of them, the stormy chasm between poetry and their comfort with and understanding of it might as well be filled with basilisks. But ask them to write a text message with an unusual image in it? That, they can do.
Enter Textu, and suddenly poetry becomes more accessible because it feels familiar. The e-book format is also inviting, since on an e-reader, every book is just a file of words, a novel is the same size and weight as a mechanical engineering tome, the same as a novella, the same as a short story, the same as a collection of verse. There is nothing unfamiliar about e-book files because — despite the obvious differences in formatting once you get into them — they are all alike subconsciously, and therefore – take this leap with me — one does not feel the Otherness of poetry in an environment where poetry is not read enough.
I asked Fady once about how he came up with the idea for the Textu form, which plays on the words “text you” and “haiku.” He said it came from noticing how much time people spend texting.
“I found myself playing with the language while sending texts to friends, and then it dawned on me, as one of them quipped about my poetic texts, why not harness my anxiety about not being able to write longer poems, due to time constraints, clinic and home, into the art of the short poem through the medium of text message.” (He then developed this idea into a meter for stanza length to use in some of the longer poems in the collection.)
Time constraints? Anxiety about not being able to spend enough time on one’s manuscripts? I can relate. I began writing what I call “short form debriefs” because of this very problem. It’s been helpful. Rather than strive to craft a longer poem about Lots Of Big And Important Ideas, take a single moment and fill it with highly developed imagery and a single specific idea. I shared this method with my students, too. The response? This is good, this is satisfying.
This is accessible.
I love the way so many of these poems play. Is it commonplace to say that a poet plays with language? Of course. Does that make it any less true? No. Consider one of the first entries in the collection, “Descending Tongue”:
. I am a fig of your imagination
. fig meant for it
. you’ll care a fig
. give a fig bleach it
. my flesh is red my milk white
. my skin is honey sweat
Focusing on the entertainment of the evolving antique expression and pun distracts me from the real sensuality of the poem, so that when I arrive at the last couplet I feel surprised. I remember the title of the poem. I remember that I love figs. I bring a myriad of associations to the experience of reading the poem, some innocent and tender from hours spent playing under and harvesting from the fig tree as tall as my childhood home in the corner of our backyard, to the chapter of fig recipes in an aphrodisiac cookbook on my kitchen bookshelf. The poem invites me to play.
In his poem “Eurydice,” he eliminates the myth from the Greek story, thereby humanizing what might have been a distant, academic anecdote.
. Low visibility midsummer fog
. you are deaf cold your eyes
. a grasshopper statute
. of limitations on return
. Now you are declassified
. it is about to snow
I love to teach this poem, along with Seamus Heaney’s “The Underground,” as an example of the myth poem. What could feel more heartbreaking than the inaccessibility of one person – lover, parent, child, moody BFF – to another? And who doesn’t understand that? The myth has been made personal, just as the Textu form has made poetry personal to an audience so far removed from “Dover Beach” and “Dulce et decorum est” that verse had become anathema. Fady similarly re-introduces Ariadne, Penelope, Scheherezade, Zeus, Abraham.
The poems in this collection touch on more than love, of course. There are politics, medicine, the struggle for an understanding of how our systems of government and the labels we use for them confound us, thoughtful questions on the nature of poetry itself, open text messages to old masters of letters – explorations which, for me at least, cannot be separated from the poet who writes about them. Fady incorporates the modern vernacular of an age both scientific and technological into stunning images as light and ephemeral as the filaments of poetry I can’t help but think and yet not fully grasp when I am around him.
And then, after a series of poems which feel both grounded and esoteric, a very concrete foray into the most recognizable “When the Grandmother Dies”:
. it’ll be kept secret
. from her four daughters
. who’ll be flying in
. from three different countries
. after years of absence
. reunion ends
. When the grandmother dies
. it’ll ruin summertime
. for the grandkids who
. in their mothers’ grief will eat
. okra each day
. fresh & leftover
. till it tastes like ash
. When the grandmother dies
. the groundskeeper will beg for cash
. he comforts her he’ll say
. & the sisters
. will reply
. Were it not for you
. the dead would have died
Love occurs in Textu in so many different ways. Near the beginning and end of the collection we have poems of romantic love, as if suggesting that such a thing can envelop a person, can ground one in both reality and lyric. This, like the accessibility of the form to people who are terrified of writing poetry themselves, comforts and energizes the reader/writer/student poet.
Anyone who knows me or who has read my responses to other poets’ work knows how much I’ve struggled with being a poet, a teacher of poetry, a reader of it. It’s such a subjective genre and one so misunderstood and maligned, sometimes even subconsciously or apologetically by others who love literature. How often have you heard someone say they would love poetry if they understood it? Or if they’d been taught any interesting poems in school? Or if they felt confident enough to tackle it? (Forget for a moment that these excuses at times shuck one’s own responsibility for reading and thinking.)
The familiarity of the form Fady has codified makes poetry a real thing, an integral thing, a seemingly easy thing to attempt, while the poems in Textu are yet finely wrought. I challenge you to read this collection and then not feel moved to compose one yourself.
Start small. You have 160 characters. Don’t worry about punctuation. Play.
N.b. In this review I refer to the poet by his first name because he is a personal friend of mine, and because I don’t call him by his last name. This may count as a disclaimer for my endorsement of the book, if you like, if that matters to you, but understand that even if I didn’t know him, I wouldn’t change any portion of my opinions here. Textu is a lovely and worthwhile addition to any personal library. The poems and quote I’ve used here have been used with Fady’s permission.