The Futures Our Poems Make

I’ve been carrying a letter for weeks, wanting to answer it, holding onto its truth, not wanting to let it go too quickly. A woman wrote to me after reading “Homing In,” an essay in which I consider the possibilities of poetry that engages in the imaginative leap into others’ lives, lives far different and often far geographically from our own. The woman thanked me for my work and talked about her own life in light of the essay, sharing some poems she wrote. She said: “While I’m not sure about global poetry or cosmopoetics, I do know my little poems are one way that I am moving through grieving the loss of a one-year old granddaughter and a dear stepson. Your point about poetry being ‘an essential human endeavor’ to make sense of what is happening to us, was so comforting.”

Is there anything more real, more all-consuming, more isolating, than our own grief? Sometimes our grief can be so loud we can’t even hear our own voices. When we’re lucky, another voice or even a poem brings us back, reminds us of how our lives have dilated from the presence of this lost life. That we’ll never be the same, and that we’ll carry this other person in our not-sameness always.

The grandmother’s response to my essay forms a question that has haunted me as long as I’ve been writing: how to write a poetry that could make that leap from our personal lives across the gulf where our hearts and minds so often fail to reach, into the global and cosmic life, the life where we are not separate and we are not alone? How can we feel for the stranger a kindred joy and grief as for our neighbor, our own?

Metres and audience members reading from his most recent poetry collection, Sand Opera
Metres and audience members reading from his most recent poetry collection, Sand Opera

I carry her letter like I’ve been carrying the war in Iraq, occasionally forgetting that it’s pressed against my back inside my backpack. But it’s there, whether or not I remember. Like the poems I keep sharing from Sand Opera, to remind ourselves of what American life constantly seduces us to forget. Even our greatest memorial to the terrible cost of war, Maya Lin’s poignant Vietnam Veterans Memorial, contains only the names of Americans who died. 2.5 million Vietnamese dead go unnamed, like the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who are disappeared by our media coverage of the war. Sand Opera tries to make a visible and audible map of the Iraq War and the War on Terror, a map that we could carry in our eyes and ears, in our bodies and hearts. If we could enter those maps, and feel these wars, grieve the griefs of Iraqis like my friends Shakir and Nawal, how would that change us? How would it change how we vote and how we condone war, even only by our silence?

As a poet, I worked not only through language, language that renders the ruptures of violence, through the black bars of redaction and fractured syntax, but also through the strange images that expose the inhumane operations of war. Throughout Sand Opera drawings of rooms appear, with language floating on a vellum page above them. These are renderings of “black sites” by Mohamad Bashmilah, a former (and falsely accused) Yemeni detainee. These drawings are the renderings of one who has been “rendered,” sundered from everything he knew. To witness them is to enter the mind of a person utterly dislocated, yet obsessively trying to locate himself.

One of Bashmilah's drawings
One of Bashmilah’s drawings

A poem is a momentary home, a way to home in. A poem’s architectures, its forms, inform how we perceive and feel insides and outsides. In Sand Opera, we stumble among the broken syntax of the tortured in Abu Ghraib prison; stare at the thick walls of the vellum-paged “Black Site (Exhibit I),” trying to read the words on the next page seeping around the prison cell; we voice the words of a bereaved soldier’s wife who enters the military tank where her husband died, in “Home Sweet Home,” nested inside another poem, based on a letter of a soldier lamenting his own entrapment in the war.

Perhaps it’s true, as Seamus Heaney wrote, that “no lyric has ever stopped a tank.” But as my friend Dave Lucas once said, we don’t know the futures that our poems create. The ripple effect of a good poem is the opposite of a bomb’s concussion wave; it buoys us in its bracing music, whatever hurt it bears, holding us momentarily aloft. Breathing us. Carrying us into our ever-not-sameness.

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Philip Metres is the author of Pictures at an Exhibition (2016), Sand Opera (2015), I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky (2015), A Concordance of Leaves (2013), To See the Earth (2008) and others. His work has garnered a Lannan fellowship, two NEAs, six Ohio Arts Council Grants, the Hunt Prize, the Beatrice Hawley Award, two Arab American Book Awards, the Watson Fellowship, the Creative Workforce Fellowship, the Cleveland Arts Prize, and a PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant. He is professor of English at John Carroll University in Cleveland.

04.25.16 by Philip Metres