KR Reviews

On Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance by Fady Joudah

Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2018. 104 pages. $16.00.

Fady Joudah’s “Traditional Anger (in the Sonora)” exemplifies two currents that run through his books: profound compassion and enigmatic phrasing. This poem—from the May/June 2016 issue of Kenyon Review, now included in Joudah’s latest collection Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance—opens with a seemingly-simple question: “Because you wait for what you asked for / how lonely is pleasure?” Though the title signals anger, this question belies a level of nonjudgment. This query—at what price do we get what we (think we) want—could apply to numerous situations, and it therefore touches the core of what it means to follow desire. This is one great joy of reading Joudah’s poems: we’re presented with snapshots from a life—walking in the desert, or a spider’s web spun in the handlebars of a bicycle—which get recounted and examined with philosophical and meditative intensity.

In this poem, the deep, probative inquiry is counterbalanced by Joudah’s tendency toward hard line breaks and cryptic phrasing, a technique that slows the reader down, creating room for another kind of meditation. After the opening question, the poem continues,

The saguaros want to speak
like daft telephone poles

more numerous closer apart

The first line in that second stanza, taken alone, is a koan-like puzzle. How could the cacti be greater in number when they are both closer and apart? If we read this section with different punctuation, it’s possible to see the telephone poles as “more numerous, closer” and “apart, untransmittable.” In a similar indeterminate fashion, the poem’s ending statement is unfinished. The sentence which begins “And if you come” includes no then-clause; it only points toward solitude with its last line,

And if you come
hydroelectric damned and saccadic

flooded plain and artificial
natural your claim

a carbon your every fission
an I

We’re left to complete the thought on our own, left to ponder the iterations of syntactic relations, left to ponder how desire can continue splitting us off to ourselves alone. We’re left with a cliffhanger suggesting that whatever connects us does not always allow us to communicate.

In addition to the syntactical play, the sound play in these poems demands an aural audience. These poems should be read aloud. The patterning is often playing hopscotch, as in these lines from the opening poem in the book, “The Magic of Apricot”:

The falafel of truth
and the truth of falafel

the stuff of novels

the truffle of return

The chiasmus formed by “falafel” and “truth” echo in the words “stuff” and “novels” and then blend together in the word “truffle.”

This book’s repetition occurs not only at the level of individual sounds, but also at a phrasal level. “The Magic of Apricot” takes its title from the recurring first line in most of the stanzas. Sometimes the anaphora exists as a standalone fragment, a footnote, an opening thought, as in

The magic of apricot
my daughter blurts out
the three unprompted words
“I love you”
in Arabic one

and at other times the phrase becomes part of the subsequent sentence, as in the fifth stanza, where the speaker says “The magic of apricot says / no one’s ever nude on radiology film.”

While Joudah’s anaphoras often operate like a refrain, they can blossom into more complicated forms of repetition. Joudah, a physician, combines his knowledge of poetry and medicine in the first of the two title poems, wherein the speaker, explaining an eye injury, first uses anaphora, “Her eyes were blue, her iris orange” and several stanzas later, as a tangential detail about watching a movie on schizophrenia, presents a variation of the phrase as epistrophe: “I saw it / with a lover I lost, her eyes were hazel, their waters green.” The lush attention to sound and repetition, along with the moments of grammatical indeterminacy, are what bring me back to these lines again and again.

In Sean M. Conrey’s microreview of this book, he identifies Joudah’s tendencies as the “ebb and flow between radical fragmentation and narrative coherence.” This is a succinct and accurate depiction of the aesthetic tensions in the book, and it calls to mind right- and left-brain activity. I’ve been describing these phenomena as something like linguistic artistry (the creative side) and humanistic inquiry (the more logical side), but the metaphor of a brain is perhaps more apt, because this figure fits the book’s structure.

The book is separated into three sections. The first and third sections are untitled. The middle section—aptly called “Saggital Views”—acts as a commissure between the two self-authored sections. “Saggital Views” connects two equal halves (the first and third sections are each sixteen poems long), and it acts as a corpus callosum, the nerve tissue binding the hemispheres of the brain and allowing them to communicate. This middle tranche of twelve pages is a collaboration and a translation, mostly in prose poem forms. Notes in the back explain that the “form and diction” of these poems are Joudah’s, but that the source material stems from “meetings, phone conversations, and email correspondence in Arabic” with the Syrian Kurdish writer and translator Golan Haji. This middle section, with phrases like, “some cuts run deeper than speech: writing may exit the cage but the cage remains and grows, or I am speaking the life of a footnoter” and “Your mom was born in the maiden year of the zodiac of aerial bombing [ . . . ] My mom was born in the constellation of armistice” point to the book’s concerns with communication and to the enduring violence perpetrated by Western interests in the Middle East.

The sections are not all that’s carefully constructed in the ordering of this volume. The poems throughout are arranged in groups of four, and in between each grouping there’s a varying glyph centered on a blank page. These pauses are represented by blank lines in the table of contents, rendering the list of poems as a set of quatrains: four in the first section, two in the second, and four in the final one. The changing glyphs in the first and third section occur in the same order, further connecting those sections. While this book demonstrates an intricate, careful, and anatomical structure that underscores the themes in the book, it is the themes themselves—friendship, compassion, the Middle East, and medicine—that will keep readers returning to the poems.

Laura Wetherington
Laura Wetherington's first book, A Map Predetermined and Chance (Fence Books), was selected by C.S. Giscombe for the National Poetry Series. She has a chapbook with Bateau Press, chosen by Arielle Greenberg for the 2017 Keel Hybrid Competition. Laura teaches in Sierra Nevada College's low-residency MFA program and is the Poetry Editor at Baobab Press.