November 15, 2019KR Reviews

“Without These Documents”: On Philip Metres’s Returning to Jaffa

Doha, Qatar / Richmond, VA: Diode Editions, 2019. 36 pages. $12.00.

Documentary poetry exists on a kind of continuum. On the extreme end, you have projects like Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day, a laborious, letter-for-letter transcription of an entire issue of the New York Times—September 1, 2000. In paperback, it runs 836 pages, weighs almost exactly three pounds, and is basically unreadable in any usual sense. You might think of it as sculpture or the incidental record of a live performance.

Toward the other pole, I’d put works like C.D. Wright’s One Big Self, which she labels “an investigation.” It emerged from time spent with incarcerated people in three Louisiana state prisons. The poet here provides testimony—her own and others’—and performs the type of witnessing that can be done only on assignment, in the field. Ultimately, she serves as editor and assembler of fragments, voices and observations, stitching them into music, into poetry. “I wanted the banter, the idiom, the soft-spoken cadence of Louisiana speech to cut through the mass-media myopia,” she writes in her prose introduction.

What seems to bind the genre together is that its practitioners hold themselves to a standard of journalistic integrity to which we do not generally hold poets—courting the reader’s trust and gaining authority by drawing on the toolkit of nonfiction.

“When I write that the spring water is 51 degrees, I have measured it with a thermometer. When I write that once on a visit to the White House, I sipped La Crema Reserve Chardonnay and ate smoked salmon mousse, I have checked old White House records through the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library,” notes longtime journalist Walt Harrington. So, we trust that Goldsmith didn’t skip any of the stock listings or QuickBooks ads to save his tired fingers, and that a sign Wright notices on a prison weight bench really says what she says it said. (I weighed my copy of Day on my wife’s kitchen scale.)

This commitment affords documentary-minded poets additional options for exploring and confronting social and political themes—the criminal justice system (One Big Self), extraction capitalism (Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary), environmental destruction (Rebecca Dunham’s Cold Pastoral), racism (Martha Collins’s Blue Front), historical atrocities (Tarfia Faizullah’s Seam)—without resorting to polemic and while preserving the poet’s armamentarium: breath, sound, rhythm, wordplay, polyvocality, multivalence, collage, emotional vulnerability, ambiguity, the broad canvas of the page. As with other forms of documentary, the primary orientation is inquiry.

Philip Metres’s recent chapbook Returning to Jaffa deploys first-hand testimony, military leaflets, vintage postcards, and photographs to probe the wound of the Nakba—the dispossession of the Palestinian homeland in 1948—and the fate of one of the region’s most populous cities. It traces the blind socket into which Jaffa’s municipal archives, containing vital property and business records, unaccountably disappeared, leaving Arab residents with no way to substantiate claims on their former lives—an evidentiary void that resonates at the heart of the work.

our bags packed, we drove past houses in
flames houses in houses in houses in flames

without these documents I could never prove
I lived there that this house was mine and
this life was mine

Not only do the poems give broader voice to the experiences of Dr. Nahida Halaby Gordon, who fled Jaffa as a nine-year-old child, they also recontextualize our encounter with this past by relocating it within the borders of poetry—which demands from us a different quality of attention than memoir, reportage, or essay.

The first poem of the book demonstrates what the poet can bring to these investigations that the historian and pundit do not. The text is broken across two pages and is intended to be read by four people simultaneously—a cacophonous yet salient effect Metres calls upon audience members to achieve at live readings. Here Nahida’s poet-prismed recollections are married to an arch tour guide who recites the litany of the land’s conquerors from the Egyptians through the “Crusaders, Mongols, / Mamluks, Ottomans, / French, British, and, / Zionist militias: now you!” The poem also introduces, using the poet’s power of elision, a 1948 military leaflet—a piece of hard documentary evidence that provides scaffolding for the larger project’s softer, subjective elements.

As Metres grapples with losses literal and metaphorical, the yellowed flier discovered among Nahida’s father’s papers enumerates “INSTRUCTIONS TO THE ARAB POPULATION” from the Haganah paramilitary force. It outlines the surrender of weapons, orders for Palestinian men to gather between certain streets “until everybody has identified himself,” the need to apply for permits if one wants to leave or to return.

The leaflet calls immediately to mind the violence-effacing bureaucratese of Heimrad Bäcker’s book-length poem transcript, which tries to render comprehensible the tremendum of the Jewish Holocaust through the clean, technical language of the Reich—train schedules, telephone records, a dull list of times that endnotes reveal are from fatal hypothermia experiments. Here, too, one finds proscribed rules for departure: “you are requested to leave the keys in the locks of all furniture, chests, etc. as well as the keys in the locks of all interior doors.” (Bäcker falls toward Goldsmith’s end of the spectrum, limiting himself to direct quotation of records and applying his craft through the selection and arrangement of textual elements.)

As Metres notes in an afterward, the Haganah flier—which is not only replicated and explored within individual poems, but also reproduced in full photographically—provides artifactual weight that speaks to the planning and coordination behind the Palestinians’ disenfranchisement, and that lends its imprimatur to the witness borne by Nahida and others. (Never mind that the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan would have left Jaffa in an isolated thumbnail of territory surrounded by the Jewish state and disconnected from the rest of Palestine—a plan that seems, to put it neutrally, fraught.)

While drawing attention to and informing the debate over the Palestinians’ removal and right of return, and to the circumstances surrounding the seizure of Arab property (including the Halaby house on Ajami Street), the slim volume’s more immediate and compelling invitation is to remind the reader how inquiries into capital-H History and personal tragedy are ultimately inextricable.

Then, years later, it was an apartment complex. When my father remodeled the property before the war, he built a secret chamber within the steps, placing several bottles of wine he planned to serve at his children’s weddings. The steps were gone now.

Something I have appreciated in Metres’s documentary work is that he is keenly sensitive to his own positionality within the larger frame. In his complex and haunting Sand Opera, this comes through when the book shifts its meditation, for example, from torture chambers of America’s Iraq War to (the reader is invited to interpret) a view of the trauma through his young daughter’s eyes: “She asks: is that man crying / or singing? How am I to answer?” In Returning to Jaffa, the poet is present as the one who invites Nahida to share her story with his college literature class, and with us—and stands, as both poet and teacher must, uncertain of the impact of this forensic exercise, while his audience “soporific from history, slip into a dream / . . . or glance at their screens, seeing or not seeing.”