KR Reviews

On Shrapnel Maps by Philip Metres

Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon, 2020. 170 pages. $20.00.

Growing up, two of my best friends lived next door to each other. We’ve since grown and moved away, but the parents still occupy the same houses. I observe an enduring rift between the neighbors when I return home each year. Whose chickens keep the neighbors up at night? Did one poison the others’ bush in an act of revenge? The stories of conflict between these two houses grow increasingly more elaborate as years pass. Who is the good neighbor? Who is the bad neighbor? And so, the stories of neighborhood conflict continue. When I lived in Albania, I thought often of its neighbor Kosovo, a territory still not recognized on Serbian maps. While living in Armenia, it was Artsakh, where fighting over the border still ensues. And of course, here in the United States, I am reminded we all live on occupied land. This occupied land also happens to be the land to which my Armenian relatives fled for safety, away from the genocide that ensued.

Rifts between neighbors go as far back as time; as the poet Philip Metres puts it, “It goes on like this for a long time. Years. Decades. Generations.” In his most recent collection, Shrapnel Maps, Metres focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Following his previous collection Sand Opera, Metres cements himself as a master of stylistically daring books. In Shrapnel Maps, Metres uses erasure, real documents, and alternative poetic forms to express difficult topics and literal cultural erasure. The book’s ten sections are broken up by photos, collages, and Israeli travel advertisements that display a sickening brightness amidst the darkness on the pages. One page is simply his daughter’s Sunday school homework, an assignment to fill in a map of Israel.

The book’s strength lies in its ability to include many voices. An expansive middle section of the book titled “Theater of Operations” is composed of monologue sonnets that alternate between Palestinian and Israeli voices. The poems tell the story of a fictional suicide bombing. Even though the experience is fictionalized, it feels incredibly real. Perhaps because Metres draws from many actual instances of suicide bombings. By naming his poems after the names of people, he further humanizes the conflict. These people in “rutted olive groves” with “feet softened with oil” become Sahar, Aaron, Mariam, Azriel, and Karim. Salim’s section shows the rift between what has been and what is.

between my village & what’s left / of our groves of lemon
& olive—razor-wired & identity card. To believe that

In the section titled “Azriel,” Metres manages to highlight his skill as a writer; the rhyme and music shine amid the gut-wrenching subject matter.

to sort the flesh from flesh. There is a kindness
in looking. To bring even a finger to burial.

Here is a human bomb. Here is a wedding hall.
Now scrape the bride & groom gently from the walls.

One gift Metres gives to his readers in Shrapnel Maps, which is absent from Sand Opera, is the personal narrative poem. In writing about the conflict between Israel and Palestine, Metres weaves in personal experience with Jewish neighbors. In the poem “One Tree,” he uses the story of a conflict over the cutting of a tree to solidify the universal point further; “Always the same story: two people, one tree, not enough land or light or love.” The voices of suffering are perpetually in the background of everyday life. They are there in bed with his wife; they are there when he jogs down the street or when his daughter wants to play with a Jewish neighbor. In a poem titled with broken parenthesis, the speaker in Metres’s poem struggles with the dual identity of being both Arab and American.

He talks around the awkwardness. I scrape the last dead leaves. The
Arab in me still wants to invite him in for tea. The American in me
wants the Arab to turn and disappear in the falling snow.

In the world of Shrapnel Maps, Metres seamlessly weaves together pop culture and international catastrophe, repeatedly reminding readers that these conflicts do not live not in our past: they are happening today. This use of pop culture is reminiscent of Peter Balakian’s Ozone Journal. In Ozone Journal, Jazz and brunch in New York is juxtaposed against digging Armenian bones in the Syrian desert. In Shrapnel Maps, we have the face of John Travolta circa Saturday Night Fever in the desert in Palestine. Or in the poem, “A Palestinian Refugee’s PowerPoint,” we find ourselves in a room where a PowerPoint presentation feels insufficient to tell the story of such atrocities. A student eyes and questions the appearance of the refugee speaker. In “Theater of Operations” in the poem titled, “Act Three. The Matter of Flesh of One’s Flesh,” Metres references Pink Floyd, Christina Aguilera, and Al Jazeera in an eerie round of young girls’ voices and death. There is a reference to Facebook in the same section as a girl with a bomb strapped to her chest. These are real people in our world today.

As I read Shrapnel Maps, I began to feel as if I was a part of the puzzle as well. That is the immense work of the book: reminding us that none of us are immune from such conflict. We all live on this earth together, no one is truly separate from the atrocities, and most of us are complicit.

In the afterword of the book, Metres asks a question that continues to rattle in my mind: “How can we listen better, attentive to the shards of pain, and invite the gentle flowing of kindness?” One small answer is to read a book like Shrapnel Maps. The book is an invitation to listen better, bear witness, and begin these difficult conversations. The book is a cacophony of voices. In the poems meant to be read aloud, the reader can imagine the bustle to talk over each other, an Israeli voice drowning out a Palestinian voice, and vice versa. Demolition, destruction, and chaos—a rift between valleys, between neighbors. But if you’re willing to listen, to really sit with the poems, you can begin to discern the humanity within the chaos.