Monday, October 1, 2012

Philip Metres on "An Index"

For the past few years, I’ve been teaching Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai’s “The Diameter ofthe Bomb” because of the way it dramatizes how a single act of violence carries ripple effects that wreak havoc with whole societies. The Israeli/Palestinian conflict has been a daily havoc, sometimes mutely persisting, sometimes exploding. Wounds begetting wounds. Yet amid such violence, figures of witness, dialogue and peacebuilding have emerged from within these besieged communities. 

In the mid-2000s, after reading and extensively researching the history, politics and literature of Israel and Palestine, and spurred by a visit to Palestine and Israel for my sister’s wedding, I began to compose a series of poems that attempted to bring the voices of war and peacemaking in the contested land into a work that sheds light on the violence—its origins and ends—and how the communities that have suffered might emerge from it.

I began by investigating representations of violence, terror, and oppression in the Israeli/Palestinian context. I saw my poetry as “investigative,” following and highlighting the paper trails left in classified and unclassified documents and speeches, tuning its ear to the voices in YouTube videos that depict both despair and great courage. 

The project, “Along the Shrapnel Edge of Maps,” still very much a work-in-progress, has required me to confront the bedeviling politics of representation. The very frame I began with—exploring the ripples of a fictional suicide bombing (à la Amichai’s poem)—was tactical, as that story has dominated U.S. narrative of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. It was also personal. I had hoped, by confronting the most terrifying aspect of Palestinian resistance, to be able to face the abyss of hopelessness and the logic of revenge at the heart of the conflict. Some of the poems have forced me to look into that heart of darkness, as I explored videos of “martyrs,” at once chilling and absurd in their dispassionate anger.

But I’ve been unhappy with that frame. It is such a cliché of the official narrative, which emphasizes Palestinian violence (whether resulting from hateful anti-Semitism or from political resistance) as the starting point of the conflict. Much of my reading while writing this poem has explored the history of 1948; Israeli historian Ilan Pappe’s polemical account of what occurred in 1948, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, argues that ethnic cleansing of Palestinians began prior to the founding of the state of Israel and the onset of the Arab-Israeli war of May 1948; Israeli novelist S. Yizhar’s autobiographical novel, Khirbet Khizeh (1949), tells the story of one such cleansing operation from the point of view of a Jewish soldier. These are but two examples of dissident Israeli accounts to the official narrative of a tiny Jewish nation beset by bloodthirsty Arabs. The actual history, as usual, is much more complicated and thus easily displaced by the false clarity of myth. 

I don’t pretend that I don’t have strong political views about the conflict and the fundamental power asymmetry between Israel and Palestine, and about the dangers of peacebuilding when issues of justice and law are still very much unresolved. Still, what appears ever more clear to me is that the conflict itself has had for some time a theatrical quality. It’s the theater of traumatic repetition, in which each new generation appears unable to decline the roles that have been already written for it. Even those suicide bomber videos have the surreal quality of being a genre, in which the future bomber acts the role of monstrous avenger.

For “An Index,” I employed the 14-line quasi-sonnet structure to create a frisson between the poem’s sonically taut form and the technical language of indexes, in this case for the methods and materials of suicide bombings. (There’s a growing tradition of indexical poems—they seem to pop up with increasing frequency in our age of conceptualism—but this may be the first sonnet index.)  I struggled mightily with the ending, perhaps partly because indexes don’t really end except with the end of the alphabet. BPJ editor Lee Sharkey and I passed revisions back and forth more than a few times.

A few notes on “An Index,” then. Some historians suggest that the first recorded suicide attack was by Samson, in the Biblical story of Samson and Delilah—hence the reference in the poem. Shrapnel was invented by an ingenious Brit named Henry Shrapnel; I’d like to believe that the Inferno is capacious enough to add a special circle for those who invent weapons specifically designed to maim. “C4” is plastic explosive. “Viz.” is short for the Latin videlicet, which means “that is to say,” but I’m intrigued by its chopped half-echo of “vizier,” from “wazir” (Arabic for porter) and “wazara,” one who bears a burden. “Mother of Satan” is the slang term for acetone peroxide, which apparently packs quite a bang. Beyond what I’ve already said I don’t want to produce a reading of the poem, for all the reasons that poets usually offer. It’s yours now, not mine.


  1. Not that you need additional material for exploring the ripple effect, but the recently released report, "Living Under Drones" documents how drone attacks, which are supposed to be so surgical--think clean margins removing a tumor--are in fact anything but clean. The impact on families and whole communities can be devastating. Blast radius of a Hellfire missile is 15-20 meters.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Thanks, Paul. "Surgical strikes" do tend to belong to the realm of Orwellian newspeak. Reminds me of the famous joke, about the arrogant surgeon, who emerged from the operating room to say: the surgery was successful, but the patient died.

  3. The silence that has greeted this poem interests me as I came in on an earlier poem with a query about form addressed not only to the author, who had gone to some lengths to explain how the poem came to be written, but also to those who came in to say how much they admired it. I admired it too, and I went to some lengths to say why, but still there was no response to my difficulty, not from anybody. I was thanked by the author but my quibble dismissed because the poem had already been selected by BPJ. So what was there to criticize? -- if that was what I was doing, and I’m still not sure.

    Great poems are not always “perfect” poems, but become great because they have something to say that goes beyond mere skill and fashion. “So Much Depends Upon” is a piece of fluff from a critical point of view, and has wrecked havoc in writing workshops for decades all the way from junior high schools to MFA programs — indeed, no poem has done more damage to American poetry than this one, except perhaps “Howl.” Or “Sailing to Byzantium,” an adolescent absurdity couched in the most inflated, uncritical rhetoric (just a wind-up bird, really?), or “My Life had Stood—a Loaded Gun,” so bad it has had more written about it than any poem by a woman, or by a man for that matter, ever. Yet I can’t think of three poems I love more, or that have influenced me more deeply, or have stayed fresher in my imagination, in my soul, I’d like to say, and for so many years. Touchstones.

    Philip Metres poem is hard to read, and even harder to talk about. I personally turn away when I just see a gun pointed at someone on TV, what is more when the ambulance lights starts flashing on camera. It’s not that I don’t know about violence, or what wounds look like, it’s that I do know already, and feel very strongly that every time I allow myself to be an armchair spectator I facilitate that side of human nature. I want to flinch at vicarious violence, I want to turn away from the exploitation of it, I want to remain vulnerable so that I can never condone it, what is more pay to enjoy it!

    But I’ll be the first on the scene in real life, and won’t even care if I get my bare hands in the motorcyclist’s blood even when I know the percentage of men and women that are HIV positive where I live in Asia.

    Which is perhaps the point of the poem. Called merely “Index,” it’s just a list of “things” interspersed with the verb “see” with a few other lexical references to keep the researcher moving. Until the last line, just those three last ‘hard-k’ words (“cf. abbr. ‘confer’ (Latin: compare)”). And I’m sure it was extremely hard and time-consuming to get those last words right, Philip Metres, which you did. Heroically.

    It’s a poem that should never have been written, and in some ways is as unforgivable as “So Much Depends Upon.” And I thank you for that, Philip Metres – for what you have dared to give us.


  4. Dear Christopher,

    Thank you for your remarks on the poem, and on the strange ways in which poems take on a life of their own, despite the longings of their writer. I don't know where this one will go, but it certainly was a way for me to begin entering into the too-painful realm of the catalogue of political murder. I think something that poets don't acknowledge is that the imagination is a power that has unleashed great harm in addition to great good. Anything that can be made, it seems, can be made into a bomb. Even a baby carriage.

    I wish you well and the powers of healing there in Thailand!


  5. "Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so."

    Everyone who lives in a part of the world where babies are put in "carriages," which most babies in the world aren't, of course, associates innocence with the canopies, springs and big wheels of a comfortable, urban childhood -- an emblem of security, order, and well-being if there ever was one. The imagination that understands that limitation in us can blow us up quite easily.

    Which is what the wolf does in Little Red Riding Hood.

    That's what's so powerful about your last line, Philip -- which is the point at which the poem takes off as a poem for me, and makes all the horrors of the rest of it worthwhile.

    If a reader can wrestle his or her way through the last 4 words, that is, and it certainly took me awhile. It's an ending worthy of Emily Dickinson -- the austerity of the rest of the poem builds on Emily Dickinson-type compression without any of her redeeming disambiguation (your word!). And then "Cf. skin to kin!" -- the whole world of explosives AND lexical enumeration is exploded!

    Thanks again, Philip,


  6. Christopher, I thank Lee Sharkey for struggling with me over the ending--my version of the final line was longer and she suggested to pare it back, to its most primal part.

  7. Would you dare to show us the line before Lee Sharkey pared it back? Because I suspect there was something lost as well, as I know there always is when at last I find the archetypal bottom-line that makes one of my poems at last untouchable.

    Great editors are a blessing, but it's important to remember who we are and what we say BEFORE our work becomes immortal.


  8. Christopher, I can't find the earlier versions right now, but I concur that editors are angels--!

  9. This may be as good a time as any for me to put in a word. What drew the BPJ editors to "An Index" to begin with was the way it heightens the vocabulary of violence by compressing and containing it within the form of a book index, making the point ironically that violence may be normalized but will not be contained. Working with Phil on possible revisions of a few lines, I kept reading the poem aloud, feeling its rhythmic insistences. The relentless emphatic stresses of the first five stanzas--an enactment of violence, if you will--give way in the penultimate stanza to the softer sounds of "shard" and "shell" and the clusters of unstressed syllables that carry into the first line of the final stanza. This aural and tonal shift leaves us open, I think, for the quietly devastating--and as Christopher notes, redeeming--last line.

    Quite an accomplishment for a small poem, to demonstrate the culpability of language in perpetuating wars and to disarm it.

  10. Thanks again, Lee, for helping to bring it into being!

  11. I got badly scolded by a friend recently for using a very innocent bomb metaphor in one of my e-mails. "Did I want to be setting off the alarms at Homeland Security," she said "Didn't I realize I could get myself monitored forever?"

    This poem and subsequent discussion must have all the bells clanging at once in somebody's office -- indeed, do you think any writer has ever managed to fit so many no-no words into such a small exchange? Or asked for such close scrutiny of illicit weaponry, reminding us every few words, lest we forget —"see," then "see" again, then "and also see?"

    The irony is that the things the first 99 words in this 103 word poem enumerate are pretty easy to see on prime-time almost daily, yet we don't actually witness what the poem is asking us to "see." So what a disappointment it is, shock even, when we come to the last 4 words and don't find much of anything there either, what is more a resolution. Because the words in the last line are squeezed so dry we can hardly get hold of them, and we were hoping for rain!

    But speaking for myself, by the time I got to the end I was ready for that disappointment. The poem had put me in the habit of seeing without flinching, and of course searching through the dictionary to help. So I was primed and ready to let the first little word, "cf," 25% of the word-load in the last line, after all, carry a lot of the weight. I was ready to let it redirect my attention to something quite new -- and my feeling is that if we can follow that through in the poem we can expand not just our consciousness but our compassion!


    I have very ambivalent feelings towards the volume, "The Poems of Emily Dickinson," the one which its great editor, R.W.Franklin, calls "a reading edition." Well, I can't read Emily Dickinson like that -- I'm just not man enough for so many wild nights all at once. I want just one little E.D. poem at a time, please, and if possible cited somewhere really unexpected at a time when I have nothing else to do. Ditto this poem -- I never want to read another like it ever again!

    So thanks to you both, Philip Metres and Lee Sharkey -- how you've enriched my life for the past three weeks. But don't put me through this too often, please -- if I start taking this sort of poem for granted I won't ever get to see anything so important ever again!


  12. Grateful for your engagement, Christopher!

  13. Back in again one last time -- because I know this is not what one is supposed to do on a forum like this, and promise I won't mess it up all by myself again in the future.

    Lee-- it's not about the culpability of language, it seems to me, but the culpability of the reader. Words in themselves say everything one ever needs to know, "to be," for example, or "not to be," -- or Samson's prayer at the moment of his own self-detonation. "Only this once, O God!" he cries at the very end. And what are we supposed to make of that? Is God granting Samson permission to kill everybody within range when he answers that awful prayer, is that the message of the Bible? Or is God granting Samson at last insight into his own pathetic weakness? Because he's a terrible "front-line saint," isn't he, so able to slay so many with a very small weapon but unable to control his dick -- or "emphatic thumb," Emily Dickinson might have said. And I'm very deliberately going back to “My Life had Stood—a Loaded Gun” because it's such a shock to find Emily Dickinson of all poets in the world using terrorist imagery. Yet we know what she means, and we know it has very little to do with penises or patriarchy, per se, either -- which is such a limited, parochial reading. Important for our times, yes, but a reading that is merely political, and tells us almost nothing about what Emily Dickinson actually meant in herself.

    I would say.

    Just throwing that out -- and expecting this month's selection will be closing down any second in any case.

    With thanks to everybody,

  14. Thanks for bringing me back to the Bible and Samson; I know the poem does it, but I forget how complex and ambiguous the scriptures tend to be, with our constant "reading in" our own ideas and ideologies. Samson is indeed a classic egotist--perhaps it makes sense that he bring himself down along with everyone else.