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 (√† 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 clich√© 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.