Someone please riddle me this: Where does a medical doctor get the time to write poetry? It’s not as though a doctor is an insurance executive sitting at a big desk all day with underlings assigned to normal operations and a secretary at hand to take poetry dictation. Perhaps there is some terrifying multi-tasking going on that we don’t really want to know about. But it occurred to me as I settled into reading Fady Joudah’s latest, Alight (Copper Canyon, 2013), that the more appropriate question is How does a poet find time to see patients?
The answer, of course, is that these pursuits are not mutually exclusive, and Joudah’s poetry is clearly written by someone fully employing both hemispheres of the brain. His work is attuned equally to form and content, the power of declaration and the no less effective power of intimation. He tackles the big issues of geopolitical struggle but also the careful internal negotiations of parenthood with equal alacrity. Along the way, he interrogates the conception of the line—in ways that sometimes fall flat but usually succeed to great cumulative effect. Most of all, a close attention to humanity—necessary to both a good doctor and a good poet—runs through the lines.
Alight begins in conflict with the somewhat over-prescriptively titled “Tenor.” Here, “rubble wrapped / In shirts of the dead” and “half-empty school benches / Where each boy sits next / To his absence” indicates that we are in some sort of aftermath. To take the collection’s title as a clue, we touch down, in effect, in a moment of dimness. The second poem, “After”—a brilliant multi-parted affair that dabbles in couplet and short-stanza sections—argues that the only effective antidote to despair is to keep talking. The speaker seems to be a field hospital doctor in a conflict zone, and his approach is a three-parted injunction. The poem points up the need to wage peace through discussion, it encourages the injured civilian in the one-sided existential discussion, and it works as an ars poetica, by which the poet assembles meaning from a cacophony of interrupting voices:
I put my one arm up
And bring my one foot down on a hot zinc top
The nearest hospital was the dawn
She didn’t know her daughter on her back was
The entry wound and she the exit
She ran a brothel so
The officer said
The meaning here is madness, its own refutation of meaning, which leaves the speaker strangely dissected or disembodied. Joudah’s most effective approach is this rapid shifting of voice and even speaker minus the signposts of punctuation These moments cause the reader to consider multiple possibilities and introduce nuance. Is “the dawn” a simple piece of setting finally registered by a doctor after a long shift? Is it an eventuality imposed from the outside by the same indifferent god that allows a carried child to be an “entry wound”? Will this victim be dead by dawn? Is dawn merely the dawning of some other piece of vital information? Or is it simply an indication that all characters now have the light necessary to realize their circumstances? Joudah’s technique forces us to choose all of the above, and more.
The “all of the above” approach is an indication of Joudah’s generousness of spirit and an unwillingness to pass quick judgment. But having mastered this formal construction, Joudah is anxious try others. A handful of prose poems punctuate the collection, and here the degree of success varies. “Listening” is the first attempt. Detailing a doctor’s interview with a psychotic, nihilistic combatant, the poem’s subject matter is gripping enough. But the approach is an A to Z prose account—much like a case file narrative—and the choice of a prose poem format means that the sentences have no formal constraint against which to abrade. Successful prose poems need some catch beyond striking content to create this necessary heat, whether it be variation in voice or temporality, sentence length or some other component. For this reason, another of the prose poems, “Blue Fly,” is much more successful: it is written in second person—unusual for this collection—and it contains a harrowing quotation in rather formal diction to contrast with the informal diction of the surrounding sentences which include fragments and an exclaimed question. I am aware that the theory above may be contentious, but if we grant that all prose poems are not created equal, then there must be some way to distinguish the various attempts at this art form.
Perhaps because of my misgivings about “Listening,” the momentum flags for me in the middle section of Alight, even though there is some strong work in this stretch. Joudah brilliantly explores the notions of violence and culpability in two adjacent poems, “Hands” and “Also,” and he masterfully pivots between the conflict-centered early poems and the intimate, family-centered later poems in “A Kindness,” which begins,
Taxi driver drives through Main his plates are legit
A father and son in the shadow of snipers
To pray surrounded by guards
To pray to the guards or
To the invisible god in the guards […]
Son finds a stray puppy calls to it in his enemy’s tongue
Taxi exits Broadway
Son poses like a kid in the shadow of snipers
The repetition-with-variation of the son, the second time with the addition of “like a kid,” makes this poem, as it implies both the radical impersonality of the sniper’s eye—and his seemingly arbitrary decision to either take or spare this life—and the harmlessness of a child at play. Joudah proves himself a poet capable of remarkable subtlety. Three poems at the midpoint—“I Was There,” “In the Picture” and “Museum”—exemplify a sort of stillness and palpable gathering for the end of the collection. But this promised burst of final energy is stymied by “Holy Numbers,” a multi-part contemporary take on alliterative verse in which sense is subjugated to sound:
[…]hallway fumes of carpet-
Cleaning meet and choke me and I become
A unionist on a confederate task
and say to the cleaning lady Why
Don’t you ask for a mask but she nods it’s okay!
On top of the corniness of the quips, one cringes at the poetic effort expended in getting us to the next internal rhyme. A similar misstep takes the form of Joudah’s periodic use of the forward slash (/) to indicate a break. This comes off as an inexplicable gimmick in “Abundance,” which is written as a prose poem. If breaks are so important, why not write it as a lineated poem? Is the poet making some sort of statement regarding the tyranny of poetic form? If so, against whom is this statement directed? Just as maddening is the use of the slash in “The Security Level Is Yellow,” the first few lines of which I have reproduced here:
Last night is so often where things begin/
Maybe because I saw you on Facebook
Earlier in the day making out with
A friend’s status/ or because I had been
Thinking about calligraphy Jackson
Pollock was my pretext/ really he was […]
Presumably, the lines are hard-broken with an eye toward uniform line lengths, but would anyone in this poetic day and age really object to lines of widely varying length? And in a poem incorporating both actual and notational breaks, what sort of hierarchy are we to follow? Finally, isn’t the poem’s own internal logic of the pause-made-literal broken by the absence of a slash following ‘calligraphy’?
If I point out what I feel are some of Joudah’s formal missteps, it is only with a frustrated eye toward his many more successful uses of form. Foremost among them is “Line for Water,” a compilation of eleven snapshot-like vignettes headed with a long line. These parts become beguilingly recursive, underscoring the cyclical uses of this resource that is in various contexts prized and taken for granted. “Line for Water” is the third-to-last poem in the collection, and the collection’s final poem, “Into Life,” is again centered on a water scene; through this echo, the latter poem draws strength from the former on the way toward a more intimate profundity. Here, a father and daughter are fishing:
I don’t blame the fish its indiscriminate violence it cannot know
It was my daughter’s hand that threaded the bait and cast the line
She too wants them back in the water
But can’t let go of the desire
To catch what she can’t see but knows is teeming
The father is unable to protect the daughter from a scene of violence—the flipside of a successful outing—and, more importantly, he is unsure if this is even desirable. The fish’s gaping mouth seems to stand in for this important lesson about violence and mortality that the father cannot articulate in the moment (and that is perhaps more effectively delivered in poetry). It’s a beautiful poem and final note, and an effective reminder of the complexity of human motivation.