This Most Vulnerable of Houses: Fady Joudah’s Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance

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I first heard Fady Joudah read at AWP 2014 in Seattle. He had translated a collection of Ghassan Zaqtan’s poems, Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me (Yale University Press, 2013), from Arabic, and together they had been awarded the Griffin Prize. At the podium, Joudah leaned in like an athlete at the beginning of a race, scanning the room, assessing the attentions of the audience. He looked ready to launch, not just read. And then he did, into each line. And in the audience, I felt a kind of collective hinging forward toward the poet, into the poems.

Like his reading that day, Joudah’s poetry is marked by energy, by an intensity of engagement with the world. His latest collection, Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance (Milkweed, 2018), is comprised of poems of a tireless mind at work. These poems, poised at the intersections of the material, the metaphorical, and the spiritual, fold into and out of one another as their boundaries dissolve with question after question. At the same time, the poems are in constant dialogue with the world in which their maker lives—its art; its other poets, living and departed; its large-scale tragedies and its quotidian delights and breakdowns.

One of the first poems of the collection, “Progress Notes,” opens with the line: “The age of portrait is drugged. Beauty / is symmetry so rare it’s a mystery.” The poem begins in the age of selfies and is squarely located in the West’s culture of self-portraiture. Then it ravels and travels great distances as the speaker moves from a description of the self—“my big mouth shows my nice teeth perfectly / aligned like Muslims in prayer”—to the perspective of a physician who is “unable to look upon the blush / in a young beauty’s face without thinking / it could be fever, a malar rash… .” Joudah’s speaker both posits and interrogates his own position, and questions a system of power and his complicity in it. We see this later in the poem, when the speaker is in a first-year anatomy class, standing before rows of cadavers. He considers his own body—the lived-in hull—and its mortality beneath yet another layer of assigned meanings:

a butterfly announcing a wolf. Can I lie
face down now as cadavers posed
on first anatomy lesson? I didn’t know mine
was a woman until three weeks later
we turned her over.

The poem charts a change in the medical students’ treatment of the cadavers, from “reverence” to a detached, almost playful mood. The speaker reveals the name of “his” body—Margaret—and then describes her unremarkable death, in contrast to the suicide of a nearby body, “the colonel on table nineteen.” In this way, the poem moves from a generalized, impersonal notion of beauty, from nameless cadavers, to the bodies of the named dead, the histories of their particular lives suggested by the artifacts of their musculature and the circumstances of their deaths. I love the way in which the final lines reckon with mortality and representation: “I had come across that which will end me, ex- / tend me, at least once, without knowing it.”

The poems in Footnotes are written in a variety of forms, but for this reader, several of the prose poems, like “Tricolor” and “Palestine, Texas” were especially lustrous. In each of them, the best qualities of the prose poem are on display: Joudah crafts his prose poems in the shape of his thoughts, the images following one after the other in unexcerptable spaces the reader must fully inhabit. “An Algebra Come Home” is among the standouts. In the notes, Joudah reveals that it is dedicated to poet Marilyn Hacker. The poem opens with the dreamlike “Morning slept well,” transporting the reader to a Paris street on which a fruit vendor offers slices of peach to passersby. In the middle of the poem, Joudah writes that the vendor “called out to passersby, city dwellers, tourists to try this heart of his, not too sour, not to sweet, ripe, ready,” and that while “many refused” and some took the offering and walked away, “You waited as you chewed then picked four fruits, one for each chamber.” The fact that, in the square envelope of a prose poem, Joudah writes a gorgeous tribute to Hacker and the largeness of her own heart, and imbues her with the qualities he derived from the stance of a street vendor, is its own delicious algebra.

Many of the poems are compelled by the vulnerabilities of human life, and are informed by the poet’s own practice as a medical doctor. In these poems, Joudah questions and pushes against certainties as only the best works of art can. In “38, 7, 31, 4” the speaker describes the exact age he was—“twelve years, nine months, and nineteen days old”—when he first saw news footage of a what appeared to be a massacre in a refugee camp. That the moment is marked so specifically implies a turn in the young speaker’s life. He ruminates on what might have been had he been thirteen years old, comparing that “dreaded number” to the one hospitals and hotels skip altogether when numbering their floors. These sites of safety, where lives are luxuriously housed and tended to or mended and saved, are in stark contrast to the scenes of carnage and their impact on the speaker and his parents.

The photographs, the brief video, my eyes dashing between screen and my parents standing in silence that drove them out of the room as if they’d watched their bodies decomposing.

Are the parents in this narrative themselves survivors of massacres? Do they see themselves in the corpses they turn away from? Joudah widens the circle away from the particulars of the parents’ lives by next invoking Blake:

I didn’t step over the corpses or love Blake’s fly. I’d seen flies swarm the butcher’s shop by then. You can’t swat away what drowns the buzzing before the slaughter.

The reference to Blake’s existential considerations and the life of the mind as a stay against death are upended by the speaker’s rejection—“I didn’t… love Blake’s fly”—and the revelation that some innocence had already been lost before this moment, at the butcher shop, witnessing the flies swarming for the flesh they know is coming. In this way, Joudah complicates the moment further: are the speaker and the parents spectators, voyeurs watching the news, clamoring to see flesh and thereby “buzzing before the slaughter?”

The poem returns to the present to reckon with the now-adult speaker, watching, again, footage of another near-identical massacre, and a woman “wailing into the camera ‘Where is everyone?’ In the footage she’s suspended, her grief stuck on repeat.” By implication, so is the speaker’s grief, and his response to this episode in adulthood is to sob.

In addition, “38, 7, 31, 4” is punctuated with beseeching of various religious figures and ideas—Muhammad, Imam Ali and the Last Supper make appearances. Here, then, is another admission of vulnerability: the irrevocable human reaching out to a power greater than the suffering we cannot escape. This gesture is especially striking because it precedes a kind of random deliverance in the final lines, where Joudah’s speaker cannot quite find joy in mere existence, as Blake does after considering the fly. Instead, the poems ends with a near-lament: “O Mohammad, Ya Ali, twelve years, two months, and seven days later a door opened. I was somewhere and someone.”

Joudah’s poems are also driven by a delight in all aspects of language. He is keenly aware of the capacities of sound to enrich and enliven a line. The opening lines of “Horses,” for example, evokes a sauntering music: “December evening, smoke in the rain, awn of the rain, from virga to drizzle.” There were poems, though, where my rudimentary knowledge of Greek and Latin roots proved insufficient, and I felt compelled to look up the name of a disease or part of the body. A minor, albeit self-conscious distraction.

The middle section of Footnotes is comprised of poems from a collaboration between Joudah and exiled Syrian Kurdish poet Golan Hajji. In the notes, Joudah shares that these poems are based on meetings, phone conversations, and emails exchanged in Arabic. I was fascinated by this journal of a poetic correspondence, which carried echoes of the epistolary treasures of the late Mahmoud Darwish and Samih Al-Qassem. In “After No Language,” the voices of Hajji and Joudah braid together to warn the reader:

…some cuts run deeper than speech: writing may exit the cage but the cage remains and grows, or am I speaking of the life of a footnoter, I always hold back from writing in the margins of the clearest sentences.

This section is entitled “Sagittal Views”—sagittal: a word that originates in the Latin sagitta, “arrow,” is defined in Merriam-Webster this way: “of a relating to the suture between the parietal bones of the skull, of or relating to, situated in, or being the medial plane of the body, or any parallel to it.” This is a distinguishing trait of Joudah’s poetry, and specifically of this text: attention to perspective, being located in the mortal body, the view from this most vulnerable of houses. Some of the poems blur the border between poet and translator; in them, Joudah is in conversation—across languages and continents—with a consummate peer. Joudah is a prolific colleague, collaborating with Darwish and Zaqtan on translations of their work. He also writes toward, and together with, fellow poets, as in the case of the poem, “Epthalamion,” co-authored with poet Deema Shaheabi, the tribute to Marilyn Hacker, and the poem“The Magic of Apricots,” an ekphrasis of Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum’s work.

Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance is the work of a restless poetic mind whose inventive and capacious poems bring wonder and skepticism and incandescent language to bear on questions of human experience.

Lena Khalaf Tuffaha is a poet, essayist, and translator. Her first book of poems, Water & Salt, won the 2018 Washington State Book Award. She is the author of two chapbooks, Arab in Newsland, winner of the 2016 Two Sylvias Prize, and Letters from the Interior, finalist for the 2020 Jean Pedrick Award. Her essay “Muhammads in Gaza,” won 2020 Best of the Net. You can learn more about her work at More from this author →