To be a footnoter means paying attention, an exercise in authenticating and deciding what deserves further explanation. The speaker in Fady Joudah’s beautiful collection “Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance” (Milkweed Books, 2018) remarks, “I always hold back from writing in the margins of the clearest sentences,” implying that even the most transparent words can be cleaved from their intention. It is the (lonely) task of the artist to illuminate, and nowhere is illumination needed more than borderlands—of identity, of land, of emotion.
“Footnotes” is ripe with such borderlands, just as it is ripe with delight and honesty and want. The poems, divided into three sections but all linked thematically by displacement, love and, yes, disappearance, are crackling, lyrical things, written with meticulous attention to imagery. In this way, Joudah is a loyal footnoter, keen to fashion a coherent narrative from kaleidoscopic histories and geographies, an unenviable task. “Sweet clot of wakefulness,” the speaker asks, “what is mercy?/To go mad among the mad/or go it alone.”
When the world maims or discards, some may retreat. Not here. Instead, Joudah finds marvel even in a world that is “a butterfly announcing a wolf.” Brutality is met with tenderness. The poems burn with empathy, even as trauma is evident in their very marrow. Throughout the collection, the pieces—a mixture of prose poems and shorter narrative ones—resist a natural chronology or sequencing, instead highlighting the chaos of the accounts they endeavor to embody. One of the most emblematic symptoms of trauma is fractured storytelling, and “Footnotes” encompasses numerous traumas—the loss of land, the hybridization of identities, the liability of brown bodies in love and death. In (one of) the titular poems, the speaker catalogues various “disappearances” of public figures at the hand of illness and mental anguish, ending with a simple, piercing loss of his own:
For I never had a cat I called my own.
For he ravaged the neighbor’s chickens for monk brains.
For they kidnapped him and he never returned.
The reportage style of many pieces transform the reader into both witness and eavesdropper of the very borderland the poet inhabits. Joudah’s talent has always been transfiguration, finding the divine in the prosaic, and here he turns that skillful eye to vulnerability. Of all his collections, “Footnotes” feels the most exposed, the one most dedicated to revelation. “My heart’s a doe’s,” he confesses. “A doe’s made for running away.”
In “Last Night’s Fever, This Morning’s Murder,” a collaboration with the Syrian Kurdish poet Golan Haji, the speaker meditates on death and memory:
Your death was white
like sleep, like salt, like dust mixed with flour
sacked and loaded on trucks. Thirty summers ago
a family photo caught fire. I was the only one
who survived the burning. By dawn your laugh
rings in my ears among Aleppo’s pine.
In the hole in front of your house I lie and extend
my arms up to your balcony’s door, a long rope
of handkerchiefs, a magic act for beginners,
my grandmother’s braid which we didn’t send
with her to the grave. We cut and kept it.
In the borderland, nothing can exist without dialectical contradiction; the world bruises and charms, the body fails and redeems, all in the same breath. “I call the finding of certain things loss,” the speaker admits in the final poem. Many of the pieces are involved in this act of emotional excavation, flitting between corporeal experiences and memory, dream and artifact. Joudah does not shy away from the harrowing, but rather encompasses it, obeys it as much as he obeys joy. “Touch me,” he says, “I’m alive again.” Here you have a poet in love with the world, grateful for it, for apricots and midwestern suburbia and history, even if that love is betrayed—by country, by war, by death. Love it anyway, these poems implore. It is an invitation well worth accepting.
Hala Alyan is a Palestinian American writer and clinical psychologist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Poetry and elsewhere. Her poetry collections have won the Arab American Book Award and the Crab Orchard Series. Her debut novel, SALT HOUSES, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2017, and is a finalist for the Aspen Words Literary Prize.