“Specks of the Universe”: Fady Joudah’s Tethered to Stars – Michigan Quarterly Review

“Specks of the Universe”: Fady Joudah’s Tethered to Stars

The poems in Fady Joudah’s Tethered to Stars reflect a poet’s pinnacle, where readers experience the vision of a virtuosic poet who possesses multiple registers and allusive riches, transforming them into a polyphonic symphony. This is a poet who slays artificially constructed boundaries of what constitutes text by hybridizing earthly and spiritual crevices, narrative and lyric breaths, and finally the cosmic body itself within its material manifestations. Sometimes, the reader is left breathless and in awe. At other times, we continue to ponder what lingers through the music, namely, indelible images or multiplicitous voices as they rise to crescendo. Tethered to Stars is Joudah’s fifth collection of poetry and converses organically with his previous collections (Footsteps in the Order of Disappearance, Textu, Alight, and Earth in the Attic)

The opening poem, “Canopus,” invites us to listen to the poet’s tender voice as he riffs off the natural world:

Be a sunflower, 

grow old to face east,
warm in the morning

kind to insects and bees, 
and may our overlap

be two: light and light
that vary

the ninety-nine
names for snow

Here, the sunflower symbolizes movement and a rotation across time, a theme that is repeated throughout Tethered to Stars. “Canopus” sets the tone for the entire book as the poet continues to weave ode-like lyrics to loved ones and friends. Taking astrology and natural science as his playful muses, Joudah fuses the mystical and earthly with syntactical prowess.  

In “Pisces,” he distills in precise language a memory of watching with an intimate stranger a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis. The reader is transported to a moment when the butterfly hangs on a line between wind and cocoon: “The starry filament / is stronger than wind / which calls to her / and she’s between two minds: one that surrenders to return / and another to resist its vehicle.” The idea of return and resistance culminates in a single concept encompassing both individuation and communality, an echo of a quintessential Palestinian sensibility, in which the poet later writes: “When she joins her swarm / she’s not what she was before. Like the simurgh, / the one makes room / for the whole.” 

A simurgh is the mythic raptor bird and the subject of Farid Al-Din Attar’s Conference of the Birds, in which a large group of birds journeys in search of the rare creature. Thirty birds survive the harrowing journey only to realize that they, themselves, comprise the whole simurgh. In these evocations, the poet suggests that we are all mere specks in a grand universe, whole in reflection, yet small in space, time, and place. 

Wholeness and its particulates, extinguishment and alightness, cosmic bodies juxtaposed against palpable “supermassive” mouths—Joudah is a master of synecdoche and employs it here to hypnotic effect. “Three Leaps of the Gazelle” entrances the reader with a nature catalog: “’And the space between raindrops a shelter / the mountaintop a lake. / The gecko an oriole.’” In this inventory, the one stands for the whole. Elsewhere, the poet’s singular voice blurs into polyphony and the whole breaks into parts, like in “Blue Shift”:

        Nightly, a longing, no repression
	some trigger released, 
	snatches me, after the passing
	of many years, for who, 
	I haven’t a clue, the beloved
	nameless beyond erasure, 
	when among the unsleeping, 
	a recrudescence  
	for the longing 
	to die better

In this call and response with Lebanese singer Fairuz, Joudah confronts mortality in its most naked form: the desire to be unified with the beloved. Here, the beloved remains unnamed and uncontained, but the reader feels the largesse of desire as it washes over the poet. The syntactical playfulness offers paradox and surprise, longing as a form of disease, a longing for a “better” dying.

The remaining poems in Tethered to Stars read as travelogues of familiarity and estrangement, especially in “The Holy Embraces the Holy,” and as explorations of the role of distance in domesticity, powerfully wrought by the poet in “The Old Lady and the House.” But it’s in “Sandra Bland, Texas” that the poet’s voice of lamentation truly crystalizes. In a heart-wrenching address to Sandra Bland, Joudah affirms his solidarity with Bland’s plight and enters into a posthumous conversation with her:  

	Ms. Bland, 
	I also learned 
	that singularity
	is achieved only
	when one is torn
	to irreconcilable
	pieces, decomposed
	six fathoms up, 
	down, lateral, 
	unflagged, indivisible, 
	undertow for all 

	Ms. Bland, 
	how much 
	of me is you
	and you is we? 

Joudah’s powerful address questions the nature of belonging and the flaws of blind patriotism. By blurring the lines of constructed identities, including those determined by the language of the state, he reclaims a share in humanity for all of us, its remnants within us and its gushing rivers.

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