“Who is Without Echo?”: The Future Reader of Fady Joudah’s […] – Michigan Quarterly Review
An image of the book cover of Fady Joudah's "[...]: Poems" laid over a black-orange background

“Who is Without Echo?”: The Future Reader of Fady Joudah’s […]

[…] A continuation … a redaction … a conversation in process…the message that announces its hesitation—three blinking dots as a correspondent composes a response. Even before opening Palestinian American poet Fady Joudah’s latest collection, its pictographic title […] invites the reader to question their own reading practices. The book rebukes easy articulation, its title a site of difficulty, frustration. I feel its resistance in my mouth, at the back of the throat—a pause the moment before speaking. Both defiant and provisional, the wordless title suggests that the language withheld or left unsaid in a moment like ours—a moment of genocide—is perhaps the most meaningful. 

Many of the poems in the book share its title, “[…].” These poems can be read as a series or, due to the title’s repetition, as a single poem interrupted by marked excisions. The repetition of the title frames an insistent question: how does one write from within the present moment of a crisis without succumbing to the alibi of the too-soon or the too-late? The label of “genocide” is called “premature” until it is “overdue” and unable to spur meaningful intervention. What language emerges amid an annihilation that the world refuses to read as such—at least until the annihilation has been completed? And what language is elided by such a refusal? In a media landscape that warns of “imminent famine” in Gaza, and with the International Court of Justice only recognizing a “risk” of genocide, the American public is repeatedly asked to entertain the condition of mass violence as a future that approaches with the authority of the weather. Abstract. Unstoppable. Foreign. A problem for tomorrow and elsewhere. The point, of course, is that when history looks back at the current conditions in Gaza, they will judge the situation not as a nascent crisis, but as a program of ethnic cleansing that is well under way. Israel is bombing and starving Gazan civilians. The US is arming Israel and shielding a genocidal state from international accountability. 

Joudah’s chosen title and its unspeakability capture the lacuna of the present moment, both mirroring and indicting the unwillingness of American discourse, at least, to make declarations about an ongoing genocide. The book reveals the challenges of talking about such violence before reaching international consensus, that is, the challenge of talking about genocide in the present tense. In a recent interview with Aria Aber for The Yale Review, Joudah writes, “So many resist calling a genocide a genocide, but questions about what to call […] are on repeat.” Anyone “calling a genocide a genocide” becomes an inverted sibyl, a soothsayer of the present moment, foretelling not the future but the future’s retrospective reading of the right now. In the first of the “[…]” poems, Joudah’s speaker addresses a future reader, one who can join him in appreciating a truth only “legible” in retrospect: 

I write for the future
because my present is demolished.
I fly to the future

to retrieve my demolished present
as a legible past. To see

what isn’t hard to see
in a world that doesn’t.

Writing to a future reader is not a novelty. Indeed, this is the magic of writing—the correspondence between a previous moment of composition and a later moment of reading. Keats held out “this living hand,” telling his future readers, “here it is.” As a reader of his poem, I touch him even now. In 1934, Lorine Niedecker wrote a poem on the pages of a 1935 calendar, titled “Next Year or I Fly My Rounds, Tempestuous,” each month’s poem a missive for a moment yet-to-be: “Wade all life / backward to its / source which / runs too far / ahead.” These future-oriented texts make explicit the inability to be in sync with time, even in the present. Sending a poem out with a prospective time stamp invites reflection on how every poem is remade in the moment of its reading, new with context, burdened by historical events and repetitions unforeseen in the time of writing. 

Addresses to a future reader are naturally inflected by death; it is difficult, after all, to write toward a future reader without considering how the poet won’t be there to read over her shoulder. Jericho Brown in “Bullet Points” instructs a future audience not only on how to read his poem, but on how to interpret his death. He announces, “I promise if you hear / Of me dead anywhere near /A cop, then that cop killed me.” The “promise” encloses within its premise a gesture to the future. This gesture is predicated on a truth of a repeated present: recognizing US law enforcement’s habit of murdering Black men, Brown makes the necessary poetic preparations. Another example within this microgenre, “If I Must Die” by Palestinian poet Refaat Alareer, went viral when Alareer was killed by an IDF airstrike on December 6, 2023. That poem figures the poet’s message to the future as a “kite” the survivors are urged to fly: “If I must die, / you must live / to tell my story.” The kite soaring overhead tells the dead poet’s story to the children of Gaza. In other words, the kite is the poem and the poem the kite—both signals of life to a future generation. Joudah references this figure as the foretells his own death in the poem on […]’s back cover: “Suddenly I / ‘in a blaze’ die… / My final poem, / I wrote years before/ my hour arrived. /…Suddenly a ‘kite.’ / Suddenly I.” 

 In this closing poem Joudah echoes yet another poet’s memento mori, W.S. Merwin’s  “For the Anniversary of My Death.” Merwin addresses the approaching date of his death, acknowledging, “Every year without knowing it I have passed the day.” Each mundane action on that unknown day becomes an unwitting celebration of the event to come. Not knowing when death will fall, each date becomes more sacred, charged with the possibility of being the annual precursor to the one “when the last fires will wave to me.”

Occasional poems suffer a reputation as lesser aesthetic artifacts, contrived and narrow compositions for a specific historical moment (rather than prompted by an organic, uncalendered jolt of inspiration). But by writing an occasional poem for a future event and by celebrating an “anniversary” rather than the “death” itself, Merwin opens the poem to the calendar’s repetition, its constant and eternal recontextualization. We, having outlived Merwin, know his death date to be March 15, and so the poem becomes also about the Ides of March, and Merwin, himself, inextricably linked to Caesar. Merwin, especially, could not have anticipated such linkages. What other baggage will the poem accrue before it reaches its final reader?  What repetitions will accrue, and what novelties will depart with each new coming year? 

In Joudah’s […], the future address tracks the contours of a similar temporal parallax, acknowledging the radical openness of continued recontextualization, while also maintaining faith that the future will bring to consciousness a truth about the violence of the present moment. The poem announces itself as endless, or at least subject to endless repetition, by using the annual holidays to mark time: 

Ceasefire now. Before Thanksgiving?
By Christmas or the New Year?
On MLK Day or Easter? Forever?
Before old tricks find themselves out,
and genocide is seen through, this year or the next
decade, and scholars sign off on it. (7)

“Now” is the mother of all deictics, and here this deixis reveals its own shifting index. The calendar’s cycling warns that the date of the ceasefire may never approach—that is, ceasefire before Thanksgiving, but of which year? This Thanksgiving would have been the intuitive answer when the poem was composed in 2023, but the endlessness of Israel’s siege—its call for an impossible “total” victory over Hamas—makes of “this” a “next” and a “next.” Thanksgivings will keep coming, and the calls for ceasefire will remain relevant—if not in Gaza then elsewhere. The enjambment across the two final lines of this excerpt performs the slipperiness of this horizon, recognizing the spiraling transformation of “this year” into “the next/ decade.” The poems’ performance of the ongoingness of this war renders Joudah’s book both urgently specific to our current moment—that is, timely—and applicable to global conflicts that will continue to proliferate—that is, timeless. 

When did the new war begin?

Whoever gets to write it most
gets to erase it best.

The new war has been coming for a long time.
The old war has been going for a long time.

Coming to a body near me, and going on my body. (43)

Like “now,” “new” and “old” are deictics that speak to the poem’s entrapment within a cycle of military onslaught that is unmoved by poetic intervention. Any attempt to speak is a renewal of a previous articulation which fizzled unheeded. The book’s deictic staging of this frustrated repetition emphasizes that the current genocide is the latest iteration of a cycle of dehumanization and violence that Palestinians have endured for decades. Israel’s 2023 siege of Gaza repeats the 1948 Nakba, the 1967 Naksa—together they form a trinity of mass expulsions of Palestinians from their homes. This year brought conditions not new but newly iterated. 

“Who is without echo?” Joudah’s speaker asks, considering how his self has become a subject of “propaganda,” one iteration of the American dream that his son both questions and recognizes (23). But this question of future relation resonates with […]’s configuration of history as repetition, with the anxieties of inheritance that the poet responds to through writing:

I am unfinished business.
The business that did not finish me

or my parents
won’t leave my children
in peace. In my right hand,

a paper. In my left, a feather.
To toss, to quill, to meet

my terminal velocity. (4)

The page becomes a scene of encounter—with other generations, with the reader, with death. Flying into the future, the writer recognizes that in this motion he will “meet” his death—his “terminal velocity.”

These poems echo themselves and the conditions of their composition, the “you” that reads echoes the “I” that writes. Pronouns are permeable, but their referents are constituted by habit. If you answer a phone, and the person on the other end announces, “it’s me,” then this is a phone call you’ve had before. Publication implies a general address to a multiple, future “you.” Defying this expectation (or habit) of readerly anonymity, the urgency of a specific, direct address (to you, this very reader) produces a frisson of recognition. The reader feels chosen by the work. Potentially called out by it. Interpellated. If apostrophe addresses a figure not present in the poem, this direct address to the “reader you” brings whoever is present with the poem at the site of reading into the poem. The poem’s boundaries extend. A reader like me—a white American with no personal connection to Palestine, but whose taxes fund the daily violence there—is called into the poem even as she is held at a tense remove from the speaking “I”: 

…Will you stand with me next year or the next? I will be then as my people now.
Wandering the carnage you authorized or protested.

I am removing me from the we of you. Sick leave. Unpaid. Administrative.
Long hiatus. I have watched vultures before. Their committees over
carcasses they did not kill. Daily the vultures are mute. (4)

Here Joudah’s speaker rejects shallow solidarities. The poem underscores that the collective American identity is one that excises its speaker as it decides to remain “mute.” In response the speaker removes himself—out from under the mantle of that collective pronoun. The “we” of “We the people,” is exposed, not for the first time, as an exclusionary entity. This “You,” gains layers throughout the series of […] poems. As reader and. A former lover. A metonymy for America. 

Long ago we were lovers. Recently
your father died. Your heartache
took you to the desert
where my people are colonized by yours
or an extension thereof.
You visit only as tourist, a donor to
the status quo…
In the desert, you renounce all belonging
like someone who has so much of it.
The surplus you keep for yourself. (30)

It is the fraught relationship with this “you” who is “only a tourist” in genocide’s landscape that becomes the book’s central spine—a fraught address that applies to much of the book’s American readership:

But I’m closer to you
than you are to yourself,
and this, my enemy friend,
is the definition of distance. (69)

This indictment is not without tenderness. Some of my favorite sections of the […] series are love poems, rehearsing familiar pleas to a lover, recognizing familiar griefs—but not simple ones. Longing and its denials emerge with a dream’s clarity: 

You show me a snapdragon,
I tongue a fishmouth.
Your face engorges light, the dark
dots my body

and says that
since time has become my essence
it will lay me to waste.
You can say this

is pain talking to evolve a fear. You can ask
how many fears before any will do. 

I glimpsed a door and darted through it.
A light wind touched a bloom.
It clothed then unclothed
a permission to be lonely with you. (56)

These erotic poems bring what might be normally framed as a demand for political audience into an intimate, if devastating, scene. The ache of being “lonely with you,” is perhaps the speaker’s “pain talking,” but the scale of this pain remains unsettled. Is it the unbridgeable gap between lovers? Is it the repeated expulsion from a homeland, reckoning with the conditions of diaspora? Is it the fallout of America’s insistence on laying waste? 

In the penultimate poem the book performs a litany of dedications: “To those who will be killed on the last day of the war. To those who will be killed on the first day after the war ends” (74). This will not be the final war, and violence will continue, a truth Joudah acknowledges without abandoning hope. There is always more to say in a crisis, not least because crisis keeps coming, but that does not mean language is adequate to its task. What good, after all, is more discourse? Poets know well where language can and cannot take us—its recesses, its viscosity, its hesitations—and yet, they continue, as poets. Mahmoud Darwish, writing to a “young poet” (its own kind of future address), reflects, “A poem in a difficult time / is beautiful flowers in a cemetery,” and then a few stanzas later, “The poem is always incomplete, the butterflies make it whole.” What do poets have? Writing. A relation that emerges to a future yet unwritten. As much as Joudah’s address to the future reader may index a present condition of failed recognition, […] is, among other things, a manifestation of persistence. Joudah explains: “It kept me somewhat sane, hopeful to dive into a future where the words I write would outlive the powers that wanted them dead”(“An Interview with Fady Joudah”) . The memento mori also a memento vitae. A memory of future joy. A hope that Gazan children will continue… to adulthood. “To those, to those, to those.” That they may live on and echo. 

Fady Joudah is a Palestinian American poet and physician. His debut collection of poetry The Earth in the Attic (2008) was selected by Louise Glück as the winner of the 2007 Yale Series of Younger Poets competition, and in 2014 he was selected as a Guggenheim fellow. […] (Milkweed Editions, 2024) is his sixth collection of poetry. He has recently won the 2024 Jackson Poetry Prize.

Kelly Hoffer is a poet and book artist. Her debut collection of poetry, UNDERSHORE (2023), was selected by Diana Khoi Nguyen as the winner of the Lightscatter Press Prize. She currently teaches in the MFA program at the University of Michigan as the Helen Zell Visiting Professor in Poetry.

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