“I be” : Fady Joudah’s […]


Suzanne Gardinier

Art by Alymamah Rashed


Sunday, October 29:
I am okay Sarah <3.
Thank God!! I’m so relieved to hear from you after the blackout. What was that like for you, habibti?
Exchange between Mona Ameen in Gaza & Sarah Ihmoud in Massachusetts,
“Love in a Time of Genocide: A Palestinian Litany for Survival”

Joseline Hernandez in Ja'Tovia Gary’s The Giverny Document: “What the fuck. Can I live? Can I live?
Can I fucking live?”

Christina Sharpe, Ordinary Notes



Near the beginning of the second section of Fady Joudah’s new book of poems, [...], made in the inferno of the world since last October, appears “I Seem As If I Am: Ten Maqams.” “Maqam” is a word with many meanings and resonances, among them musical, referring to something like what Western music calls a “key”—a maqam is modal, microtonal, much older than the piano or the tempered scale, and crosses with words for “place” as it advises where to place your fingers on the neck of an oud. As with a key, a maqam decides the parameters of a song, what will sound fitting and what unseemly, what will be included and what will not—to listen to, for example, the Hijaz maqam scale in its subtleties, its sound of an attempt to draw the farthest notes nearer, makes the evenly divided D-minor scale sound as if it were generated by a machine.

The blues is a unique hybrid between the tonal and the modal registers, between Europe and Africa, and this book is a blues, by Ralph Ellison’s definition: “an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.” “What is joy?” asks one of this book’s maqam lines. “I was told it can be a family / that held on to their father’s corpse against the flood / so it wouldn’t wash away.” And nearby: “The new war has been coming for a long time. / The old war has been going on for a long time. // Coming to a body near me, and going on in my body.”

[ Wikipedia on the maqams of Palestine, places of worship where saints are buried:
“No more than 300 maqams have survived out of 800 existing in Palestine in 1948,
the remainder having been demolished.”]



...sees the kite, my kite you made, flying up above,
and thinks for a moment an angel is there
bringing back love.

“If I Must Die,” Refaat Alareer

Part of what makes a poem is what isn’t there. The words proceed in an expected line, then reach the place where the line breaks—where a silence falls, a kind of darkness, if by that we mean the material of the galactic surround, which makes scraps of lit earth seem small. That silence carries the echo of the words that begin it and the words that end it—it may provide a syncopation, that miracle of stopping the breath not toward death but toward joy, an arrest that fills a living body with the longing to move. A poem’s silences are designed to carry the sound and savor of the unspeakable, which may constitute what a poem is, far more deeply than words.

From this new book’s title—[...]—we know we’re in the realm of that silence, that eloquent darkness: an ellipsis within a redaction, something withheld for economy in the course of a quote, of the jazz verve of a riff, the hip-hop verve of a sample, framed by something withheld by force. But as with all redactions, uncolonized possibilities seep through: are those the same three lines I just saw on my phone, from someone composing a message I couldn’t read yet, but could feel the messenger on the other end of the line, typing?

Yes, this is a slim volume of poetry for sale in 2024 America, a feather in a conflagration—from, as Cuba’s José Martí put it in nineteenth-century New York, “las entrañas del monstruo,” the belly of the monster. But from the author’s name in Arabic on the cover of this beautiful Milkweed edition, still warm from how recently what’s inside was made, we know we’re not in the imperial monologue produced by the literary culture of the United States, with its weapons trained on the Arab world.

From the colors, red, black, and green, we might know we’re in Palestine, a place whose name in that literary culture has been a note not included in the maqam, a note trying to make itself heard through decades of attempted redaction, audible all over the world now, in the voices of those there and those keeping the diasporic vigil, in the voices of the living and of the dead. Turn and the book’s red back cover brings us not to blurbs but to Gaza, in the sampled voice of poet, translator, and teacher Refaat Alareer, murdered last December by Israeli soldiers and American machines.

“Suddenly I,” Fady Joudah’s poem begins, that ubiquitous American pronoun transfigured by what follows, “in a blaze,” from Refaat Alareer’s “If I Must Die,” translated into almost three hundred languages now—and in the conflagration the “I” is suddenly shared, between and beyond two poets, two translators, one ‘here,’ one ‘there,’ “The mirage / of the solid self in ruins,” as the first poem in the book’s second section puts it, “gigantic in departure.” As Adrienne Rich put it, playing another variation on the dream of a common language, “a whole new poetry beginning here.”


“There’s a frank, lilting edge in Fady Joudah’s voice, then and now, a skilled, playful desperation, that echoes the voice of Bertolt Brecht (‘Why don’t you denounce / what you ask me to denounce. / We can do it together on the count of three.’)”



I pretend to hear the sea from here. I wave back. Here are the rules:
We bear what we bear until we can’t anymore.
We invent what we can’t stand grieving.
The sun sets on Gaza. The sun rises on Gaza.
On your [ ].
Hala Alyan, “Revision”

all my erasures are relatives
Fady Joudah, “Footprints in the Order of Disappearance”

Fady Joudah’s first book, The Earth in the Attic, was selected by Louise Glück for the Yale Younger Poets Award in 2007, as thirty thousand more US soldiers poured into occupied Iraq. The Guantánamo camp was five years old. In her foreword, Glück praised the poet’s departure from the habit of “American poets . . . eager to define the political in a manner that includes themselves,” his avoidance of “a poetry that mistakes holding opinions for thinking, a poetry determined to right wrongs, self-consciously immersed in what George Oppen called ‘the certainties / of place / and of time’—at its worst, bombastic and sentimental, dutifully unbeautiful.”

Fady Joudah is, in one sense, a deeply political artist (though never an artist who writes to
manifest or advance convictions) and in another sense, a luminous aesthete who thinks in
nuance, in refinements. He is that strange animal, the lyric poet in whom circumstance and
profession (as distinct from will and fashion) have compelled obsession with large social
contexts and grave national dilemmas. (Glück)

“Large social contexts and grave national dilemmas” are precisely what the architects of full-spectrum American dominance after World War II wanted to make sure writers got right—as constructed in a country whose literary culture was powerfully influenced by someone like folksy Wilbur Schramm, who cofounded the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1930s, disappeared on psychological warfare assignments for the Air Force during the Korean War, and authored a three-hundred-page manual for the Army called The Nature of Psychological Warfare. Fady Joudah as American poet was not who Wilbur Schramm had in mind in 1951 when he sent the Rockefeller Foundation his “Confidential memorandum on a project in writing,” asking, “How can we find the kind of young persons who can become the kind of writers we need?”

Schramm’s psychological warfare manual recommends a key strategy to “accomplish” “group disintegration”: “privatization,” “simply a matter of trying to get the individual members of a group to be concerned with their own needs and problems, and to think about those rather than their group objectives and responsibilities.” Hence a US writer may see Airman Aaron Bushnell’s attempt to broadcast and share Gaza’s agony as a personal psychological matter—and when asked publicly, “Did you have the same reaction to the death of Mohamed Bouasizi?” (Tim Barker), may reply “I was in graduate school for fiction writing and suffering from severe insomnia at the time and did not follow that event closely.” (Eric Levitz)

Fady Joudah’s work poses a central challenge to this structure of feeling: what if, for a gifted lyric poet, en las entrañas del monstruo, “large social contexts and grave national dilemmas” are intimate and inescapable? As Joudah put it in reference to Mahmoud Darwish, what happens when a book of American poetry is “the treatise of a private speech become collective,” a living synthesis of ‘there’ and ‘here’? What if that hybrid resistance keeps appearing, as it always has and will, even mid-inferno?

There’s a frank, lilting edge in Fady Joudah’s voice, then and now, a skilled, playful desperation, that echoes the voice of Bertolt Brecht (“Why don’t you denounce / what you ask me to denounce. / We can do it together on the count of three.”)—Brecht who would probably not pass the Yale judge’s test for poetic integrity, obsessed with unrighted wrongs as he was. Joudah’s and Brecht’s versions of that obsession are not the same, but connect—where Brecht’s shares Marx’s impatience with mere interpretation of the world (“The point, however, is to change it”), Joudah’s is a physician’s sense that suffering is not a regrettable necessity, but a plague with a cure, and that the purview of healing is his. “There will be Gaza after the dark times,” says one line under the wing of that enigmatic “[...],” turning away from the conventional composure of a title—before “I will survive. There is no better song,” that “I” we met on the book’s back cover, “Suddenly,” “in a blaze,” exposed, transfigured and transfiguring, undoing the imperial project of divide and conquer, without slipping into the conquerors’ ways and means of destruction.

The maqam of 2024, still so new, is less suspicious of “convictions” than the Yale judge of 2007 was, and registers the friction in the word “nuance,” often a contemporary synonym for equivocation in the face of power’s ravages, so oddly frank since last October. And the note of calling a Palestinian poet “that strange animal,” perfectly in tune with thousands of literary cocktail parties, for generations, sounds with all its muted echoes in the open now. “More than words, you speak in silences / that amplify white spaces,” says the part of [...] heading a recent interview in the Yale Review, “in which white is not water. / It smells. I can taste it.”



And yet the silence in the book is the silence that the reader, listener, recipient should practice.
In some moments I share this silence with them, and they with me. In many moments, however,
the silence is solely their task. The ellipses in brackets highlight the space in which a Palestinian
speaks and others listen.

Fady Joudah

Whether writing or reading, it can be useful to think not only about what’s being said, but about who’s listening—or not listening, and on what terms. “Suddenly you,” says this book’s back cover, “can’t find my body,” where the task of the “you” is not silence but the holy beyond-task of Gazan excavation so many of us all over the world hear in our sleep now. And then, only six lines later, “my voice”—that transfigured meld between Joudah’s and Alareer’s—is “thought voiceless,” certainly not by Gaza, so by someone else.

“Daily you wake up to the killing of your people,” we read (who are ‘we’?), and the ‘you,’ the listener, is the poet and so many others—when we reach, “Because you are / what you other, / you are to me // as close to the light / as a great contortionist / in a great heist,” the ‘you’ has changed, and moves with the ‘me’ in the complex braid of relation created by colonial theft. Elsewhere, “You who remove me from my house” are a listener in the sense of an interrogator—with “Each morning I clasp / your bracelet, your necklace // (–This book in its war-gapped transmission insists on necklaces, and on the lovers’ embrace–), “Your earlobes, two buoys / on the tip of my tongue,” the listener is a lover, as in “Maqam for Apricot”: “your fingertips meridians for your breast, / as you touch yourself, / as I touch you.” Throughout the book, that ‘you’ changes registers and uniforms, appears and disappears, sometimes enabling, sometimes restricting—in the words of Fred Moten, the ‘you’ blackens and blurs, in “consent not to be a single being,” each calling forth a different response from each wracked moment’s “I.”

The silence in the title’s marks is one Joudah has said may represent “the space in which a Palestinian speaks and others listen”—if Pablo Neruda’s misunderstood “I like you when you’re quiet, because it’s as if you’re absent” is an admiration of the beloved’s integrity, far from the lover’s influences (“let me hush myself with your silence,” he continues), Joudah’s request for present absence may be an invitation into Palestinian reality, where the present-absent status of refugee is endlessly reimposed. “Present absentee” was a legal instrument of the Nakba, imposed by the Israelis on the Palestinians they forced to flee in 1948, who returned to what had become ‘Israel’ as people whose civil status had disappeared: ab-sent as in sent away, pre-sent like Native place names on stolen land, like bones turned up by plows, like the keys in Palestinian living rooms to the living rooms this world has stolen from them. The silence this book requests from an American audience is one in which the din of racist propaganda is not only denied prizes but denied admission—in the newness that results, the voice outlining what Natalie Diaz calls the “American arithmetic” of genocide, and the terms of surviving it, is given a place to resound without interruption, to remove the mask of ‘melting pot’ and find liquidation, to display and share its censored registers, to be.



Sometimes survival proceeds not by accumulation but by going small. This book’s first section is its longest, racked with static and places where the signal cuts out completely—and its last is the shortest, a single poem, “Sunbird,” just twenty-two lines, not burning but shining, in a maqam scale of its own invention, where previously forbidden notes are welcomed now: “I be: / from the river / to the sea."

Sometimes a primer for survival isn’t a tome but a leaflet, made in the inferno of the moment, like Mahmoud Darwish’s “State of Siege,” written during the 2002 Israeli siege of Ramallah, or his “Identity Card,” forty-five years of interrogations before that, or his 2007 “You From Now On Are Not Yourself,” written as the riven remnants of Palestinian political leadership fought each other in the streets of Gaza, streets that I writing this and you reading are at this moment locked into helping destroy.

The relief of this new lexicon is like the ecstasy of a voice after the vigil of waiting out yet another imperial communications whiteout, making a new alphabet in case that might speed the new day: to start, not “A” but “I,” first principle, thesis, precious, unobliterated—then not “B” but “Be,” as verb, not “I avenge” or “I seek death” but “I be,” in spite of all necrophilic colonial machinations, where those not beloved (Who will it be tomorrow?) are called beloved, and the racist taxonomies of individual identity are remade, as a survival song.


In the near distance is the synthesis this poet is both continuing and beginning, with these maqams of the new day, remembering, calling to and retrieving what’s been stolen from the old. In the book’s penultimate moment, this poet, like his beloved Darwish before him, in Beirut’s agony (Whose will it be tomorrow? Could we see the path in time and stand in the way?), swerves into prose (You can listen to or play that Hijaz maqam scale over and over and still not be quite sure where it may go next):

From the collective to the one under the same assault, no matter our location
on Earth...To those who die of a broken heart during and after the war. To
those who gather their families to die together so that no survivor suffers
survival alone. To those who scatter their families so that they're not all wiped out
from the civil record...To the young born under the sign of siege and are the only
members of their families left: Will you stand up and form a small nation?


Other variations Arabic plays on the three-letter root of the word “maqam”:

Place of residence
A place where one stands
Burial shrine
Get Up
He rose
He took his place

[Dionne Brand, Verso 55, from The Blue Clerk, on a visit to the Door of No Return, to find death’s imperial dominion undone: “We said, here we are. They said, you are still alive. We said yes, yes we are still alive. How lemon, they said, how blue like fortune...We all stood there for some infinite time. We did weep but that is nothing in comparison.”]

February 2024


Spring / Summer 2024

Suzanne Gardinier

Suzanne Gardinier is the author of 12 books, including Amérika: The Post-Election Malas (2017) & Letter from Palestine (2007). She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives Brooklyn.

Alymamah Rashed

Alymamah Rashed is a Kuwaiti visual artist who explores identity and the natural environment through the story of her body, fluctuating between perspectives of East and West. Alymamah received her MFA from Parsons School of Design and her BFA from the School of Visual Arts. Her work has been included in exhibitions at the Czech Center, Parsol Projects, and The New School (all in NY), and has been published in Harper’s Bazaar ArabiaVogue ArabiaArchitectural Digest, and Farfetch. She is represented by Tabori Artspace, Dubai.

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