A Palestinian Valentine from the Future: On Fady Joudah’s “[…]”

By Rosalie MoffettMarch 6, 2024

A Palestinian Valentine from the Future: On Fady Joudah’s “[…]”

[…] by Fady Joudah

EACH TEXTUAL FEATURE in the title of Fady Joudah’s sixth collection of poems, […] (2024), operates as a silent signal. Ellipses signal that something is missing; brackets, that something necessary is being supplied. In poems that bound through emotional and intellectual registers, that pierce through pleats of time, geography, and poetic tradition, Joudah’s […] offers a stunning magnification of consciousness that undertakes the work suggested by the title: reembodying in the text—beautifully, painfully—what has been systematically removed.

A Palestinian American, Joudah brings forth this collection after months of Israel’s genocidal violence, which NPR has referred to as “the ongoing conflict in Gaza,” and there are poems that speak directly and poignantly to the suffering of a brutal reality that is euphemized and elided. “The passive voice,” comes an early reminder, “is your killer’s voice,” and the question “When did the new war begin?” is met with the answer “Whoever gets to write it most / gets to erase it best” (“I Seem as If I Am: Ten Maqams”). The table of contents, a stack of titles that mostly share their names with the collection, appears eerily to mimic the images of obliterated neighborhoods, now roofless walls and rubble, a very present-day resonance. However, this collection is perhaps primarily in conversation with cyclical history and its reverberations into the future. One of the most striking aspects of the book is the oracularity of the voice, which speaks from and into the unseeable and unspeakable, as the opening “[…]” of the collection tells us:

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.

From the vantage of that future perspective, […] asks the reader to reckon with the magnitude of a panorama that brings into the frame not only what the passive voice—of headlines and, perhaps, of the American conscience—has excised from view but also the imaginative humanity of a Palestinian presence, “[f]rom the collective to the one.” The view, like a great vista, reorients.

The penultimate piece in the book, “Dedication,” is a heroically sustained two-and-a-half-page prose poem that is as overwhelming in its accretion as it is heartbreaking in its detailed care to hold in the light each element of a great, snowballing amalgamation of the destruction, carnage, and resilient spirit of those who have suffered genocide and its ruinous sequelae. It is an incantatory, exhaustive litany, a spell against narrowness to which no pull quote or summary can do justice. In other words, “Dedication” is a tour de force, and I imagine its impact will contribute to the temptation to characterize the book solely via those poems that are most easily recognized as Palestinian, as taking part in establishing a clear political relationality. This is something that “Dedication” does in both its extraordinary evocation of sympathy—the image of children playing in the soft sand of bomb craters forms an immediate lump in my throat, my own daughter’s sandbox within view outside the window—and in its resurfacing refrain of “from the river to the sea.” There’s no stepping away from the book without the conviction that the collection is doing important political work in its humane pull against numb imperialism and against necropolitics. But it would reduce the capaciousness of the book to describe it this way—either as the resistance of a single speaker against the juggernaut forces of empire or as a piece of documentary—and miss its more complicated and profound work.

While many of the poems were written since October 2023, […] is not mired in the burden of tallying the present catastrophe’s devastations. Another answer to the question “When did the new war begin?” comes in a later section of “I Seem as If I Am”: “The war you’re thinking of, I made / you think of, is a red herring.” In this moment, the present we thought we were viewing becomes superimposed by the past, and the speaker steps out of culpability (“The war […] I made”) and into the space of creative agency: thought. By rejecting the task of making, for an American audience, the realities of the current siege worthy of sympathy and action, the poems are liberated to expand into a vivifying, almost cosmological spectrum, one that disallows the impulse to locate the speaker or the reader in any static position, any ready-made relationality of I versus you versus we versus them.

An early “[…]” opens with “Daily you wake up to the killing of your people, their tongue accented in your mother’s milk. // Daily you wake up to the killing of my people. Do you?,” throwing out one relativity, then another, then reorienting the speaker again: “I am removing me from the we of you.” In this way, the voice shimmies out of any attempts to pin it like a butterfly to a board, to commodify it or isolate it or assume a false familiarity with “the mirage / of the solid self in ruins, / gigantic in departure.” At times, the book extends one pronoun and then another to the reader, as if offering a chair at a crowded table whose sides—oppressor, complicit, good, bad, etc.—aren’t immediately evident. Meanwhile, ruined but released, the voice flits through time and space, back centuries to “pre-ancestral memory” and into the future, letting huge swaths of time and identity unspool and recoil.

If an American reader finds themselves needing to turn to Wikipedia for some traction in the non-Western, non-English references, and if a certain kind of American reader—like myself: white, leftist—finds their hand slapped, so to speak, as they reach for a superficial solidarity (“More than words, you speak in silences / that amplify white spaces”), both of these experiences might soon be followed by surer footing in the discovery of what drives this collection: a complex but expansive commitment to a love that draws its roots down to a deep origin point, the “heart, its earliest version, / before the world touched it.”

[…] arrives at and flies away from the word “love” (or to its stand-in, the heart) like a hummingbird to a flower, but never the same flower, metabolizing the idea into a fuel that keeps the book buzzing. This love includes desire for affection, for physical touch, and in moments of Eros, the voice sings itself into a presence that insists on the body as a sensory being, one who can revel in “earlobes, two buoys / on the tip of my tongue” (“Barzakh” a title very worth the Wikipedia search). Of course, like time, like identity, like belonging, love never relaxes into something facile; it is not an easy balm. That there is a necessary context for each of the many iterations of the word “love” extends some of the work suggested by the title. Sometimes the poems pull against what masquerades in Western media culture as benevolence or care, but which is instead possession, seeking the voice’s performance of suffering rather than its full being. There is a warning early in the book that hits my American ear as if overheard: “They love you more when you’re dead. / You’re more alive to them dead.” But in a later poem, in another shimmy of pronoun and address, the speaker offers: “Listen, ears / are erogenous. / I’ll lick your ears against revenge.”

As part of the great telescoping work of the book, the microscale of individual intimacy and desire becomes inextricable from the macroscale of environmental consciousness. The poems weave seamlessly, sometimes dizzyingly, from the vulnerable body to its ecological and historical context. In “Eid Mubarak,” we get a troubling question: “What else is inside / the air we are inside / and pull inside us?” There are important implications of this shift in perspective that takes us out of the self and into the system within which one finds the self—one, that violence against a people is violence against the earth, not only because “humans are natural” or through the transfiguration of metaphor, but also because exhaustive bombing has alarming environmental impacts, as is evident now in Gaza. Throughout […], violence against the body, violence against history, and violence against the environment arrive together in tightly compressed moments:

            Your earth is lead
that poisons the stream of my memory.
Your phosphorus plumbs me to the bone.

If grappling with the planetary and historical view opens overwhelming expanses, these layered moments are often suffused with a tenderness that collapses these distances. In “Maqam for Apricot,” the speaker reminds us: “Four / the seasons and four / the rooms in the heart.”

The various ways this occurs in the collection convincingly suggest that the zoom-out of perspective—environmental, historical, oracular—is related to love, as if opening oneself to love offers a training in seeing, and, in turn, that closing oneself to love cinches shut the ability to perceive. A late “[…]” begins with the lines:

You who remove me from my house
are blind to your past
which never leaves you,
blind to what’s being done
to me now by you. […]
How is the view from my window?
How does my salt taste?

These questions are both tragic and sly. Sly in that they suggest a speaker who suspects the addressee can’t quite taste, can’t quite see, can’t quite answer. The above poem is the one referenced in Joudah’s 2021 essay (published by LARB) “My Palestinian Poem that The New Yorker Wouldn’t Publish,” which includes the question: “Can one read what one is afraid to feel?” This is an extraordinary question that resonates within the book in a variety of ways—the unreadability of the title; its reference to censorship; the heartbreaking moments featuring children, which make me, as a reader, wish to look numbly away. But I’m interested in how the fear of feeling contrasts with what the Eros-hearted poems in particular craft: a presence whose sensorial capacities are vivid and sensitive, which insists, for example, that water has a taste; which is “life, / closer to life than dirt and stone”; and which goes on to say, “I spin and raise / my taste and smell into a love like water.” And “Dedication,” that deeply felt triumph of scope, closes with: “We are not afraid of love from the river to the sea.” There is thus a ringing sense that “what isn’t hard to see / in a world that doesn’t” is not only the censored or ignored injustice that Palestinians have endured across decades, not only the imaginative and musical voice of a Palestinian American perspective, but also the tremendous potential power of love to create a vantage point from which to better perceive the world.

The final “[…]” of the book offers a vision of complex human interconnectedness between past and present and future, one where ghosts teach kindness and undo the authoritarian rule of pattern. It is an extraordinary vision in a tense that is waiting to materialize: “You will be when we be. You will stay when we stay.” For anyone who has ever waited for someone to finish writing their text message, the pictographic title will likely suggest this moment: the words are there, but not yet here. The future to which the voice of […] has flown is there, the poems tell us, but not yet here. The extent to which this book—with love as the driver of a painful reckoning with the big picture—hastens the arrival of that future might depend on our ability to read what we are afraid to feel.

LARB Contributor

Rosalie Moffett is the author of the poetry collections Making a Living (Milkweed Editions, 2025); Nervous System (Ecco, 2019), which was chosen by Monica Youn for the National Poetry Series Prize and listed by The New York Times as a New and Notable book; and June in Eden (OSU Press, 2017). She has been awarded a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, and her work has appeared in The American Poetry Review, New England Review, Narrative, Kenyon Review, and Ploughshares, among others. She is an assistant professor at the University of Southern Indiana, and the senior poetry editor for the Southern Indiana Review.


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