Thursday, December 3, 2009

Review of The Earth in the Attic

In her introduction to The Earth in the Attic, Louise Glück says of poet Fady Joudah that he is “the outsider, but a particular outsider, his method less interrogation than identification. …As an Arab in the West, as a doctor who practices emergency medicine, as a poet writing in English, for a number of reasons, in a variety of situations, Joudah finds himself not at home, not among his people.” Outsider does not mean alone, and The Earth in the Attic is populated with others who are not at home, who cannot go home, for whom the very idea of home is in the distant past.

When the shooting began
Everyone ran to the trucks
Grabbed whatever their backs needed
And made for the trucks
Except K

K, in the poem “Anonymous Song,” refuses to be displaced. He refuses to run with the others, and this refusal, this determination to stay results in insanity. The poem also refuses; it will not allow itself to be seen as myth or caution. Instead, the speaker insists:

K is real
Safe and sweet especially
Holding a baby to sleep
Or asking for a sip of your Fanta
Or calling out your name from where
You cannot see him.

The poem, which appears in the third of the book’s four sections, locates exile in violence. For K and his neighbors, exile becomes both a choice and a non-choice. What kind of freedom is there in choosing to remain behind, hidden and wounded by what happens to home? What kind of freedom is there in getting on truck, bound for a destination that the passengers have no say over, where all that is certain is that the Ks who were left behind will haunt them? There is no real staying, and no real flight. War, violent and rapid, forever changes the landscape and the people who lived on it.

Where “Anonymous Song” explores what happens to those who do not get on the trucks, “Scarecrow,” the poem preceding “Anonymous Song,” plunges us further into the reality that, on the trucks, there is no real choice. Although neither poem firmly locates itself in a particular conflict, both poems have the same kind of universality that implies that the terror and violence they describe are both no specific war and every war. In “Scarecrow,” this point is driven home by the use of the second person:

You will drop your sugarcane-stick-beating of plastic bucket,
Stop shouting at birds and run,

They will load you in trucks and herd you for a hundred miles.
Old men will teach you trade with soldiers at checkpoints.

You will give them your spoon, blanket and beans,
They’ll let you keep your life… .

This “you” could be the reader. It is the reader. It must be the reader. And yet, it necessarily cannot be the reader, because who would read this who already knew? The reader is outside the poem, and that is the poem’s power. The reader is outside, and even as the use of “you” pulls her in, it reinforces her outside place. When the poem explains, “Later, they will accuse you of giving up your land,” and the conflict in the poem is erased by power, the reader understands that she is part of both the power that lies to justify war and murder and of the people who are erased. The reader’s outside relationship to the poems is not allowed to be that of just a detached observer.

Joudah’s poems continue this refusal to be detached even when addressing the actions of aid workers. His experiences doing field work with Doctors Without Borders inform The Earth in the Attic, and in “Pulse 14,” Joudah explores the complex consequences of emotional attachment. “The humanitarian man,” as the speaker calls him, adopts a stray dog: “Everyday after the long arduous hours/ Of the humane, he would come home/ To be consoled” by the dog, who becomes a constant companion to the humanitarian man, a substitute for human companionship. The humanitarian man must be logical and exact with his aid; he cannot allow himself to be emotional, or the aid will not reach those who need it. Knowing both the necessity of remaining an outsider, he forms an attachment to the dog, even to the point of attempting to bring the dog home. When the “[g]overnment of the wretched” won’t let the dog leave the country, it dies, lying by the door of the place where the humanitarian man lived; the man, always an outsider, “came and loved, and then he went.”

The Earth in the Attic is unrelenting in reminding readers of the outsider, including poets in this complex way of being in the world. In “Pulse 15,” Joudah writes of running through the rain with a fellow aid worker, being thought mad by the children who usually shout after them on dry days. The speaker seems to enjoy the peaceful moment, but knows that the way the children see him matters more than the way he sees them. The speaker hopes that one of them “is a poet/ Who will write the two strangers/ In one of his famous pieces/ For who we really are. . ./ And we would call it even.” Writing these children, writing these lives, can never be sufficient. It can never be free of the power that comes with the ability to enter these places, help, and leave, as all “humanitarian men” must do. But when Joudah hopes that the children will write their own poems, he acknowledges that words have power to shape truth. The Earth in The Attic reminds us to hear the truth of those displaced by war.

The Earth in the Attic
Yale University Press
2008, 16.00 paper

Fady Joudah will be featured at Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness, March 10-13, 2010, in Washington, DC. The festival will present readings, workshops, panel discussions, youth programming, film, activism—four days of creative transformation as we imagine a way forward, hone our community and activist skills, and celebrate the many ways that poetry can act as an agent for social change. For more information: info at splitthisrock dot org.

Katherine Howell is a poet, the Communication and Development Assistant and Blog Goddess for Split This Rock, and a Lecturer in Writing at the George Washington University. She lives, writes, and teaches in Washington, D.C. You can read her reviews of Split This Rock featured poets here.

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