Review | A Concordance of Leaves, by Philip Metres
Diode Editions, 2013
A chronicle of a 2003 trip to Palestine on the occasion of the wedding of Philip Metres’s speaker’s sister, A Concordance of Leaves contains a single poem in page-long sections that further break down into one- and two-line stanzas, with typographical breaks between: an open or closed parenthesis. These visual cues reinforce the recurrent images of division and the crossing of divides. Metres’s speaker and his family cross the border from Israel to Palestine—“we had to lie & say we were tourists / & not guests at our sister’s wedding” to a Palestinian man—as well as “the borders of fear,” into “the country / of memory.” The couple’s union gains significance from the religious and political divisions of the region. In one moment, late in the poem, Metres addresses the bride and groom:
if Aristophanes was right
& we walk the world
in search of, a split-
infinitive of to love, if two
outside the walls / in the wind
should find in each other more
than mirror, then we should sing
Although he predicates this blessing on being “outside the walls” and on the “split- / infinitive of to love,” voices join together to sing.
In preparation to joining this chorus, Metres’s speaker must learn not only the language in which to sing but also the culture of which he will sing, to be a part of the ceremony, to communicate. “Our family,” he notes, “will ask so many questions we will / be called The Question Factory.” Usually, the future brother-in-law provides the answers, which sometimes constitute a simple vocabulary lesson:
Today el youm
My friend sadiqi
My name is ismi
Sometimes they hint at something altogether different:
The Question Factory: why do you smile?
Because I still have my teeth . . .
: why do you laugh?
because I still have my tongue
Behind the joking answers to this mock-interrogation, Metres and the “future brother” silently remind us of those who have endured other interrogations and do not still have their teeth or their tongues.
These exchanges reveal more about Palestinian culture and about the groom whose “history” once, years ago, held “him at passport control” in Tel Aviv while the speaker’s sister stood helplessly on the other side of the barrier:
The Question Factory asks: what is a dunum?
Answer: slowly disappearing land
The Question Factory asks: what is that line
on your skull? Answer: a failed poem
by one who tries to write over everything
already written over
Throughout a Concordance, the speaker must negotiate interpersonal exchanges, not only with his new brother-in-law but also with border guards, taxi drivers, and more. He does so through an American’s cultural lens—“Rami, sunglassed cabbie born in al-Quds, dead ringer / for Travolta circa Saturday Night Fever”—while simultaneously internalizing those he meets like Muhammed, who “spent a month his head buried in burlap” for “throwing a Molotov at a bus” and Muhammed’s wife, who has just given birth to “Carmel, which means ‘God’s Vineyard’”; and, for the brief moment of their appearance, the speaker allows himself to become them, both giving his sister away to her new husband and giving himself away to the experience, to a future.
Nevertheless, the ever-present shadow of Israeli-Palestinian violence darkens even Metres’s most innocent images: “now a cousin comes, footfalls / white explosions of dust”; an olive tree “wrestles the rock / wrests water from whatever trickles”; “garbage bags tumble / free as emptied skulls in No-Man’s-Land.”
In this milieu of danger and armed divides, Metres’s recurrent images of books and writing at first strike a discordant note; but in fact, the title of the chapbook furnishes clues to the function of these allusions: “Concordance” carries the primary meaning of an index of significant words which gives a bit of context for each entry (as in a Biblical concordance); but its secondary meaning is “concord” or “harmony.” “Leaves” may belong on a tree or in a book (and may additionally suggest departure—the speaker leaving Palestine to return home, the sister leaving her birth family for her husband, the couple embarking on a new life together): “sister soon you will be written / alongside your future / / husband in the book of books.” To underscore the literary connotation, at the top of each page appears the Arabic word for a leaf of paper, “ورق.” Perhaps, Metres also wishes to remind us that, in Islamic thought, both Jews and Muslims (as well as Christians) are “People of the Book.”
Whatever hope the insistence on books and writing carries, Metres doesn’t forget the context in his Concordance. His chilling “Coda,” with its half-submerged images of bombs, projectiles, and rifles, reminds us again of the circumstances of the marriage:
like strapping a small bomb
to your third finger / that ring
about which we could not
speak upon our arrival
& departure from the country
of memory where we left you
sister / among the fragile
projectiles inside the book
whose pages the wind rifles
searching for a certain passage
In spite of the danger, A Concordance of Leaves allows this marriage to represent the tentative hope of the region. Although the book serves as a blessing to send the new couple out and into their new lives, it also encourages Metres’s thoughtful examination of his relationship to the region and his own identity.
Tomorrow, when the apricots ripenbukra fil mish-mish
Tomorrow never comesbukra fil mish-mish
Philip Metres is the author of several chapbooks, including A Concordance of Leaves (Diode Editions, 2013) and abu ghraib arias (Flying Guillotine Press, 2011). He is the author of the collection To See the Earth (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2008) and several works of translation.