When I pick up a new book, the first thing I usually do is glance at the back cover of it to have a better understanding of what I might be reading about. The back cover of Shrapnel Maps by Philip Metres has the following quote:
13. What do you want others to know?
Tell them that we exist.
That we exist,
even between the words of their text.
These words stood out to me from the get-go, and as I read through each of the poems in this beautifully and intentionally crafted book, I was able to gain a little more insight into Metres’ poetic vision and sensibility. Metres creates a space for people, particularly those in the Middle East, to come to terms with hurt, history, and perhaps a sense of hope in regards to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
In Sandra Beasley’s essay, “Flint and Tinder – Understanding the Difference Between ‘Poetry of Witness’ and ‘Documentary Poetics'”, she states that a poem has the ability to make “present to us the experience of the other, the poem is the experience, rather than a symbolic representation…we are marked by it and become ourselves witnesses to what it has made present before us.” Metres allows for the readers of his book, Shrapnel Maps, to become witnesses to the pain that people have experienced by showcasing different voices and perspectives.
One of the many ways that he does this is through using a poetic form called “simultaneity,” where each column of the poem is read by different readers that represent different voices – the readers all read their columns at the same time, creating a gorgeous and chaotic space for people to soak in all of the viewpoints that are being presented. There are several simultaneities in Shrapnel Maps, but the one that really impacted me was “Bride of Palestine: to be read by our people simultaneously,” broken up into four stanzas, titled “Guidebook,” “Haganah Leaflet,” “Yafa/Joppa/Jaffa/Yafo,” and “Nahida,” respectively. The poem itself about Jewish paramilitary Haganah’s eviction of Palestinians from Jaffa in 1984, and the form of the poem forces the readers and listeners to think through the conflicting and contrasting perspectives that ask questions in regards to who the speaker is, who the audience is, and what the purpose of each of the poems might be.
The “Guidebook” is a touristy poem that begins with, “Welcome to Jaffa! / Welcome to the arched alleys / bathing in sun” (Column 1, pg. 106). This section addresses tourists in an upbeat tone, which is severely juxtaposed by the second column on the piece, “Haganah Leaflet.” “Haganah Leaflet” embodies the commanding tone and voice of an army that directs and orders that “all males will concentrate between / Feisal Street, Al Mukhtar / Street, Al Hulwa Street and the / Sea / the particulars of which will be / notified later” (Column 2, pg. 106). There is a sense of authority and violence in these orders, showcasing a differing perspective than “Guidebook” and from “Yafa/Joppa/Jaffa/Yafo,” which presents a heartbreaking point of view of people who had to experience the eviction. The section opens with “Bride of Palestine / City of Oranges / From sunset until dawn / they did not spare / any house from shooting / … / houses dynamited / people still in them / unknown number / drowned during the exodus by sea” (Column 3, pg. 107). The poem then gets even more personal and tells the story of Nahida, a friend of Metres’ for whom this section of Shrapnel Maps is dedicated, and recounts how Nahida and her family had to leave Jaffa. The speaker of “Nahida” states that “our bags packed, we drove / past houses in flames houses in / houses in houses in flames / without those documents I / could never prove I lived there / that this house was mine this / life was mine” (Column 4, pg. 107). Each of the sections within “Bride of Palestine” works together in order to create and show ways that many perspectives come together to present a single situation.
In an interview with Christopher Nelson, Metres states:
There are so many voices in the book—voices of victims and perpetrators, of bystanders and activists, of all manner of human being and becoming. They spoke to me, and through language (my own and found text), and helped me abide with them as I attempted to understand what I could not understand in any other way (2020).
By using forms like simultaneities, Metres brings to light the main themes of Shrapnel Maps and helps readers identify the core of his poetry and project: to highlight the slivers of human voices and the many layers that create memory. He also does this by using different forms of poetry all throughout the collection, including ghazals, couplets, postcards, images, letters, prose, and erasure. Metres combines and experiments with different forms to really emphasize the fact that differences can come together in order to present various aspects and voices of an event, and to create visual and tonal diversity in this book. With the erasure poetry that is present in this collection, Metres shows how narratives can erase stories, not necessarily even the voices of opposing sides, but also, personal memories and a sense of belonging.
For example, towards the beginning of the book, there is a poem, “Two Neighbors,” that embodies an erasure of voices and memories. The speaker talks about an experience they had near Jerusalem where a young Palestinian hopped onboard and they ended up having a conversation about how he hoped to study engineering. The poem then transitions abruptly into short and choppy sentences, saying “The minivan braked. We pulled out passports,” (6) after which the speaker states:
A / soldier barked something we couldn’t follow, the young man said something we couldn’t follow, his hands dancing empty in the air. / The soldier grabbed his wrists. We pulled away (we couldn’t follow) / and he disappeared, surrounded by three soldiers, as we drew new to Jerusalem. (6)
Even though this isn’t a traditional erasure poem, Metres uses different variations of the phrase “we couldn’t follow,” to show an aspect of erasure of language and meaning that the speaker wasn’t able to fully understand. As readers, it is evident that the Palestinian man’s sense of belonging is stripped away and his voice was erased, emphasizing narratives and their roles in preserving stories and memories.
Something else that is unique about Shrapnel Maps is Metres’ decision to include poetry in the form of pictures and postcards. The first page of Section VII of the book showcases a picture of a map with the worlds “Holy Land” across the top right hand corner, but the letters are scratched out so that it looks like “_o__ Land.” The map includes names of cities and landmarks that are scribbled out, as well as snippets of phrases and words that look as though they have been pasted onto the map. Some of these snippets include sayings such as, “A desolate country,” “Dismal, smileless,” “we never saw a human being on the whole route,” and “Sitting in sackcloth and ashes” (99) to name a few. The map itself acts as a poem that shows a landscape of loss, represented through fragmented words and and redactions. Other unconventional poems that are similar to “O Land” work together to present various aspects of how people may view Israel and Palestine, as well as remind readers that culture and geography become shrapnel through a dispersal of identity and dislocation of people caused by war.
One of the biggest accomplishments of Shrapnel Maps is that Metres encourages people to become witnesses to stories. He does this by forcing people to acknowledge various voices addressing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that are represented through different forms, different narratives, and different perspectives. Only by being aware of this can people truly start to move towards justice and peace, and Metres does this by exemplifying this concept through his book, Shrapnel Maps.
Melanie Han is an avid traveler and a poet who was born in Korea, grew up in East Africa, and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing in Boston. She has won awards from Boston in 100 Words and Lyric, and her poetry has appeared in several magazines and online publications, such as Fathom Mag, Ruminate, and Among Worlds. During her free time, she can be found eating different ethnic foods, studying languages, or visiting new countries.