Lunch Poems – Fady Joudah


(dramatic music) – I’m Giovanni Singleton, coordinator of the Lunch Poems program. Thank you all for being here today, and I would also like to
thank the university library, this beautiful room, for hosting us. I invite you all to sign
up on our email list, which is at the librarian’s desk, and also be sure to pick up a poster which outlines our events
for the entire year. They’re quite lovely, redesign. Also on our website,
lunchpoems.berkeley.edu, you can find a recording
of this video along with all of our past programs. So be sure to check it out. So next month, please
come back and join us on November 1st for a reading by Pulitzer prize-winning poet Tyehimba Jess. Now I would like to welcome
director of Lunch Poems Geoffrey G. O’Brien, who will introduce this afternoon’s poet, thank you. (audience applauding) – Thank you, Giovanni, and
thank you all for being here. We’re really happy to have Fady here. A note about preservation. Poetry has long liked to boast about how relatively indestructible
its materials are, and therefore it’s a good technology for preserving things about the world, however immaterially. Whether it’s the beloved maintained against its body’s going,
or noting ephemera, like butterflies, in fact, poems also want to even preserve
decreation or entropy, the cracks in the wall
against the butterfly on the cover of Fady’s book. Fady is certainly a poet of preservation, among other things, but
he’s also a physician. Is preservation one of
medicine’s mandates? It’s one way we could describe
it, but not the only way. I think that’s why, when
Joudah looks at a body, he sees both its liveliness and vigor and all of the potential
dooms that might beset it and thinks that those
are both crucial ways of considering it in the
world and its relations to other persons and things in the world. I just want to quote a moment from a poem in Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance called Progress Notes Towards the End, about treating cadavers. “He had the most beautiful
muscles of all 32 bodies “that were neatly
arranged, zipped up as if “a mass grave had been disinterred.” And I think there you can see that painful and lovely ratio of both preservation and noting threats to preservation, the anonymity of a mass grave,
a body after its subject has in many ways left it,
and yet its still being an occasion for praise and beauty. There are other agents and
technologies in the world that like to preserve. Nation-states are one,
they tend to want to preserve themselves,
primarily, at the expense of other kinds of beings and entities. There’s a moment in this
book that speaks to that. “Great art needs no
nation,” I think that that is something I agree with. And when nations preserve themselves, they often do so by making their states run over prior states,
bulldozing and resettling. That’s certainly something
animating this book. But finally, it’s also a book of poetry that wants to think about
preserving words themselves, even as they do the other kinds of work or preservation I’ve noted. This is a geek’s book in some ways. You’ll find the word
allele, you’ll find the word mitochondriac, you’ll find the plumeria. It wants to preserve all of
the ways of talking about and naming the parts of
the body and the parts of the supportive, erosive
thing that we call world. Let’s hear some more of
those words from Fady. Thank you. (audience applauding) – Thank you guys for having me. Thank you, Geoffrey, that’s
very kind and generous. So I think that this book, for me, is about my continued conversation with how to articulate the
body in various forms of what a body is for all of us, cliche a trope that that may
be for a living human being. Both the, you know, the
body that we inhabit and the bodies that we belong
to, whether geopolitical or erotic or mortal, primarily. And so the book is done
in pentads, if you will, five-poem sections, and
they move with some allusion from one idea of body to the next, which probably overlap
against the illusion of this specific demarcation
of what a body is. So I’ll just begin reading, and, yeah, hopefully I
won’t lull you to sleep. Progress Notes. Which is what doctors
write after the patient is initially admitted or
interviewed, or, you know. The age of portrait is drugged. Beauty is symmetry so rare it’s a mystery. My left eye is smaller than my right, my big mouth shows my nice teeth, perfectly aligned like Muslims in prayer. My lips, an accordion. Each sneeze a facial thumbprint. One corner of my mouth hangs downward when I want to hold a guffaw hostage. Bell’s palsy, perhaps,
or what Mark Twain said about steamboat piloting,
that a doctor is unable to look upon the blush
in a young beauty’s face without thinking it could
be a fever, a malar rash, a butterfly announcing a wolf. Can I lie face down now as cadavers posed on first anatomy lesson? I didn’t know mine was a
woman until three weeks later we turned her over. Out of reverence, there was to be no untimely exposure of donors. Our patrons, who were covered in patches of scrub green dish towels,
and by semester’s end we were sick of all
that, tossed mega livers and mammoth hearts into
lab air and caught them. My body was Margaret. That’s what the death certificate said when it was released before finals. The cause of her death? Nothing memorable. Frail old age. But the colonel on table 19,
with an accessory spleen, had put a bullet through
his temple, a final prayer. Not an entry or exit,
where the skull cracks to condemn the house of
death, no shattered glass in the brain, only a smooth
tunnel of deep violet that bloomed in concentric circles. The weekends were lonely. He had the most beautiful
muscles of all 32 bodies that were neatly arranged,
zipped up as if a mass grave had been disinterred. Or, when unzipped and facing the ceiling, had cloth over their eyes, as
if they’d just been executed. Gray, silver hair, chiseled countenance, he was 67, a veteran of more than one war. I had come across that which will end me, extend me, at least
once without knowing it. I’m such a glum reader. First Love, this is a very short poem. When God began you, she said to me, one spring afternoon in bed, God began with your
hands, a woman’s hands. And when God reached your wrists, God made the rest of you man. Horses. December evening, smoke in the rain, awn of the rain, from virga to drizzle, a glimpse of horses
through large wooden doors, trunks immortal. A menage which in Dutch
rhymes with Malaysia. Warm bloods in the training ring. Seven in a trotting circle
spun up to a canter, motion sustained. Round and round 28 hooves
tap-danced 28 lungs, all women riders. The Da Vinci shoulders, breasts, thighs, fibers, fascicles, foam and
stalactites from equine jaws more exhausted than a crossroad. Steam rising to the roof,
the sinews of their hearts. The women were one, the horses one. For miles and miles
rooted to the ring’s rail I rode along, from one body to the next I crossed as in a single body the bridges are endless. The riders dismounted, led
the horses to their stalls, drew vapor clouds idly away
from the eye of the fugue. One rider stayed on her horse. Her smile held me, her
chest was still rising, falling, but when she spoke,
the air was well at ease. How long have you been
riding for?, she asked me. I don’t know how, I said. All the horses I never
rode, their magnetic fields filled with souls of past
riders and horses’ past souls, even the plastic ones I
used to line up on the sill. Oh, she said, though it’s conceivable she was asking me about
something altogether different. My heart’s a doe’s. A doe’s made for running away. I think many of you
might know that famous, um, Whitman picture, I think it might be his last portrait or
something, with him holding the moth, the cardboard moth. And so I wrote this, you know, almost like a direct description, which I found interesting
in its directness as I wrote it out. So it’s called Footnotes to a Picture. Um, yeah, I won’t talk more about it, but. And there are some quotations
in the beginning from, yeah. From comments made about the photo. Where it was psyche, his
soul, his fixed contemplation, the renowned psychiatrist
said of his friend’s pose, where during the final
decade of the poet’s life the butterfly was classified
on the Indian subcontinent, where leptosia nina, wandering snowflake, takes to low fragile flight,
its wings tipping grass. Where in twilight he sat
down, clad in cardigan in the city of romance,
where a plump cardboard moth had synthetically alighted
on his outstretched index, the visible rubber band in daguerrotype, the lepidoptera in equilibrium, and on its hind wings some words, not his, housed in the Library of Congress, where, yes, that was an actual moth, the picture is substantially literal. We were good friends during my in and out of taming or fraternizing
with some of the insects, where their swarms and migratory shadows and the current they ride up, I ride up, where it isn’t all water when it rains. So he did, they did supposedly
ask Walt in an interview and he said yes, that was an actual moth, the picture is substantially literal. So I find this a
beautiful belligerent lie. Anyone here been to
Big Bend National Park? You have, wow. You’re my heroes. Well, there’s a poem in here about it, so. It’s called National Park. I won’t read it, ’cause
there’s just two of you. So yeah, I, speaking of
the body, as a doctor and also trying to see how
eros can enter this language, there are a couple of
poems here called Plethora and Epithalamion, and
I’ll just read Plethora. It’s a short one. About the praise I dish your way, jail’s the comeuppance of a liar poet. My only want is your content,
and if I hold another want, may I never be granted it. Each full moon is born of a crescent, yet what’s a full moon got? Vitiligo, and the morning
sees me with eyes of dew, a fever breaking out on your integument. On your skin, exanthem
is a pasture of anomenes. Because you’re one of
them, I love my enemies. (baby crying distantly) Awww. I’m a father also, so. The scream that startled
me while I was on my knees, depositing my son one morning
in the kindergarten line stationed in the cafeteria
slash theater slash gym, where he sits facing the
stage amid 12 rows of kids waiting for the bell. That pierce came from behind,
from a boy with bloody nose, his fingers bearing the
coagulating fluid of his life. I, a doctor with warm
sweat invading my pores, turned toward him and cupped
his face as in a prayer. A mother, not his mother,
came with paper towel, wiped off his nose, and left as fast as she came into the scene. The evidence erased,
the boy stopped crying. I asked him, what happened? He pointed to the boy behind him. I questioned the accused,
and he seized into absence. A nurse came and took Abel. I stroked Cain’s hair,
his frightened stare, gorgeous eyes. He was beautiful. Footnotes to a Song. Thank you for quoting these things, I’m honoring Geoffery’s quotes by reading the poems that he quoted from. So it helps. I’m not very good at picking
my poems when I read. Echo has no compass. We trace each other’s dermatomes. No ecstasy without betrayal. Not all who live in flames are saints. Great art needs no nation. In memory, country, size is one. Great nations need great art. Soliloquy a mother tongue. The surface tension of
a Jesus bug opiates me. We reach a cemetery. To each a cemetery. What is seen ends, even
if its ending isn’t seen. Tethered to a trope, great
nations need great despair. Great despair needs nary a nation. My grief for a grievance. We’re radiocarbon. Your grief for a grievance. We’re mitochondriacs. Um, as I was writing this book, I didn’t really know if
it was gonna be a book until I began this
unexpected correspondence with a good friend, a Syrian
Kurd poet who writes in Arabic, a poet as he is translator
who is also a physician and gave up practicing medicine early and then also had to
escape Syria into France with his wife, Jalan Haji, and we, there were these, you know,
we had mutual friends, and one of them is the
wonderful poet and translator and critic Marilyn Hacker,
and there were these moments where he and I began to
communicate in Arabic, through email, phone conversations, and the few times that we met. And I’m not sure what moment suddenly, well, I know, I know what
moment, I’ll read that poem. Suddenly hit in my brain
that we were writing poems without intending to write poems. And so I began to, so I told him, and I told him that I would take the bulk of our correspondence now
and turn it into poetry. And I didn’t really, it felt
like a moment of integrity for me, because I do have my issues with the problematic of the
poetry of witness, so-called. And, which is often
not a lived experience, but turns out to be a textual one. And even if it is lived,
there is a problem of agency. And so there was just a different moment where I can write these
poems with another person so they’re in collaboration,
where they also confuse the cult of
originality that I think we’re also quite obsessed
with in writing in general. Because we can understand, for example, that Henry James references
Shakespeare left and right, but we would never, you know, it doesn’t detract from his originality. But if there’s a direct
relationship to a source, to a nearby source in time, then our idea of originality somehow changes. So I wanted to persist with that. And that section is called Sagittal Views. So the first poem is, in those 10 poems, is called After No Language. A silent feeling of an
invisible punishment or one seen through cataracts. A sentence that isn’t
meted out and doesn’t end. Some cuts run deeper than speech. Writing may exit the cage, but
the cage remains and grows, or am I speaking of the
life of a footnoter? I always hold back from
writing in the margins of the clearest sentences. Those that lost their statues as feeling once they were excised by skillful hands wielding sharp instruments, a
manufacture of a refraction. A while back, I saw a
commercial in black and white for a detergent. Its customer was
imprisoned in a soap bubble that can’t be breached. A second transparent skin he can’t exit before the commercial ends. I think it was inspired by a Chinese man who was jailed for life as
a child inside an iron ball. As he grew, the penalty, the ball, grew, until it was no longer
possible to tell his blood from the ball’s rust, and I can’t remember what he was punished for. No silence offers answers. I’ll read the last poem of that section. In a cemetery under a solitary walnut tree that crows had planted,
and whose seeds are hollow, I found a needle, and
with it I dug a well, dug and dug until I struck ink. The needle wove fabric for
bodies it had injected with song. I painted the well’s walls with quicklime and couldn’t climb out. There was sun, there was
moonlight, that came into my sleep. I stored leaves and bark, but
rain washed away my words. A lantern came down on
a rope that a girl held. I sent up the part of me that was light. So just to make sure. (sighing) Too many poems. Okay. Short one or a long one? Okay, so um, you know, as a Palestinian, there are, a Texan, you know, there is a Palestine, Texas. So you know, I’ve known that for years, and then there has to come a moment where you’re like, what does that mean? Other than bringing
Milton’s Paradise into it. So I decided to share with
you, or to write a poem that I can share with you about that. Of course, depending
on the state, I think, the pronunciation can be Pal-a-steen, which is closer to the Arabic
pronunciation, Falasteen. Of course, Philistine,
which is a lovely euphemism. So Palestine, Texas. It’s just a longish prose poem. I’ve never been, I said to my friend, who’d just come back from there. Oh, you should definitely go, she said. The original Palestine is
in Illinois, she went on. A pastor was driven out
by Palestine’s people, and it hurt him so badly he had to rename somewhere else after it. Or maybe it goes back to
a 17th-century Frenchman who traveled with his
vision of milk and honey, or the nut who believed in dual seeding. What’s that? I asked. That’s when an egg is fertilized
by two sperm, she said. Is that even viable? I asked. It is, she said, on rare occasions, though nothing guarantees the longevity of the resulting twins. She spoke like a scientist,
but was a professor of the humanities at heart. Viability, she added, depends
on the critical degree of disproportionate defect distribution for a miracle to occur. If there is life, only one twin lives. That night, we went to the
movies, looking for a good laugh. It was a Coen Brothers feature whose unheralded opening scene
rattled off Palestine this, Palestine that and the other. It did the trick. We were granted the right to exist. It must have been there
and then that my wallet slipped out of my jeans back
pocket and under the seat. The next morning, I went back. With a flashlight that
the manager had lent me, I found the wallet unmoved. This was the second time in a year that I’d lost and retrieved this
modern cause of sciatica in men. Months earlier, it was at a
lily pond I’d gone hiking to with the same previously-mentioned friend. It was around twilight. Another woman, going in with her boyfriend as we were coming out, picked it up, put it in her little
backpack, and weeks later texted me the photo of his
kneeling and her standing with right hand over mouth to thwart the small bird in her
throat from bursting. If the bird escapes, the cord is severed, and the heart plummets. She didn’t want the sight
of joy caught in her teeth. He sat his phone camera on its
pod and set it in lapse mode. She wrote in her text to me, I welled up. She would become a bride, and my wallet was part of the proposal. This made me a token of their bliss, though I’m not sure how
her fiance might feel about my intrusion, if he’d care at all. It’s a special wallet, I texted back. It’s been with me for the
better part of two decades, ever since a good friend
got it for me as a present. He was from Ohio, I turned
and said to my film-mate, who was listening to my story. Ohio? She seemed surprised. Yes, I replied quizzically. There’s also a Palestine
in Ohio, she said. Barely anyone lives there any more. All of them barely
towns off country roads. I think there are 13
Palestines in America. And not one in Palestine. That’s why I’m here. I can have my Palestines. 13, couldn’t be 12, 14? 13, what a lucky number. I’m not sure, actually. There’s a lovely essay that
the wonderful Anton Shammas, written in, I think in 1994,
’96, something like that, in Threepenny Review,
about something to do, it turns out that the essay
is about Palestine, Michigan. So just in case you’re curious. So it seems like it’s an affliction for some Palestinian-Americans
to chase these little towns. I want to also read this poem, which is special to me, if I can find it. Bloodline. Being a Houstonian, we have, for anyone who’d been to Houston,
there is the Minel Museum and the Twombley Museum,
and the Rothko Chapel. And so this poem began after,
I began writing this poem after I finished a week in the hospital, like a week, you know, shift,
and I was quite exhausted on Friday morning, so, uh, Bloodline. Make sure I’m not, I’m almost done, maybe. A beetle with phosphorescent indigo wings I had assumed were radium-yellow cascaded down the glass of God to
the table by your right arm, and I said that a painter friend of mine, with inflammatory vessels in her mind, an ailment whose choice of
flesh is blood vessel muscle, had told me that indigo
is like the untranslatable in every language. Synonym overlap, too low for coefficient. Rothko’s chromatography
or electrophoresis, in and out of his chapel. A Mexican rabbi doctor from Aleppo had recently shared with
me that he’d seen the work but didn’t get the art in it. I told him he’d have to go into it knowing Rothko didn’t see the spirit bright and didn’t see it hurtful, either, though it could be that
it’s Rothko retro days, and Twombley’s mausoleum across the street under a Whitman oak, and the
city’s grackles at sunset, on treetops and ledges, on
traffic lights and wires, along feeders and highways,
wild song and murmuration. Then the rabbi said that once as a boy his father had reproached
him for mocking Arabic, which his father spoke and loved. And my father knew love, he said. So maybe that’s indigo, I said. You said your beetle had
landed and was wholly tranquil for a second before it buzzed off again. I said yesterday the signs were many. You said perhaps I’d seen too many, millimoles of someone else’s life. That anyone passing through
might own a share in someone else’s dying. I said, that too, a
Jewish doctor from Waco told me years ago. Sometimes people survive in spite of us. And I’ll finish with this brief poem. Called Corona Radiata,
which is one of those, uh, I think it has a, you
know, it’s an expression of this kind of limitation of language, it offers itself to multiple metaphors. So it is some sort of
philosophical metaphysical concept, but also it is a structure in the brain where the white matter branches
out into the gray matter, and it’s dense neurons
that give it this look. But it is also, and that’s
my favorite association with the expression,
projections of the ovum that actually sort of, a
sperm has to negotiate. They sort of, like a
spiked shield for the ovum before conception, called corona radiata. To erase myself, I erase myself. Quiet, silent, mute. Clay, fire, light. Cold, shadow, sun. Sorrow, meadow, wild. River, sea, land. Drunk, sober, want. Seize, release, expunge. Part, splice, plunge. Sound, ear, mouth. Word, would, world. Thank you. (audience applauding) (upbeat music)

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