Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance
by Fady Joudah
Milkweed Editions, 2018; 88 pp
Reviewed by Wesley Rothman
our polymers of I skipping
their archipelago stone
from “The Floor Is Yours”
Feverish, or fevered, the mind and the eyes and the word of these poems is frenetic. Perhaps these are indeed footnotes—the details or context, the minutiae, the more-easily-forgettable parts of lives reframed. “Minutiae” always seems condescending in its usage. Here, footnotes, the minutiae—and not all of what these poems bear can be considered periphery—have staying power and tectonic, if delayed, impacts on the human. The collection’s first prose poem, “Tricolor,” impressionistically strings together a soldier’s blue wound, a 21st century war zone, a speaker who “returned, could return,” love poems shared in a café, and a presentation by the speaker, a doctor, featuring a photograph of the soldier, his jaundiced facial wound, and a fly. The true conclusion, you must read for yourself, but these glimpses strung together, when separated seem mere footnotes. When unified, puzzled together, they reveal humans’ potential and limitations for connection. The photograph or moment in front of our face, that on which we tend to focus, often misses the more subtle, more seismic detail.
Joudah’s poems are melodic, even those more narrative alight briefly then float to a seemingly disparate detail. At their most lyric, as with the opening and closing poems, “The Magic of Apricot” and “Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance” respectively, these are incantations, concoctions of observations and curved aphorisms, with abrupt shifts of phrase and idea, urging us to hold it all, somehow, together. For instance, by the close of the poem you’ll have an impression of the magic of apricot, but will likely still wonder what apricot’s magic is or does. The poem highlights its incompleteness, a maxim of sorts, because how do we know anything is complete, or whole, or unchangeable? This poem, this collection leans steadily on the paradoxical, and on the twist or swing that comes after what we anticipate. In the middle of “The Magic of Apricot,” the speaker declares,
The magic of apricot may well keep us alive
a little while longer than unnecessary
Whatever “the magic of apricot” is, we buy into how it may sustain us, and then following the line break, just sustain us a bit longer than anticipated, but it’s that “unnecessary” that puzzles and forces the pause, more so than the stanza break to follow. Sit with this stanza, like a mantra, for a while; see where it gets you.
And one of the book’s title poems (there are two), emphatically last, is a five-page, almost punctuationless miscellany, but again, not the miscellany of condescension, rather an urgent and resounding miscellany, curated, a series of challenges, peculiarities, and wonderings, as with,
What if butterfly or moth on lemon or mango tree?
What if I taste the coffee you swirled inside your cheeks?
These poems are toned, torqued, formally resourceful, linguistically patient, punctuationally spare, restrained yet spill over. In “Sagittal Views,” the middle of the book’s three sections, Joudah collaborates with Syrian Kurdish poet Golan Haji, sparking into lines like,
Solutions are euphemisms
for new binds and delirium can’t be apprehended.
To go mad among the mad
or go it alone.
from “I, the Sole Witness to My Despair, Declare,” or,
…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…
from “After No Language.” Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance makes no demands, but hopes we might slow down some, wonders out loud what might come of quiet, reflection, stillness, and a footnoter’s honed attention. With their own signature of course, these poems call to mind the daring and pensiveness of Carl Phillips’s poetry as well as the freedom and expansiveness of Sandra Lim’s work. These poems dwell in our perennial means for connection and for disconnection.