Ellipses and the Unspeakable in Fady Joudah’s […]

Gemini Wahhaj

Fady Joudah’s newest poetry collection […] (Milkweed Editions, March 2024), written during the bombardment of Gaza from October to December 2023, marks the loss of language during an ongoing genocide. A Palestinian-American physician living in the U.S., Joudah watched from afar as Palestinians, including his relatives, were killed in their homes, hospitals, refugee camps, and UN shelters. Joudah attempts to articulate the failure of language and find meaning beyond it and the demolished present. Ultimately, […] traces a movement toward hope, from the first line, with the speaker realizing that he is “unfinished business,” as Israel appears to embark on a final solution to its “Palestinian problem,” to the last, with a vision for a free Palestine: “from the river to the sea.”

In the first poem, the speaker realizes that the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians that began with the Nakba will not end until it is complete. “The business that didn’t finish me / or my parents / won’t leave my children / in peace.” At the same time, the words “I am unfinished business” indicate the poet’s resolve about what he has left to do, to make the world see, to write for the future, to leave a document of the genocide “as a legible past.” There is a tension between paralysis and urgency; the poet’s grief as Israeli airstrikes target and kill Palestinian civilians, and his frantic efforts to respond to the war, to go public, to document, to act.

The poems in section I bear witness to a shattered time. The speaker, a distant observer to events that affect his nearest family members, collapses into grief and silence, and struggles to exist in the world as Palestinians in Gaza are exterminated, his mind and body tossed upside down. Sometimes, a poem begins mid-thought, mid-sentence: “And out of nowhere.” Other than a few exceptions, every poem has the same title, ellipses. A thought is dropped, then taken up again in a new line, a new meditation, that returns us to the same grief, the same question–how to survive, act, endure, and respond during a genocide?

Though the International Court of Justice finds it is plausible Israel has committed genocide in Gaza, the term “genocide” is a politically contested term. This contestation becomes a subject of […], the lack of rhetorical space available to Palestinians to speak out about the reality of occupation, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. The ellipses are both an expression of the unspeakable horror of the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, and the censorship of all speech to describe this horror.

[…] struggles to hold onto the dream of liberty and freedom for people everywhere as it grapples with the complete defeat of Palestinians in Gaza and the overwhelming might of the Israeli State. Joudah returns to the site of massacre again and again to find hope. And almost, at times finds faith, like the poem about “my friend in Nablus” who had a dream in which “Everyone was fleeing, / but he kept with his prayers.” Even in the middle of the violence, the friend in Nablus goes on praying. “He was bloodied, bruised / and it was November, / it was dawn, and time to pray.” The distraught speaker is filled with an understanding, however fleeting, that “there will be a Gaza after the dark times.” There is a tension between naming the daily extermination (“Your phosphorus plumbs me to the bone”) and resolve (“I will survive”). One poem describes a childhood game in which a group of boys build a pyramid of empty soda cans while the opposite team knocks down the pyramid with a ball. (“To make the pyramid whole again / meant you were not wiped out”). Facing the rising number of the killed and the piling of dead bodies in Gaza, the speaker renews his faith in Palestinian life and a future beyond the present moment. “There are more flowers that aren’t / over graves than over them.”

In recent months, the U.S. literary landscape has become a battleground, silencing voices speaking out against the genocide. In this atmosphere of repression, Joudah uses the private space of the poem to address his oppressor. In several poems, he engages a “you” and an “I” in a direct confrontation. He accuses his oppressors of thinking life is competition and conquest (“The life I wanted to live / as one and not only”).In “[…]” on page 69, a Palestinian who is being evicted from his home addresses his evictor, comparing the present suffering of Palestinians to the history of the persecution of Jews: “You who remove me from my house / are blind to your past / which never leaves you, / blind to what’s being done / to me now by you.” In “[…]”on page 73, the speaker, driven away from his home, addresses his evictors, and offers a vision of peace: “You will be when we be. You will stay when we stay. / You’ve made our tears yours, your memory / no longer possible without us. / You will need our sky for yours to hold up, / and our sea waves to teach you return.”

While Palestinian representation has increased in literature, Palestinians continue to be killed. Joudah addresses this contradiction, of being a Palestinian poet in the U.S. who is given voice. In one poem, the speaker bemoans the firefly that he once trapped in a jar as a child and rebels against being used by the U.S. literary establishment as simply a jarred and captive voice.

"Your light is not for jarring.
Your light is now for jarring.

Your captors translate
Your anguish into a return

On investment. To be
good again. For all to see.

They house your voice in glass."

Joudah reminds us that unless the Palestinian voice is unwelcome, unless it is disruptive, there is the danger of representation being used to legitimize the oppression.

The guilt of being a distant observer engulfs this collection, creating a tension between the poet’s need to be responsible to others and his need to be whole himself. The speaker as observer has little power or agency, except to vow to bear witness, and to never commit violence oneself. There is a constant self-introspection, holding the self to account. In one poem, a frog has wandered into the speaker’s house; the speaker tries to place it outside without harming it and starts to cry. The speaker’s stance toward the self and others is exacting, aggressive, and unflinching, demanding an ethical response.

The speaker, located in America, is always aware of this distance, that he is not there. He must remain true to those who suffer in Gaza. This desperate attempt to be a witness exacts a cost on the self. No matter how great the pain of watching genocide, one cannot end the malady; to be at one with the people in Gaza, one must nurse it. Seeking relief from malady during genocide is tantamount to betrayal. In one poem, the speaker is a physician, one whose responsibility it is to heal others, but he doubts if he can heal himself from the trauma of being a witness.

"Not everyone
is a physician
but sooner or later everyone
fails to heal."

In the next line, Joudah shifts his attention from himself to a girl and her brother in Gaza, as if he makes a sudden decision not to indulge himself. Speaking of a fish they rescued in its bowl from rubble in the middle of airstrikes, the speaker says it is a miracle that the glass bowl did not shatter, and perhaps, also, that the children endure. The line stops on “A miracle,” emphasizing a moment of hope, a moment of impossible love and beauty, and empathy between the distant observer and the Palestinians in Gaza. Yet, in the last line, the speaker draws attention back to the precarious self, to the great effort it takes for him not to break.

"In Gaza, a girl and her brother
rescued their fish
from the rubble of airstrikes. A miracle
its tiny bowl
didn’t shatter."

Part II of the collection gains in language and moves beyond the stark, short, painful meditations of the first movement. Joudah explores the corruption of language, so much talk, which can never get at the truth. (“The language I wanted to be, I will be / after I’m done talking.”) Form also breaks down in this collection. The lyric poem is used to speak for the collective. “Although lyrical, the poem is not about the self” (51). The Ghazal, seeming to be about romantic love, becomes an intense loss and longing for the sea, the homeland, and the dead.

In Part III, the observer to the massacres in Gaza wants to be alone with his grief, as if he is lovesick (“I glimpsed a door and darted through it / A light wind touched a bloom / It clothed then unclothed / a permission to be lonely with you.”) Another poem titled “Barzakh” reads like a romantic poem in which a speaker addresses his beloved, speaking of their youth and the years ahead, yet it is filled with an intense loss and longing for the homeland and the hope of recovery (“The sea / we swam in / and the sea we’re yet to / transfigure”). Barzakh in Islam describes a state after death, in which one waits in the grave for the day of judgment to be reunited with all the souls of those who have died. Perhaps the constant bursting out of form, through the interjection of prose paragraphs, silences, and ellipses, makes transformation possible, from the paralysis of the present moment to faith in a Palestine beyond the present.

Joudah questions those who remain silent, who can witness injustice and give it the green light. In“Maqam for a Green Silence”, the speaker asks his friends a question, what is your greatest fear? The mothers answer that their greatest fear is surviving their children. Their clarity and alacrity in answering the question does not satisfy the speaker, who seems to dissociate from normal life and the conviction of others in normal bonds. When the speaker’s friends ask him the same question, he answers that his greatest fear is silence in the face of suffering. He tells the story of Moses who, wanting to gain knowledge about the obstacles of faith, attempted to accompany a saint Al-Khidr, “whose name derives from the color green.” “Moses said he was up for it, and the saint said, ‘You won’t be able to bear it.’” The saint’s condition was “Moses’s unconditional silence.” But Moses could not be silent when he witnessed suffering and thus failed his mission to gain knowledge. It is clear that those who object to injustice pay a price, but also, Joudah questions the certainty of those who think they have knowledge, when that confidence comes at the cost of not being willing to see all of the injustices and suffering of humanity.

Joudah destroys the myth of the superiority of human civilization, knowledge, and intelligence, and searches for a different possibility, a world that is more generous and more compassionate than humans. He finds this in the language of love, as the only authentic response to massacre. […] articulates a love for the Palestinian collective, inside and outside Palestine, those who have suffered historically and those who are suffering in the present moment. The collection is dedicated to the collective, “no matter our location on Earth”. The collective contains the animals the people left behind, the mules, the donkeys, the chickens, the horses, and the “palm trees, zataar, basil, and tomatoes that weapons poisoned.” The dedication ends in hope, optimism, and love, foregrounding meditation, falling in love, moments of calm, acts of faith, and impossible acts of love, the children who played in craters made by bombs, the people who gathered by a child stuck in rubble asking, “Wave to us, can you wave to us?” and those who insist on homing their pigeons during the war. The idea of the collective is powerful, a people who collectively dream of a future, who dream of returning home, who are not afraid to love.