I wasn’t raised to trust or believe in chance. I was raised to believe nothing happened except by merit of the effort one put into the task at hand, the work one consciously and deliberately put toward a goal. And with enough work, one got what they had justly earned. Chance had no place in this narrative. And yet, besides the countless and obvious examples otherwise throughout history and even a cursory awareness of current geopolitical and social dynamics, chance asserts itself daily into our lives. There is work to be done, surely. There are words to be spoken, and written. And while the more I teach and study and write poetry, the more I am convinced there is not just one worthy approach or objective; the more I challenge myself to be present and aware of struggles I might just as easily choose, by my privilege, to not concern me; and the more I am convinced poetry’s necessity is found in the ways it teaches us to listen.
Cue Philip Metres’s Shrapnel Maps. It had been prominent on my shelves for months as a reminder to attend to when my attention was less divided. So by chance I found myself taking up this work even as tensions between Israelis and Palestinians were again vying for attention, to be heard, in my own haphazardly curated newsfeeds. These poems gently—in the way of poems—but not softly, insist that we listen; they show us how we might—to the myriad voices of that specific struggle. They remind us, too, that we “must unlearn a great many things” and “begin a system of reduction out of so large a history” in our daily interactions as neighbor and other. As Metres himself suggests in the afterword, his experiences make themselves present as “a metaphor for navigating neighborliness in a divided society.”
The poems in this collection echo and cascade. One tree, two neighbors, three books. Three soldiers. Unknowable tongues. We learn to count ourselves among those othered. We learn to count and read ourselves between official narratives. When even a stuttering progression is preferrable to a halted submission to uncertainty, we fill the silence with repetition. We keep going. We carry on. Leaving space, as Metres does, for what is left unsaid, what goes unsaid, “blind & we wait for our lines to be read.”
Increasingly, I’m interested in patterns. Within poems. Between poems and poets. Outside of poems. How are the lines to be read? What are the lines to be read?
The Question Factory asks: what is that line
on your skull? Answer: a failed poem
by one who tries to write over everything
already scratched out, written over
There is a song, a pattern, even if we don’t hear the singing. These poems teach us to listen—but warn us not to wait. And to listen broadly. Through Metres’s use of erasure and collage and vintage postcards and language borrowed from news reports, comment threads, oral testimony, interviews, literature, government documents, and letters, the poems manifest “voices inviting // ( // a heart to break itself & open / a space another could nest inside.” Metres invokes a polyvocality on the page to capture the complexity of the situation in order to restore humanity to those we would see as “them” in the false construct of “us vs. them.”
Images shatter and scatter like so much shrapnel across the landscape to map patterns of violence. In “Theater of Operations,” a dramatization in sonnets of a fictional suicide bombing from various perspectives, the mirror of a grandmother lost in a holocaust is mirrored in a checkpoint guard’s “aviators glinting back / this alien’s alien face,” shines in “a sudden illumination,” shard joined to skin, rains down in “plaster & glass dress,” the aftermath caught by “sudden cameramen & lens.” And later, there will be retaliation, “showering glass, a would-be bomber catches her reflection in the glass.” The mirror will return in the “surf detonating against the sand” where a toddler “bends to test its chaos // to grasp & grapple with ungraspable silver / ever-breaking mirror.” And with such entangled images, we are reminded of our own connectivity, of the ripples, the echoes, and the cascades. Nor do images alone shatter. Broken, shattered, and scattered across the page are the words of the dead, spoken in chorus.
The poet is not removed from this work. The personal, the communal, the global, the historical, and the present are all braided throughout. Metres weaves in and out of his own home in Cleveland, drawing further parallels. The mirror continues in a subtle doubling. Here, too, in our own American neighborhoods, “we calculate the statistical risk of greeting strangers.” The strength of this work is not just in what it compels us to listen to, but how it teaches us to listen, to engage. The reader is invited, expected, to participate. In a poem simply titled “[ ],” riddled with missing text and replaced with brackets of space, is it that the omitted text is unspeakable? Or is it rather uncontainable? Impossible to fix with the permanence of text, similar to the ways Metres reveals to us the failure of documents throughout this work.
Shrapnel of accounts and narrative are configured and reconfigured throughout, the key to their unpacking in the context, their proximity, to alternative frames of reference. In this way, too, the document becomes multiple, becomes chorus, becomes the company of ghosts living and dead, past and present. The poems insist on such simultaneity. “This is not news,” Metres writes later. “This is not poetry.” Perhaps then it is a way of making place—and space—to document and record a past to contextualize the present. But there are other media and genres that could do this. What Metres achieves through his poetry is the conjuring on the page of a space and time where the human is restored to where previously stood only a label, an “other.”
About the Reviewer
Abigail Chabitnoy is the author of How to Dress a Fish (Wesleyan, 2019), shortlisted in the international category of the 2020 Griffin Prize for Poetry and a finalist for the Colorado Book Awards. She was a 2016 Peripheral Poets fellow and her poems have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Boston Review, Tin House, Gulf Coast, LitHub, and Red Ink, among others. She is a Koniag descendant and member of the Tangirnaq Native Village in Kodiak. Visit her website at salmonfisherpoet.com for more information.