Declan Ryan reviews Fady Joudah

Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance published by Milkweed (2018)

The German poet Gottfried Benn (1886 – 1956) once practiced medicine and his early, shocking work included several songs from the morgue, full of viscera and mischief, including the mention of rats discovered inside a corpse who – in Michael Hofmann’s translation – “had had themselves a beautiful youth”. There is something of Benn in Fady Joudah’s new book: the two share a profession, to be bluntly analogous, Joudah is a doctor of internal medicine in Houston, Texas, but they also share a tendency towards luminosity, an unusual, clinical lushness, if that isn’t too paradoxical a term. In ‘Progress Notes’, Joudah channels Mark Twain but gives us something telling about his own eye, “what Mark Twain said about steamboat piloting, / that a doctor’s 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.”

Joudah’s got this kind of vision, and one of the great thrills of Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance is seeing the world through his eyes, a kind of x-ray vision, a human CAT-scanner, dissecting and evaluating bodies in the world, far away from the hospital corridor but unable to switch off, to miss the mechanics and physiognomic weaknesses of his subjects. This is a densely populated book, but the world in which its poems occur is aslant, and diagnostic – the quiet, wounding ironies of the opening to ‘Tricolor’, “A soldier’s yellow sclera, blue skin, as those whose skin wasn’t blue said his was. Otherwise he seemed well” – the seeming asides which fit in unseen frailties that tick along ominously, nonetheless “a painter friend of mine / with inflammatory vessels in her mind / (an ailment whose choice of flesh / is blood-vessel muscle)”, the wallet which proves pivotal to a memorable prose poem, ‘Palestine, Texas’, is – when first encountered – “this modern cause of sciatica in men”.

This isn’t only poetry as clinical catalogue, though, far from it. The dissecting eye which is responsible for much of the image-making is allied to a much less pragmatic or dispassionate sensibility, and the result is a preponderance of striking visual scenes, and surprising tenderness. ‘Horses’ is one of several stunning prose poems here – perhaps Joudah’s strongest mode of all on this evidence – as his symbolic, sometimes dreamlike logic allows him to construct a universe rich in emotional allusion, even when its straightforward narrative is more associative than linear. The results are often moving, and surprising, here a sight of “warmbloods in the training ring” develops through precise, finely-nerved description to a sleight of hand ending, hinted at just before: “it’s conceivable she was asking me about something altogether different”. The poem’s final image is as unexpected as it is haunting, changing the tenor of what’s gone before and giving it a parable-like quality on each re-read, “My heart’s a doe’s. A doe’s made for running away.”

Joudah is good on love, too. ‘1st Love’ is a short, near-fragment of a poem, but it captures the early morning holiness and aggrandisement of intimacy, “And when God reached your wrists / God made the rest of you man”; elsewhere in ‘Colored Rings’ he strikes a more obsessive note of perhaps misaimed passion, equally true to the mythologising and alertness of fixation, set against a subtly ruined, dangerous and atrophying, backdrop – “And for the beer / one after another//in the viscidity of a mafioso city / without electricity in summer // until whenever we spoke.” This nods towards another of Joudah’s many strengths, his ability to summon place, to give us a world in subtle hints and images, glimpses that are instructive and resonant and speak to a whole history of sorrow, and adversity. In the midst of political unrest, killings and seeming senselessness, the intrusions of geopolitics and the uncertainty of everyday life in areas torn apart by war, Joudah rarely fails to focus in on the small-scale salvation of the personal, the warm gesture and the endurance of hope amid the rubble – “She may not speak but she always sings. What she wants to say to him she finds in the lyrics of songs, old and new. She can carry a tune. And he replies in kind.” There is hard labour in this, the attempt to transform experience and – often – suffering into something hopeful, but not in a glib, self-help language which whitewashes the effort, or falsifies the potential for optimism – ‘In a Cemetery Under a Solitary Walnut Tree that Crows’ ends in just such strived-for fashion, “A lantern came down on a rope that a girl held/I sent up the part of me that was light.”

There is much else on display here; at times Joudah’s poems are built on their sonic displays, such as ‘Plethora’ or ‘Chamber Music’ with their foregrounded musicality, their peacocking rhymes and euphonies erupting into instantly memorable phrasing “On your skin exanthem / is a pasture of anemones // Because you’re one of them / I love my enemies”. Perhaps most of all, this is a book to do with memory and its erasure, as the aphoristic title poem that closes the collection might suggest, acting as it does as a near microcosm of the whole collection – it has the dancing syntax of Joudah the musician, the precision of his more clinical, evaluative diction, the punning and play of his surprising tethering-together of disparate lexicons, and finally an ending built on arresting, just-so visual images which linger long after the poem is read, hinting at a whole life in their spare choice of exemplary, fleeting, moments “Here’s a lock of your toddler hair / and your baby teeth // bring your dorsal wrist / in a perfect circle to tell the time // the marks take to disappear.” It’s fitting that the collection closes on the word disappear, in a homely playing out of the futile fight against time. Joudah – by this point of the book – has catalogued enough of life as lived to ensure what seems lost has been preserved, after a fashion,in his totemic, well-tuned poems.

Declan Ryan was born in County Mayo, Ireland. His work has appeared in Poetry Review, Poetry London, Poetry (US), Poetry Ireland and the New Statesman, among others. His pamphlet was published in the Faber New Poets series. His criticism can be regularly seen in the pages of The Times Literary Supplement and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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