There are many threads and styles and moods in Fady Joudah’s Tethered to Stars—the book is a constellation of these things—but at one point a gorgeous tendril of narrative emerges around trees. Live oaks, for instance—these are often grand trees, evergreen, their habits wide and round and made of thick rippling branches, native to Texas, where Joudah lives and works as a doctor. In “House of Mercury”—and there are many astrological poems among these starry-eyed verses—a storm slams the Gulf Coast, shredding flora, bowling over fences, throwing shingles around like “tufts of hair.” Two live oaks in a front yard creak and groan and lose branches, but the fig tree is uprooted almost entirely, and thrown on its side. Days of work and communal lunching follow, as the family and neighbors clean up. The live oaks’ misfortune, the speaker’s mother notes with ambiguous melancholy clarity, means the morning glories will have more sun.
Turn the page and you find a voice in the next lyric imagining where and how two crabapples will grow up when he’s finished planting them. “And where the two trees / will stand I stood / in their pose and closed my eyes.” Reminds me of Seamus Heaney’s poem about a tree that’s gone, and the invisible ramifying it leaves behind. And in Tethered to Stars, the private and the political converge—or, rather, they were never separate. Which is to say one kind of poetry, the poem that witnesses destruction, supplies and bleeds into another, the poetry that pictures life anew. Joudah’s lines on the not-yet-grown trees are not far from the definition of love offered much earlier in the book, in a poem about taking acid in the Utah desert, about becoming a doctor and having bedside conversation with a dying white Texan awkwardly speaking with his Palestinian doctor. “The Holy Embraces the Holy” is capacious and wide of mind, and seems to be spoken to an unnamed beloved, to whom the voice imagines love’s meanings. It might mean, for example, “that your deep sadness is free / to be deeply sad near me,” suggesting that this is “some of what love is for.”
The poems in this brilliant book themselves stand beside our own sadnesses and grow large in our imaginations, like trees. Like trees they are both steadfast and flexible. They neither resist nor drown us in the feelings that give rise to them. They take their shape from the singular way Joudah blends idiosyncratic and inspired description with a vernacular mystery, a love for multiplicity and ambiguity with an impulse not to leave out scientific or popular vocabularies of our present moment. Poems come with titles like “Isomers and Isotopes” and “Unacknowledged Pollinators” and “Syzygy,” word for Baudelairian correspondences and earth-to-star tetherings. “Between nuance and essentialization I sing,” writes Joudah, a line as iconic as it is iconoclastic, in that it wrests (or re-wrests) for poetry nothing less than the work of singing the song that’s drowned out, often enough, by what we think we know of life in this universe, by our definitions and projections.
These poems, many among Joudah’s finest so far, are as intimate as the night sky. “After yoga,” begins “Gemini,” “I took my car to the shop.” The situation prompts a walk that the lines render vividly, and which leads the poet past a construction site where a live oak “that appeared my age when I became a father” is being cut to pieces. Legally. The work is being done by poor men—Joudah’s enjambment here is devastating—who are “colored / with American dreams.” The tree is giving way to a house “for a nice couple with children.” Sap, the tree’s scream, wafts on the breeze. The poem, like the book, offers precise seeing but no easy consolation. A definition of love is always a blueprint for a politics of care and aesthetic precision, but Joudah consolidates for us no painless script—no script at all, in fact—for that love’s embodiment. If he did so, it couldn’t be credible. Description, after all, is revelation enough: “They were digging a hole / around the tree’s base to uproot and chop it / then repurpose its life.” Or, as he offers in a poem titled after the technical name for the breaking open of a pod or a wound, “Dehiscence”: “There’s a world out there, people / no less beautiful than you are.” These poems compose a sky from that world, of that world, in that world. And, they argue, it is your world, too.
JESSE NATHAN: There’s great variation in method and style and voice across Tethered to Stars. Sometimes it feels like versions of the poet are writing their different books, like Pessoa. And yet there are discernible notes and patterns that feel like the traces of a single mind. Who do you write for? Is that something worked out poem by poem? Is poetry public speech?
FADY JOUDAH: Debate about private versus public in poetry has been used in modern times (including in translation) to settle political scores or advance cultural agendas not only on the domestic levels of class, gender, and race but also on the foreign (colonial) level. Poetry has always engaged the public and private addresses simultaneously, and will continue to do so. We may bicker over extent and method, but there is no private poetry that is not public, and no public poetry that is not private. In American poetics, post-Whitman and post-Dickinson, the two terms have grown deeply, perhaps equally, embedded in a system of return on investment, even for those who claim a healthy distance, through solitude or historical difference, from profit in social currency. How private can a poetry be if it manages to reach millions, if it is afforded the wealth and breadth of empire, if an overwhelming sense of subjectivity in empire is considered the realm of the private? Or does this mean the private in poetry represents the silent majority? Is “accessibility” a matter of the private or the public? Ultimately the question is irrelevant to the essence of poetry. Not that anyone can articulate indisputably what that essence is.
Meanwhile, the notion of the “individual” grows more suspect, a manufactured construct of the post-Enlightenment. Now the metaphor is shifting (yet again) to the natural and the collective. Our individuality is that of a tree in the forest or a fungus in a meadow or a generic psyche on the couch. I’ve often wondered how ancient mystics and thinkers described, with astonishing accuracy, certain micro and macro truths about the universe, the earth, the life-force, the human body, when they did not possess the scientific method and its lexicon available to us today? How did they know, for example, that the stars are the energy that the dead emit? Yet we are fixated on how they couldn’t figure out that the earth is round or that it revolves around the sun? I wonder what idiotic tragicomedy we will furnish a future human age with. What simple truths are staring us in the face that we, with all our current might, can’t or refuse to see?
The matter of polyphony in Tethered to Stars is an embrace of the public and the private in one binding canvas. Are stars, asterisms, and constellations not polyphonic, variable, as well? Since my first collection I’ve sought to inhabit the lyric possibilities, to displace the lyric into ideas of entropy—order seeking disorder seeking order and so on. It’s a musical, physical, maybe physiologic performance of the scales and stations of being as I live them. Each time the challenge has been to give my work unity within a single collection while also pursuing difference between books. This challenge (toward a unified variable lyric) evolved into a conversation with, and against, bookmaking. There are elements of bookmaking that have been imposed on us through at least a century of market influence. What constitutes a book? Of course, there is no one answer, and the answers depend on genres, but also on author, merchant, and audience. Take the hybrid book, for example: has it not existed for ages? In Arabic, the hybrid book has been around since the tenth century, if not earlier.
To what extent are we conscious of homogenizing our poems within a single collection? Driving forces behind bookmaking these days include our modern psychology, our capitalist democracy. And how has our historical bond with prosody affected bookmaking in poetry? I tried to personally and physically understand this with my collection Textu, in which one form contains the variable diction among the poems. I always understood the diversity of prosody as permission for the investigation of range. Even T. S. Eliot left the door open for a dynamism, or expendability, between time, place, and sentiment: “They are three aspects of one law.” Only one aspect of the three is needed to uphold the law of unity. Modern physics may offer more aspects for the unified theory. So I fully agree that a life of writing poetry and bookmaking are not necessarily the same thing. The two do meaningfully merge but mostly when a historical realm engages multiple histories. I find that what remains of anyone’s poetry in the public imagination are fragments, excerpts, scattered single poems, but rarely books. How much poetry is submissive to the allure of the archive even as the poetry claims to unwrite the archive? My desire is to formulate poetry the way a single body is formed—as if each book begins without organs and then they become the corpus. A liver is not a heart. A mind is sometimes breath. A gut can be a brain.
In Tethered to Stars there are short lyrics, long lyrics, short and long narrative poems. They alternate their appearance and modify their components throughout the book. This is nothing new. If you follow the long poems in the book, beginning with “The Holy Embraces the Holy” and ending with “The Old Lady and the House,” you will see that they are all variations on the lyric-narrative spectrum. “Isomers and Isotopes,” for example, collapses the narrative to fragments. “The Old Lady” is essentially a short story about a thousand words long. “Domicile, House, Cusp” can be performed by multiple readers, a poetic cinema, perhaps. “Sandra Bland” is a lyric essay. “The Holy” announces all that is to come in the long poems as they oscillate the percentages, so to speak, of narrative versus lyric, and the exegetical alongside the mystical. You can call it a reenactment of dreamscape. Tethered to Stars is an imagination of voice. Even in the poems whose titles are zodiac signs, short as many of them are, you can see that some are lyric meditations, like “Cancer” or “Capricorn,” while others are swift narratives, as in “Aquarius.” Yet “Leo” is dramatic mini-theater in two voices. And “Aries” is an exploration of echo in the mind.