The Poetry Project

Being Listened To: On Philip Metres’ SHRAPNEL MAPS, Colonialism, and the Violence of Conversation

Review by Fargo Tbakhi


In the office of the white gay performance artist, I have come to ask about potential venues and suggestions for touring a solo performance. Instead, he offers me advice on how to write a show (I have already written it), recommends I read Sarah Schulman’s Conflict is Not Abuse (he does this twice), and finally notes that he knows friends who have gone to Palestine. Shaking his head, bewildered, unable to hear me, he wonders, “How do they make art there? How” (his eyes glazed over with America) “do they make art there?”

And with these words, the incantatory performatives of colonialist rhetoric, I begin to feel myself transmogrify into some other thing than I am, some collaged image of a wound, some broken and breakable creature of a faraway land, some map made only of shrapnel, pointing the way towards nothing. Before me, the white gay performance artist too begins to transform: he becomes Expert, Arbitrator, Ethnographer. Outside of my pain, he alone is able to see clearly what it is, for he is not implicated in it; standing apart from it, he can hold space for my story and the stories of those who wish me dead. He reminds me: I cannot tell of myself as well as he can. To the white gay performance artist and his ilk, to those hungry for a world of made things and symbols, a world of empty performatives which create nothing, to poets hungry for a grant and a book deal, I know what I am: material to be consumed, regurgitated, and forgotten.


“After writing about the Iraq War and the War on Terror, I thought I would choose something a little less controversial, so I picked the Israel-Palestine predicament. [chuckles]”

The second time I saw Philip Metres introduce his new book Shrapnel Maps (Copper Canyon Press, 2020) with the above joke, I felt its effects begin to work on me. These words, and their effects, I know well; they are suffused with the spells and hexes of empire, with white magic. Metres’s joke enacts the dream of empire, for its colonized subjects to begin to resemble nothing outside of the frozen symbols, imagery, and stories that empire has dreamt up for them. The joke’s magic makes me into museum exhibit, archival material, a signifier without any corporeal sign, legible only as the ways I am written (and, importantly, read) by the dutiful, good subjects of the empire itself. I am to be chosen; I am to be written-about. To resist this magic I resort to my own: the magic of violence, of bitterness and resentment, of rage; the magic of the twirling slingshot and the rocket and the too-loud; the magic of the weed un-pullable, the fence un-maintainable. I invoke the magic of queer slipperiness and Palestinian immovability, and I survive another day, to narrate my own self, to live my own life.

In the book’s afterword, Metres writes that its purpose is “to clarify the question of belonging in a land with so many different names that to try to speak them all is to become crowded with history.” In interviews, he has variously described it as a project of “radical listening,” “peacebuilding,” “the dialogic,” “a journey into understanding,” and “an attempt to model listening.” What this emphasis on “listening” elides is the importance of speaking, of the speech act and its performative effects on the world, its fundamental capacity to affect and enact. It’s not only important who is listening, and to whom, and with what generosity and ethics of an ear—it is equally important who speaks, of whom they speak, and how they do so. The interplay and relationships of this web of performative relationality—performer, subject, and audience—are what create meaning, what engender some feeling or set of feelings, what allows the world to change or shift. Shrapnel Maps is boundlessly un-careful in its consideration of that interplay. And so, nothing changes. Nothing shifts. Another breathing person’s life is cut short, and all that emerges is one more line in the poetry book.

In previous attempts at this essay/survival spell, I found myself with something like 7,000 words only about Shrapnel Maps, outlining and explaining the moments its ethics failed, its colonizing ethnographies, its odd narcissism and reductive analogies, the careful way its scaffolding led up to the steps of a national capitol, a seat of power. Yet the more I wrote, the larger and more towering the book became, the more it subsumed me into its own pages. I found myself morphing, bones cracking and blood congealing, into ink. In writing solely against the book, I lent it my breath and my labor towards its own power. But the book, of course, is not the problem; it is a distillation of the problem, a manifested and published text of power. In its afterword, Metres quotes Aaron Davidman, who notes that “The conflict is not complicated like a car engine, but it is complex like a forest.” I had become so lost in the shadow of the tree that is Shrapnel Maps that I had lost my view of the forest that is the structures, institutions, stories and spells of the settler-colony and its friends. I was asking the wrong questions, trying desperately to point out to people how insulting and reductive the book is. But this, of course, is a futility. Nobody is reading this book seeking to care for us. It’s not that there’s a disconnect between this book’s problematics and its relatively widespread acceptance and popularity; rather, the book’s colonialist, exploitative positioning of the lives and meanings of Palestinians is the only positioning which could become acceptable. What respect, after all, would be given to a book which chose the side of the oppressed? What space could the liberal machinery of conversation and democracy give to Palestinian hatred, Palestinian bitterness, Palestinian violence in defense of self and life and land, Palestinian liberation? What respect could an American public give to a book which created a poetics of decolonization? The question that Shrapnel Maps can illuminate, as a text of power, is: How must Palestinians necessarily be written in order to be “listened to?”


Cartography: “One Tree”

Put another way: what is the empire’s cartography of Palestine? How is it mapped, drawn, and situated in-relation-to? Shrapnel Maps can prove instructive in this, as its cartographies, drawn in ink stolen from revolutionaries, reveal the ways that the empire requires Palestine to be mapped. What maps does empire make of our shrapnel? Where do they point?

The book begins, with this first poem, in America, in colonialism’s reductive imaginary. In a prose block, a form which forecloses the ambiguous possibilities of the line break, Metres describes an argument with a neighbor over a tree with branches in the neighbor’s yard, which his wife is fond of and opposed to cutting down: “It reminds her of her childhood home, a shady place to hide. She recites her litany of no, returns.” Metres is unwilling to get in the middle of the conflict: “I want to say, it’s not me… I want no trouble.” Unable to reach a compromise, the neighbor cuts down the tree.

Several keys to the book’s map of Palestine are drawn here: Palestine is a frame for understanding one’s own experiences, and/or the other way around. One’s experience with a neighbor is a model for settler-colonialism; the colonization of Palestine is a failure of neighborliness. Palestine is “always the same story: two people, one tree, not enough land or light or love,” simply a primal conflict over scarce resources. When Palestinians fight back tooth and nail against the panoply of everyday forces which are trying to kill them, to take away their breath and their existence in a physical body in this world, it is primarily because of an inability to share or talk to each other—an unwillingness to compromise. After all, “As with the baby brought to Solomon, someone must give.” Because Palestinians and their colonizers both, like Metres, say “Dear neighbor, it’s not me,” Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestine continues.

From the shrapnel of violent colonialism, the poem creates a map towards blame and reduction, away from clarity, away from liberation.


Roundtable Cento on Conversation, Peace, and Decolonization, with a Prompt from Yehuda Amichai, settler-colonialist murderer and Poet:

“We did what we had to do.”

~Yehuda Amichai, who, during the Nakba, served in the Israeli Palmach, specifically in the Negev Brigade, which committed numerous atrocities in the ethnic cleansing of the Negev, such as the murder of prisoners and those attempting to flee in Beersheba, these actions being part and parcel of the “expulsion” of Indigenous Palestinian Arabs, and this is of course simply what happened, and what value could there be in repeating and believing the story of the settler state, which is the story of Amichai (whom the poetry book seeks “to love”) which is the story, “we did what we had to do?”

The martyr teaches me: no aesthetic outside my freedom.

Oh, Palestine! I am ready to die and I shall live by dying for thee!

National liberation, national reawakening, restoration of the nation to the people or Commonwealth, whatever the name used, whatever the latest expression, decolonization is always a violent event.

You don't mean peace talks exactly. You mean capitulation, surrender. That kind of conversation is between the sword and the neck.

No. Victims do not ask their executioner:/ Am I you? Had my sword been/ bigger than my rose, would you/ have asked/ if I would have acted like you?

No, I have never seen any talk between a colonialist case and a national liberation movement.

The performance of possibilities does not accept “being heard and included” as its focus, but only as its starting point; instead, voice is an embodied, historical self that constructs and is constructed by a matrix of social and political processes. The aim is to present and represent Subjects as made and makers of meaning, symbol, and history in their fullest sensory and social dimensions.

Oh, my homeland! My love, my only love! I shall revolt against thine enemies, all enemies. I shall make bombs from the atoms of my body and weave a new Palestine from the fabric of my soul. With all my power and the power of my sisters, we shall convert our existence into bombs to redeem the land, the coast, the mountain. We shall fight and fight ...

People usually fight for something, and they stop fighting for something. So tell me what is it we should speak about. Or rather what is it we should stop fighting for to talk about?

A question like that entices the curiosity/ of a novelist,/ sitting in a glass office, overlooking/ lilies in the garden, where/ the hand/ of a hypothesis is as clear as/ the conscience/ of a novelist set to settle accounts/ with/ human instinct...

The intellectual who, for his part, has adopted the abstract, universal values of the colonizer is prepared to fight so that colonist and colonized can live in peace in a new world. But what he does not see, because precisely colonialism and all its modes of thought have seeped into him, is that the colonist is no longer interested in staying on and coexisting once the colonial context has disappeared.

Whose death, misery, destruction and pain? Of the Palestinian people who are uprooted, forced into refugee camps, starved, murdered for 20 years, and forbidden even to call themselves Palestinians.

Decolonization as metaphor allows people to equivocate these contradictory decolonial desires because it turns decolonization into an empty signifier to be filled by any track towards liberation.

But at the start of his cohabitation with the people the colonized intellectual gives priority to detail and tends to forget the very purpose of the struggle— the defeat of colonialism.

The subjects themselves benefit from this proclamation through the creation of a space that gives evidence that “I am here in the world among you,” but more importantly, “I am in the world under particular conditions that are constructed and thereby open to greater possibility.”

The supreme objective of the Palestine Liberation Movement is the total liberation of Palestine, the dismantlement of the Zionist state apparatus, and the construction of a socialist society in which both Arabs and Jews can live in peace and harmony. To achieve our objective we have adopted the strategy of people's war and protracted armed struggle. We have no other alternative; we see no other possible option to dislodge the Zionists from Palestine.

Though the details are not fixed or agreed upon, in our view, decolonization in the settler-colonial context must involve the repatriation of land simultaneous to the recognition of how land and relations to land have always already been differently understood and enacted; that is, all of the land, and not just symbolically.

To us, to liberate our country, to have dignity, to have respect, to have our basic human rights, is as essential as life itself.

Oh! I seem to be forgetting myself. I am writing as if I were a poet. Poetry is also part of our armoury, but deeds are a sharper aspect of our weaponry.

Critique doesn’t have to be the premise of a deduction that concludes, “this, then, is what needs to be done.” It should be an instrument for those who fight, those who resist and refuse what is. Its use should be in processes of conflict and confrontation, essays in refusal. It doesn’t have to lay down the law for the law. It isn’t a stage in programming. It is a challenge directed to what is.

(Lines borrowed from Leila Khaled’s My People Shall Live, Mahmoud Darwish’s “Edward Said a Contrapuntal Reading” and A State of Siege, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang’s “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor,” Michel Foucault in “Questions of Method: an Interview with Michel Foucault,” D. Soyini Madison’s “Performance, Personal Narratives, and the Politics of Possibility,” and Ghassan Kanafani interviewed by Richard Carleton.)


Cartography: “[Family]”

Buried within a long sequence in the middle of the book (“Unto a Land I Will Show Thee”) which appropriates the history and language of Palestinian colonization and applies it to Metres’ family life and neighborhood, “[Family]” is perhaps the most directly, explicitly colonialist text in the book, much of which hides its own distaste for decolonization within poems dedicated to and about those who do decolonization. A speaker gives a presentation on Palestine, “His mantra: occupation.” (Occupation here becomes a speech act, a mantra, and not a material fact.) A woman stands up to heckle the presenter, spouting Zionist propaganda: “The reason for the wall was that people were being ATTACKED, she says. BY TERRORISTS. After all, the Arabs sold the land, it was too much trouble.” Metres says “My heart goes out to her, standing in the heart of another country.” Someone else in the audience responds to this propaganda, pointing out its inaccuracy and advocating for Palestinians. Metres says again “My heart goes out to him, standing in the heart of another country.” The two audience members argue.

Metres takes this moment and uses it to describe the history of the colonization of Palestine, saying of the argument “This goes on for a long time. Years. Decades. Generations.” Palestine: simply an argument between equals who disagree and can’t listen, not a place which was and is being ethnically cleansed. And Metres, who could, here, choose a side, could place his body within this “conflict,” instead chooses to “sit like a child at the table, watch parents grip utensils, spit words like shrapnel. I hate/ how I love them.” This is an active choice, to “love” both a person advocating for the colonized and a person advocating for the genocide of the colonized. This both-sides-ism is not an outlier in the book; rather, it is the imperial mapping to which the entire rest of the book is dedicated. Palestine is a failure of conversation between equals; all the outsider can do is sit, helplessly, in the middle. And this map—this book—is created for those sitting in the middle, which is where it tells them to stay.

From the shrapnel of rhetorical resistance, the poem creates a map towards suppression, away from revolution.


The Perfect Palestinian Subject Examines Its Self in the Mirror

And here at last I find my life, kept within the reflected and refracted light of a passionate sun. When I speak it is in platitudes and kindnesses. I do not understand what is happening to me but I resist it nonetheless, some unthinking beast who knows only to lash out. I am that-which-is-to-be-interpreted. I am that-which-is-to-be-reported-on. My capacities to shapeshift are immense, for I can become whatever You need of me: the ghost in the backyard, the anger in the night-bed, the neighbors’ ire and the students’ boredom. I am the Good Arab. I do not hate. If I do I do not act on my hate. I accept my fate. I am no threat to any body. I am so wounded I cannot speak. When I speak it is unintelligible. What I demand is only for a witness to my death. I am polite when I ask You to witness my death, and the deaths of my father, my mother, my brother and sister, my uncle, my dog, my plants, my lovers, my cat, my acquaintances, and my neighbors. When I ask You to witness my death, and the deaths of my father, my mother, my brother and sister, my uncle, my dog, my plants, my lovers, my cat, my acquaintances, and my neighbors, I also make sure to point out that we are of course not perfect, and that the ones who killed us all, why, they were people too, and frightened of us. Somebody speaks for me and I’m grateful. When they speak for me they say all I want is peace, and my anger evaporates. It was never there. Now, I find, in the mirror, that my ten fingers and eight toes are all adjectives, and occasionally somebody comes by to trade them out for new ones. Now, at last, I am not colonized, I am unhearing. Now, at last, I am not dangerous but tragic. Not material but material. I am not resentful but I am poetic. Not speaking but heard. Not fleshly but literary. I am not blue but clear, so translucent one could be forgiven for not seeing me at all, which might not be an adjective, but what do I know, for I am some adjectival and adjectived beast, and language escapes me, and language creates me, and they are telling me I should stop talking so I do.


Cartography: “My Heart Like a Nation”/ “Marginalia”

In the book’s last section, these two poems appear side by side. One is for Yehuda Amichai, often described as the national poet of Israel, and one for Mahmoud Darwish, often described as the national poet of Palestine. Like the poems before, like the book’s project in general, these poems seek to give the same love to both figures. And yet, the difficulty: one of them is a settler-colonialist, and one of them was displaced by the other’s settler-colonial violence. Metres must render them equals. And, so, “My Heart Like a Nation” literally redacts Amichai’s active, military participation in the Nakba: “We/ did what we had to do,/ you wrote, which in translation/ reads: ________ ” And so, the poem finds in Amichai just a poet, just a person, who can then be placed in conversation with Darwish, whose poem must begin by pointing out (as Metres often does of Palestinians) that he is marginalized (“Your throne was/ margin.”)

This is the map that empire wants. It wants to point towards equivalence, towards an erasure of power differentials, towards a getting-along, a loving-everyone-even-though-it’s-hard. It wants to ensure that this is all we do, and that material liberation remains a demand that hampers our ability to love one another. It wants those who follow the map to find themselves unable to choose a side, for doing so will mean that they have failed to love. 

From the shrapnel of ethnic cleansing, the poem creates a map towards equivocation, away from survival. 

What do these maps do to those who read them? What affective relationship do they create in their audience? Where do they take those who follow them? Maps, too, are performances, and a liberal colonialist audience requires certain performances of Palestine, Palestinians, and Israelis in order to be moved— and more importantly, in order to sell copies. Those performances must perpetuate empire’s images of Palestinians; they must provoke responses from their audiences which are understanding, but disengaged; empathetic, but not in solidarity; moved to tears, perhaps, but never to action, for the empire’s performance of colonization must be that it is an intractable project which no person can undo, can only analyze and witness. The only acceptable performance of colonization is as 

“a location and timeline both central to the world and as far removed as polar opposites can be,”

which “doesn’t scapegoat individuals or groups… implicates more than just nation states and groups, writing into the very heart of the individual, recognizing the many flaws that permeate each of us, often marking more similarities than differences,”

“clearly sees the complexities in the region and reflects them so succinctly and comprehensively… reflecting the good and bad on both sides… shows over and over and over again, we are one human family, but, unfortunately – inevitably – we seem always to be at each other’s throats,”

“refuses to simplify this conflict… [creates] a bridge between the two peoples, one that seeks to cover the distance between them with the utterance of poems… concerned with finding the humanity of each person,”

“is impossible to read without realizing there are almost no roads out of this territory that are not fraught with loss, whether you are Israeli or Palestinian-even so, we must try.”

We learn a great deal about creative works from the ways that audiences respond to them. Audience responses do not happen in a vacuum: the above lines, from published reviews of Shrapnel Maps, are the desired and expected responses to a poetics of the peace-talk, a colonialist rhetorical positioning of the conflict as impossibly complicated and endless, the individual as both complicit and helpless, and the colonizers and colonized as neighbors, unable to resolve their dispute. These are the only allowable responses to the only allowable way Palestinians can be written.


Conversation is useless as a cup of water against a grease fire. Conversation will kill me and leave the audience grateful, glad, and at ease. Alex V Green, in “The Emptiness and Inertia of Having Conversations,” outlines the “Having Conversations Industrial Complex: a loose assemblage of professional speakers, non-profit organizations, astroturfed activists, diversity consultants, academic advisory boards, panelists, and politicians who are paid to generate a ‘conversation’ that doesn’t need to show tangible results. Rather, the only role of the conversation is to generate more conversations.” The fetishization of conversation and its constituent parts, dialogue and listening, is a colonial tool to obfuscate, suppress, and limit the material demands of colonized and racialized peoples, foreclosing any revolutionary gestures or possibilities. Green warns, “so long as conversations continue, those who facilitate them benefit, and the status quo remains functionally intact.” I reject conversation and its web of magicks, its symbologies and its rhetorics, its images and its speakers and its many books of poetry. Against conversation, I marshal two counterpoetics: Palestinian Rejectionism and Queer Terror.

“Palestinian Rejectionism” is the term used by decades of colonialist murderers and their passive onlookers to frame and explain the failure of “peace-talks” by placing the blame on Palestinian leadership’s refusal to accept, as part of any deal, the existence of the state of Israel. Yet my radical listening chooses to hear, in Palestinian Rejectionism, the only way forward, the only futurity we can possibly have. I beg for any poetics to have as one of its moves this refusal: the refusal to accept any world in which settler-colonialism is too moral, too human, too far-gone, too powerful or too violent to be refused with every bone in our bodies, every conjunction in our sentences, every piece of spit creating and enacting our spells. I reject peace which leaves us displaced; I reject peace which leaves us dead and dying and severed from our land; I reject peace which is encompassed in and comprised of the bowing to power and the forgiveness of murder. This is our rootedness, our sumud; for any poetics/politics to abandon this position is for us to become the meals of history, to ensure that we continue disappearing. I reject conversation and its machineries. I reject the aesthetics of decolonization being mobilized to disguise the rot, the insatiable wellness of the settler-colonial heart.

In C. Heike Schotten’s remarkable Queer Terror: Life, Death, and Desire in the Settler-Colony, one of my survival spells, she notes: “‘Terrorism,’ then, can be understood as the contemporary settler state’s moralized imperial name for the unthinkable indigenous remainder that, in the insistence on remaining, challenges the settler state’s claim to sovereignty, security, and civilizational value.” Indigenous peoples are always already terrorists, reminding the settler-state that it is an uninevitable thing, and that it is rotten and rotting daily. There is, then, only one ethical position to take. Schotten:

If the only options are… to side with a futurist, settler, and imperial “us” (whether as avowed advocates of empire or its collaborationist liberal compromisers) or with a queered, “savage,” and “terrorist” other, the choice, I think, is clear: we must choose to stand with the “terrorists.” (130) 

Here I find lifeblood. I dig my heels in and I offer my curses to the world and its hierarchical insistences on our deaths. I choose to be the terrorist, and demand that you stand with me: rooted, rejectionist, unwilling to compromise when compromise means that I explicitly allow for the death of my people, when compromise means that I allow empires to do what they must do. No settler colony should remain, ever. This is not a “simplification;” on the contrary, it entails understanding an immensely complicated set of relationships, histories, entanglements, and moral and ethical positions. To choose is not to simplify. When I choose to focus on or center Palestinians, I do not “blot out proximate details,” as Shrapnel Maps insists. It is long past time to choose sides. We have been talking and talking and explaining ourselves for too long to continue doing it and dying anyways. And so I reject. I root. I seek and exalt the terror and terrorism of my remaining and my not-shutting-up. These are my poetics of liberation, my spells of survival. Anything else can only be spells of death.


How do they make art there?

I return to this moment often. There, in the performance artist’s office, I watched myself like an image of a hawk being painted, felt myself transformed into a symbol for somebody else’s eyes to feast on. Reading Shrapnel Maps, I felt this again: how we become fodder for another person’s stanzas to unpack; how our deaths become tragedies of un-neighborly behavior; how we are spoken on behalf of, advocated for, our voices amplified in another colonial language for a kindly, head-nodding and finger-snapping, utterly useless audience of American readers.

When people respond to Shrapnel Maps—in book reviews, social media posts, discussions—they remark on the book’s beauty, its formal inventiveness, its elegance, and its ability to render such a complicated place so generously. They don’t remark on Palestinian lifeworlds, and what is needed to create the conditions necessary to preserve and prioritize those worlds, the signs, symbols, spells, and performances necessary to call together a web of solidarity and resistance towards true decolonization. And so, in the service of empire’s imaginative requirements, Metres has succeeded; we have become nothing but the ink with which he adorns the pages of his book, with which he filled his grant applications. And there, held inside the net of shared and interwoven tentacles which unite settler colonies across the world, held within the metaphors of American poetry, we linger; we speak; we try, unceasingly, to be heard.

We should stop trying; they are never really listening.

#262 — Fall 2020