Philip Metres (Heidi Rolf)

Philip Metres’s latest book of poetry, Fugitive/Refuge, starts with an invitation: “Welcome. // You’re among family. // The way is easy. Open.” It’s a striking way to begin, especially since Metres’s writing often centers on those who have not been welcomed, those who have found the way hard and the door closed. In Sand Opera (2015), he gave voice to those “suspended upside / down from the ceiling” in Abu Ghraib. In Shrapnel Maps (2020), he considered those residents of the Holy Land who have seen “the hill gr[o]w barbed-wire perimeters.” Now, in Fugitive/Refuge, he considers migration within the past (his family’s journey from Lebanon to Mexico to the United States in the early twentieth century) and within the present (those fleeing war in Syria and Ukraine or arriving at the southern border from South and Central America).

Metres knows that language—cultural, political, and legal—can, and does, do great harm. He also knows that language allows us to bear witness to this fact, to call it and us to account. “I’ll set my nation’s / whole body on fire,” he writes in “Curriculum Vitae,” “simplify the fractions // of political rhyme. / I’ll skein this skin / to the highest of high wires, // refuse to become / a man of my time.” This is the language of the prophets, and Metres is a master of the prophetic mode.

But in Fugitive/Refuge he also shows how language might not only demand justice but become “a generous hinge / opening us.” It creates a space in which previously ignored pasts can reveal themselves, where the suffering might find solace, where the weary might feel welcomed. 

Metres and I corresponded recently by email. 

Anthony Domestico: I’m wondering if you could talk a bit about the book’s title: the different meanings of both “fugitive” and “refuge”; the sonic relationship between the words (elsewhere in the book, you note “the seen // in absence” and “the urn in return. & the rue”); finally, what work you see the virgule, that slash between “fugitive” and “refuge,” doing.

Philip Metres: Titles have a way of migrating. At one point, the working title for Fugitive/Refuge had been “Fugitive.” As the book grew, “Fugitive” seemed to speak to only half of the book’s purpose and its tracings of forced human migrations, including my own family’s journey of exile from Lebanon and Mexico. I wanted Fugitive/Refuge to be a place where people could also find refuge, sanctuary. I love the notion, via Sergey Gandlevsky, that literature could be a homeland of sorts (“my homeland is Russian literature”). I have found so much sanctuary in literature. Even when it breaks me open, I am consenting to that breaking open. I can look up at the sky, or around me, away from the page. I can put the book away when it becomes too much. Harder to do that when it’s the whole world crowding in, trespassing my peace.

“Fugitive” and “refuge” share a Latin root, fugere, meaning to flee. The fugitive is one who flees, and the refuge is the place one flees back to. I kept thinking about the ways in which these two words, sonically connected, could speak to the two halves of the book. The virgule, to me, is the punctuation of rupture, interrupting the flow of syntax and meaning, and that’s why I decided it should be the rupture and suture between these two words and worlds—of fleeing and sanctuary.

AD: Fugitive/Refuge is, among other things, a book-length qașīdah, which you describe as “an Arabic poetic form in three parts.” You’ve always been interested in working within and against traditional forms, including the pantoum and the sonnet. (Indeed, there are several lovely sonnets in this collection, including the last poem.) What is it about the qașīdah that seemed well suited for this particular book?

PM: What is poetry without form? To me, the question of form is at the heart of every poem. The qașīdah’s origins lie in the poetry of the Arabs in the Arabian desert. It’s so old that by the ninth century, Ibn Qutayba was already laying out the laws of this poetic genre, a three-part poem that begins with the poet happening upon the remains of the encampment of his beloved, whose caravan has moved on. The qașīdah begins with human longing, moves into the trouble of the world, and concludes with some kind of homecoming. It’s a movement that feels like the origin of half the world’s stories, and I found myself drawn by its structure. My book is also in conversation with Khaled Mattawa’s underappreciated masterpiece Fugitive Atlas (2020), which is full of qașīdahs (his spelling is “qassidas”) and thinking about migration. It’s sort of funny how our titles have overlapped—in 2020, Shrapnel Maps and Fugitive Atlas both came out! 

It’s a wonder to behold—how we come from a lineage of love and care.

AD: You dedicate Fugitive/Refuge to “the ancestors,” and it’s filled with moments in which the personal and collective past speaks within the present. In one poem, for instance, you speak of “already dead” stars having “seed[ed] time” with their “final signals.” How has your Catholic background shaped your thinking about time: your relationship to the past, certainly, but also to the future?

PM: There’s this dazzling moment in Chickasaw poet Linda Hogan’s Dwellings: “Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.” It’s a wonder to behold—how we come from a lineage of love and care. Every baby is nothing without mother-love. We were all loved up, a dizzying infinity of loving-ups. That doesn’t mean that it was all just soft love. We’re human, hurt and flawed creatures, which means assault or abuse also shadowed that robust and constant care as we grew into independence.

Fugitive/Refuge came from my desire to help my great-grandfather, Iskandar, find peace. It’s strange to put it that way, but it feels right. Iskandar was violently exiled from Lebanon, and about sixteen years later, murdered by bandits in Mexico. That violent uprooting and death, no doubt, wounded my grandfather, who in turn wounded my father, who in turn wounded me—with the sense that a father must make his son tough to survive this hard world.

I wanted to trace their migratory journey—literally and figuratively—as a way of imagining what they endured, and what they could not. This is a way of resurrecting the past in order to bury it properly. In this late capitalist, post-Calvinist, settler-colonial society, so many of us feel so uprooted, so alienated. That’s probably why the United States is such fertile ground for fierce religiosity—looking for ties that bind (the origin of the term religio) in the de-territorialized, genocidal space of this country. 

I have such ancestral hunger, a desire to connect with those who have come before. I know I’m not alone in this. So many of us have that deep human longing to mourn our kin and stay connected with them, even when they’re outside time.

In the world development of Catholicism, some space had to be made for the faithful to honor their ancestors. If older pre-Christian practices actively worshipped or venerated ancestors, Día de los Muertos and All Souls’ Day seem to be ways of making space for what is an essential human longing. This longing doesn’t replace God, but it is how God is made manifest in our lives—through the love of those who created space and time for us to exist. 

AD: “The Ballad of Skandar II” tells the story of your great-grandfather, Iskandar ibn Mitri Abourjaili. A Christian soldier in the Ottoman Empire, Skandar captured a Muslim man who was accused of siphoning a town’s water only to be shot in the calf and then rescued by his own prisoner. After letting the prisoner go, Skandar was exiled. Your first rendering of this story, a thirty-two-line poem called “The Ballad of Skandar,” was published over twenty years ago. The new book’s version offers Samuel Shimon’s translation of the original poem into Arabic. It also includes extensive footnotes that often take up more than half of the page. Some footnotes gloss the poem’s details; others pose narrative and ethical questions; still others think through the very nature of footnotes. Why return to this poem now, and how did you work your way into this version’s very different form?

PM: I wanted to revisit “The Ballad of Skandar” because I saw how much I left out. I left out Iskandar’s wife, Elena, and her brave part in helping release Iskandar from jail. I left out the reverberations of that story in my father’s life and in my own. I also visited Lebanon for the first time in 2019. Finally, I got to visit Elena’s grave in Queens in 2023 with my cousin Jesse—perhaps the first time Elena had been visited in decades.

It was also a great opportunity to play with the footnote as a poetic form. It’s a lot of fun to play with non-poetic forms, to infuse in them—or to draw out of them—the poetry that is so often hidden in ordinary, academic, or bureaucratic forms. The footnote is something that is supposed to be incidental to the “body” of the text. But what if the footnote is the very thing that the body stands on? It’s good to pay attention to that which has been excluded, set aside, or marked as marginal—because much life pulses there, in the shadowlands.    

I don’t know if my work has made any difference at all, but I want to look back on this time and know that, whatever happens, I did not lose my voice.

AD: At the start of the poem’s third and final section, “Of Return,” you quote from Dante’s Paradiso 33. There, Dante writes that his vision of “the Eternal Light,” enabled by grace, allows him to see “how substance, accident, and their relation / were fused in such a way that what I now / describe is but a glimmer of that Light.” Dante was a poet of exile who, to quote from your “Qasida for Abdel Wahab Yousif,” sought “a garden of words / beyond words // that rises.” What does Dante mean to you generally and to this book specifically?

PM: Isn’t it interesting that Dante’s Divine Comedy has a similar parallel structure to the qașīdah—with its Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso? There’s something deeply mythic about that journey. To me, Dante’s journey tells that human story of longing (and all its endless distances) and the longing to come home. Who could ever forget those souls in hell buffeted in the winds of their own desire? Every teenager in the world knows that tornado! Yet we also come to want peace, a place to rest. In the language of the Mass, the priest asks God that those who have died will be embraced: “Welcome [them] into the light of Your face.” I love that so much, that shining.

That “Qasida for Abdel Wahab Yousif” is an elegy for a Sudanese poet, also known as Latinos, who had predicted his own death by drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. I kept thinking about his longing, and wanted to make in the poem a place where he could rest. It is the final poem of the second action, and leads us into the last part, where the poems of homecoming emerge.  

AD: At John Carroll University, you teach a course called Israeli and Palestinian Literatures and serve as the director of the Peace, Justice, and Human Rights Program. You’ve previously written about the Israel-Palestine conflict, which a speaker in Shrapnel Maps describes as “Always the / same story: two people, one tree, not enough land or light or love.” What have you been reading and thinking about since October 7? 

PM: How much time do you have? What a nightmare it’s been for those of us who have been trying to contribute to a just peace. Shrapnel Maps was my poetic attempt to bring the voices and lives of Palestinians and Israelis a little bit closer to us—alongside years of dialogue, advocacy, activism, and teaching about the subject. Empire has a way of erasing history, erasing any lives that get in its way. Palestine has been, for quite some time, a word that our empire could not even pronounce, much less say. Still to this day, when you hear “Middle East,” it’s an erasure.

I have not been myself since that day, partly sucked into the vortex of the images coming out of Gaza—what many have been calling a genocide. I’ve done peace walks, organized poetry readings for Palestine, given presentations on the background of the conflict, fasted, prayed, called congresspeople, marched in the streets, chalked on sidewalks, had a thousand conversations with Palestinians and Jews who are hurting beyond words. I can’t bear watching another video of a dead child being pulled out of rubble. It has made me totally deranged to see such cruelty, day after day. 

Yet I’m so in awe of groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, where Jews and allies have stood in solidarity with Palestinians, who see their futures as entangled and their liberation as shared. I’m in awe of the youth, who refuse to believe that this can’t be stopped. And of Palestinians, who somehow keep living, despite so many wanting them dead.

At the end of the day, there will be either genocide or a shared future where Palestinians and Israelis live together. Only those so closed off in their hurt or their traumatic story would choose genocide. But it’s going to be a long road to peace. What’s so awful is that the United States could stop it almost overnight. It’s actually up to us. I don’t know if my work has made any difference at all, but I want to look back on this time and know that, whatever happens, I did not lose my voice. I did not stay silent.

AD: One poem ends with words from Christana Gamble, a formerly imprisoned woman who is now the chaplain at the House of Refuge in Cleveland: “I was walking down the street and the Lord / spoke to me / and said, open the door // And I’m not afraid of my past anymore // And the door opened.” Another poem begins like this: “Again, the dream: I need to leave, / yet each door I open opens // another room, another door. / The pen in open.” Indeed, the word “open” recurs throughout the book, sometimes as a loving invitation, sometimes as a prophetic demand. What, for you, is distinctive about the kind of openings—of language, of mind, of soul—that poetry enables? 

PM: Christana is such a beautiful person. Despite her difficult life (abuse, addiction, incarceration, homelessness, despair), she has this huge heart and faith that each of us is called to something greater. Her House of Refuge is an attempt to create space for other people whose lives have not given them refuge.

About twenty years ago, my wife and I lived in the Quaker Meeting House in Cleveland. There, I discovered the work of George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends (also known as Quakers). In his journal, this passage has always moved me: 

And I cried to the Lord, saying, “Why should I be thus, seeing I was never addicted to commit those evils?” And the Lord answered that it was needful I should have a sense of all conditions, how else should I speak to all conditions; and in this I saw the infinite love of God. I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. And in that also I saw the infinite love of God; and I had great openings.

The world is always those two oceans—the ocean of darkness and death, and the ocean of life and love. We know it’s always both. We’re swimming all the time, trying for land. But at the end, as Daniel Berrigan once wrote: “Love, love at the end.”

By the way, I love that odd phrase of George Fox, “I had great openings.” Open is a recurring word for me in Fugitive/Refuge, and maybe in life. I love the “O” that the mouth makes when sounding the word, the puff of the lips after, the hum of the n. That space of the O, contained, penned, held in the breath. To me, that’s poetry—a place that the world could be, and is, in fugitive moments.

This interview was published alongside a poem from Metres's latest collection, "The New New Colossus." Read it here.

Anthony Domestico is chair of the English and Global Literatures Department at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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Published in the May 2024 issue: View Contents
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