Thursday, May 21, 2020

"Kafr Yar/Babi Qasim": Remembering Babi Yar and Kafr Qassim

"Kafr Yar / Babi Qasim" from Shrapnel Maps braids the testimony of survivors from two hideous massacres, at Babi Yar and Kafr Qasim. I was struck by the weird parallelism between these two survivors, who hid beneath the dead, or inside the arms of the dead, to survive.

May we remember what we knew and did not know, and live to tell others so that this may not happen again.

Thanks to Nahida H Gordon's sister, Samia Halaby, an internationally-known artist, for allowing us to use her work for this video.

Friday, May 15, 2020

On Nakba Day, Learn about Palestinians

Today is the day Palestinians remember the Nakba, the catastrophe. To understand the pain that my post caused yesterday, you have to go back to November 1947-1948/9, after the UN Partition Plan was announced, a plan that the Arab League and Palestinians rejected as unjust. What happened during the Nakba led to the expulsion of approximately 750,000 Palestinians from their homes, into a massive diaspora of refugees whose fates still hang in a purgatorial balance. Though there may be some debate (cf. Plan Dalet) among historians about the level of planning that went into this process, the cataclysm that ensued has never been adequately acknowledged. It must be acknowledged.
One cannot understand the Palestinian narrative without understanding this elemental trauma. About 400 villages were destroyed in what became Israel, many of them bulldozed, with forests planted over them. In other places, the houses built by Palestinians remain, lived in by Israelis. Most estimate that 4-5 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants live around the world. Among them are some of my dearest friends and comrades.
They have written unforgettable stories and poems and painted beautiful art and have created a culture that is distinct and diverse. I invite you to read the classics like Mahmoud Darwish, Ghassan Kanafani, Edward Said, Emile Habiby, and many others, but also to meet on the page and in life Sahar Khalifeh, Ghassan Zaqtan, Raja Shehadeh, Naomi Shihab Nye, Fady Joudah, Deema ShehabiAnnemarie Jacir, Susan Abulhawa, Nathalie Handal, Suheir Hammad, Susan Muaddi DarrajHala AlyanLena Khalaf TuffahaSahar Mustafah, Adania Shibli, Remi KanaziNyla Matuk, and recently astonishing debut writers like George AbrahamZaina AlsousZaina ArafatTariq LuthunAhmad AlmallahNoor HindiMosab Mostafa, and the many other writers and artists that I have yet to read and meet.
I hope that I have done a measure of justice to the Palestinian story in Shrapnel Maps--but more than that, I hope that it will contribute to their stories being seen and beheld, that we can have real conversations about what a just peace could look like, and that each of us will ask how we are connected to their fates, and what role we might play in that. In many respects, the Nakba continues.
and another in the evening featuring some of these writers, that highlights Palestinian writers, and I encourage you to learn more. 

Here's a poem from Shrapnel Maps that deals with this: 

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Returning to Jaffa, thinking of Nahida Halaby Gordon

Today I wanted to lift up the story of Nahida Halaby Gordon, born in Jerusalem, raised in Jafa/Jaffa until age 9, when her family fled in 1948, becoming Palestinian refugees. At the time, Jaffa was the third-most populous city in Palestine. 

Every year, Nahida comes to my course, Israeli and Palestinian Literatures, to share her personal testimony. Seventy years have not lessened the pain when she speaks of her final days in Jaffa, before her family—and other Palestinian families—fled in 1948. Nahida discovered the Haganah flyer in her father’s papers after his death. 

Read the poems, the Haganah flyer, and the Tel Aviv municipal archive note from Shrapnel Maps. What do they tell us, and why do they matter?

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

On Rain and Embers: A Conversation between Philip Metres and Ali Nuri

I'm delighted to introduce poet Ali Nuri, an Iraqi American who fled Iraq when he was just seven years old, in 1994, in the post-Gulf War violence and punishment meted out by the regime of Saddam Hussein. His family's long journey of exile brought them from refugee camps to the United States, where they made a new life. His first book of poems offers a window into the challenges and wonders of a life lived on two continents, in two tongues. Poems from the book are interspersed through the interview below. For more information about Ali Nuri, please visit his website

On Rain and Embers: A Conversation between Philip Metres and Ali Nuri

Philip Metres (PM): Ali, I just finished Rain and Embers (2019). The book really seems to be a memoir- in-verse exploring the inner life of a refugee--from someone struggling with displacement and loss, to longing for love and home. I’m wondering if you might share a little about your journey into poetry. Did you get any encouragement from your teachers along the way? 

Ali Nuri (AN): Though I spoke Arabic (the southern Iraqi dialect) growing up, I was really a child without language. I remember my first teacher in the camps who beat me for not being able to read the Quran; I tried to memorize it to stop the punishment, but they caught on quickly. The teachers after that didn't expect much from me, especially my English teachers. My family was granted asylum in 1994, when I was 7 years old. I was immediately placed in second grade, but unfortunately, the public schools I attend from that age on were and still are in poor condition. ESL classes were useless to me—as was most education—due to dyslexia. Despite having good intentions, my teachers were overworked, underpaid, and lacked the resources to run a class of regular students efficiently. I remember one telling me that it was okay to be an average student because it's not as if I was going to be a writer one day. Language has always fascinated me, though—probably because of the alienating experiences I've had with it and not in spite of them.
PM: Ali, what memories do you carry with you about your time as a refugee? What do you hope that you won’t forget, and what do you wish you could forget but can’t? What do you think Americans should know about refugee experience that they might not? 

AN: Beyond the visual memories of surviving in the most inhospitable place on Earth, the overwhelming feeling I recall having was fear. As a child refugee, it was difficult to process the events that had led to my exile as much as what was happening right in front of me. One day I had been sitting under the shade of the fig trees on my grandmother’s small farm; the next, my family was walking silently across the desert with guns often pointed in our direction, en route to an enclosed encampment full of ragged tents where necessities like water and food were rationed under armed guard who were not afraid to “maintain order” using brute force. I hope to not forget the sense of community we somehow salvaged there, how people could still stand up for one another and protest mistreatment by the guards even when they had nothing left to gain and everything left to lose.

I wish I could forget the violence exerted on us, the humiliation, the intimidation, the intolerance. There was so much of it, more than I could ever possibly fathom, even now. How can a child understand that, let alone a stoic adult? You see the violence right in front of you, but it remains unprocessable, swelling like a tumor in your brain that can never be excised but only conceded to. You just internalize that fear and operate on survival mode. Your hierarchy of needs is dismantled for you from the outside, and the inside is so barricaded that your own needs become irrelevant. You are alien to yourself. One day, you leave the cage, but you are still an alien in a different land where you are told that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable to you. In practice, you come to find that such rights are flexible and those in power continue to hold all control, a mere degree or two removed from the tyranny you’ve always known.

That sums up my experience of being a refugee and its lasting effects, and I think every American should be made aware of that. Refugees do not seek refuge from a stable, secure life; we are escaping horrors the American people cannot imagine and seek to live peaceably, extolling the same foundational virtues about the elusive, sacred freedom that every human being deserves. Despite the surface-level differences, at our most unshakable core, we desire the same beautiful, happy, fulfilled world.

PM: Did you take creative writing courses in high school or college? Why did you choose poetry as opposed to some other literary genre?

AN: No, I’ve never taken creative writing classes, but I jumped at the opportunity to take a basic poetry analysis course in college as part of my general education requirements. In high school, my teachers had low expectations of students; one spent an entire year just covering material on To Kill a Mockingbird. Despite the lackluster way in which I was introduced to the written language, I had a certain insatiable curiosity about its power—a power to express with complete abandon, to disarm, to draw out our monstrosities and most vulnerable dimensions and realize they are one and the same.

What first drew me towards poetry was that it felt alien like me. People often comment to me that they feel alienated by poetry rather than intrigued when presented with someone else’s mind puzzle, but that initial alienation was what pulled me into its orbit. I have this perilous need to deconstruct and decrypt language, to find the patterns and strip them bare, discretely categorizing all of that particulate matter while appreciating its psychological innards. Occasionally that effort proves fruitless, but sometimes I read someone else’s poem and it feels like the words are my very own skin reaching to embrace my body from a page. Most forms of writing (especially novels and short stories) focus solely on structure, character, plot, pacing; while some liberties can be taken, the results are often rigid and formulaic. Most play it safe.

Poetry, to me, has a degree of sensuality that shouldn’t be overlooked, taking a no holds barred approach in its expression. It incorporates all of those ingredients found elsewhere in literature without the same social and emotional constraints; there’s room to be abstract, to circumvent form within form. There was an element of limitlessness that drew me in. Words and their negative spaces hold an immense weight, and with poetry, it’s entirely about the words themselves—the way they sound, their arrangement, their utility, their tone. Brevity, when done well, contains an entire world unto itself. A single phrase can carry an almost repulsive danger and a swift softness. Nothing is more rewarding than chipping away at that impossible mind block to find the poem buried in its impossible grains.

PM: Were you happy with how the book was received? 

AN: When it was just about writing and putting my thoughts to paper, I was satisfied. I thought I was fulfilling a life purpose, one that had been calling to me like a siren from the depths for years, one I had ignored over and over again to “become” the person society urged me to become.

In the background, there were always words waiting to be written while I was busying myself with trying to become a more acceptable adult. After the poems were finally written and assembled, I became obsessive about perfecting the basic components of a collection—at one point, I spent 3 weeks locked in one of my rooms with a printer from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. going over font sizes and shapes, comparing every single letter, until I found the one I wanted to use. For me, it was important that the cover matched the writing and conveyed the message I wanted it to convey. In the end, the book was received reasonably well and garnered more attention than my inner critic had been expecting, but that level of perfectionism can become a double-edged sword, leading to constant overthinking and second-guessing. It’s crucial to remind myself that no work is ever truly finished; mistakes are always made in retrospect, but the only way to move is forward. Recognizing the things we would do differently is a sign of growth and dynamic maturity.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Thank You


On the first day of the week,
Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning,
while it was still dark,
and saw the stone removed from the tomb.
So she ran and went to Simon Peter
and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and told them,
“They have taken the Lord from the tomb,
and we don’t know where they put him.”
So Peter and the other disciple went out and came to the tomb.
They both ran, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter
and arrived at the tomb first;
he bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in.
When Simon Peter arrived after him,
he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there,
and the cloth that had covered his head,
not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place.
Then the other disciple also went in,
the one who had arrived at the tomb first,
and he saw and believed.
            --John 20
Top of Form

May the stones be rolled away. May the prisoners be freed. May the tombs be emptied. May the wars end. May the wounds be healed. May we believe. May we have mercy on ourselves and others. May mourning become morning. May we turn to the Light.

Hi Philip,
Since I first started reading your book I have had Matt 6: 22-23 in my head, “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” Over the years I have talked about this passage with a few friends.  It has struck me that the person in the passage thinks he is seeing light but it is really darkness.  He thinks his “light” is good, but it is really evil. I can’t help but feel that this is somewhat true for those perpetrating such horrible acts upon fellow humans as described in your book. They thought they were doing good. They thought that they were seeing light.  Oh, that just makes the darkness more dark. This has been heavy on me until this week when I realized that we are about to remember and celebrate the ultimate example of this. On that darkest of days, those who took Jesus’ life, thought they were doing good by their actions. But thanks be to God that he was able to overcome and turn that ultimate darkness into light. Thanks for taking the time and persevering through the painful task of creating this wonderful book. It is a piece of restoration. It is helping to turn that darkness into light.


Steve Conner

Thank you to everyone who participated in this Lenten Journey, as contributors and readers, both the below participants and Maureen Doallas, who was writing her own poems in response to these poems, and sharing all of it widely.

1.      Luke Hankins & “Compline” (2/10/16)
2.      Hilary Plum & “Illumination” (2/11)
3.      Peter Molin & “Lane McCotter” (2/12)
4.      Paul Lauritzen & “In the name” (2/13)
5.      Tyrone Williams & “The Blues of Javal” and “In the beginning” (2/14)
6.      Timothy Liu & “The Blues of Javal Davis” (2/15)
7.      Hayan Charara & “next day,” (“Animals”) (2/16)
8.      Joe Hoover & Peter Molin & “The Blues of Charles Graner” (2/17)
9.      Shakir Mustafa & “his name is G” (2/18)
10.   Susan Averna & “the third day” (2/19)
11.   Wafaa Bilal & “Handling the Koran”(2/20)
12.   Raymond Lennon & “The Blues of Ken Davis” (2/21)
13.   Marwa Helal & Peter Molin & “The Blues of Lynddie England” (2/22)
14.   Christopher Allen-Doucot & “now I am what I saw” (2/23)
15.   Huda Al-Marashi & “Muslim Burial” (2/24)
16.   Roy Scranton & “Joe Darby” (2/25)
17.   Danny Caine & Marwa Helal & final page of “abu ghraib arias” (2/26)
18.   Solmaz Sharif & “Woman Mourning Son,” (“Drone”) (2/27)
19.   Layla Azmi Goushey & Sarah Browning & “Recipe from the Abbasid” (2/28)
20.   Nawal Nasrallah & “Recipe from the Abbasid”  (2/29)
21.   Nawal Nasrallah & Zeina Hashem Beck & “A Toast” (3/1)
22.   Mary Austin Speaker & Joe Hall & “Home Sweet Home” (3/2)
23.   Pamela Hart & “The Iraqi Curator’s PowerPoint” (3/3)
24.   David Roderick & “Black Site Q” (3/4)
25.   Dunya Mikhail & Salih Altoma & “Asymmetries” (“Bag of Bones”) (3/5)
26.   Naomi Shihab Nye & “Salaam Epigrams,” (“Gate A-4”) (3/6)
27.   Charles Ellenbogen & “War Stories” (3/7)
28.   Philip Metres & “when the bombs fell,” (prose pieces) (3/8)
29.   Danny Caine & “In the cell of else” (3/9)
30.   Amy Breau & “I had no names” (3/10) (prose piece)
31.   Craig Santos Perez on “She asks, is that man crying” (“from understory”) (3/11)
32.   Fady Joudah & “what does it mean” (“Mimesis”) (3/12)
33.   Jeff Gundy &  Dante Di Stefano & “When I Was a Child” (3/13)
34.   Marwa Helal & Angele Ellis & “Black Site (Exhibit I).” (3/14)
35.   Philip Metres & “Love Potion #42” (3/15)
36.   Kim Stafford & Saddam’s Fingerprints (3/16)
37.   Philip Metres & “Etruscan Cista Handle” (3/17)
38.   Paige Webb & Performance Videos of “Cell/(ph)one” (3/18)
39.   Nomi Stone & “what consequence is a body” (3/19)
40.   Deema K. Shehabi & “in the wake of” (3/20)
41.   Becca J.R. Lachman & “I was planning an essay on imagery” (3/21)
42.   Chris Kempf & “You look at me” (3/22)
43.   Hayan Charara & “As if” (“Usage”) (3/23)
44.   Josie Setzler & “On the flight overseas” (3/24)
45.   William Kelley Woolfitt & “so I could pass the time (3/25)

46.   Priscilla Wathington & Harvey Hix & “Compline” (3/26) 

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 46: “Let There Be Light”: Compline, + Priscilla Wathington and Harvey Hix

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 46: “Let There Be Light”: Compline, + Priscilla Wathington and Harvey Hix

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth,
the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss,
while a mighty wind swept over the waters.

Then God said,
“Let there be light,” and there was light.
God saw how good the light was.
God then separated the light from the darkness.
God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.”
Thus evening came, and morning followed—the first day.

On Holy Saturday, we live between Crucifixion and Resurrection, past and future, full of uncertainty and hope. George Steiner once called our modern existence as one of Holy Saturday:  “We know of that Good Friday which Christianity holds to have been that of the Cross.  But the non-Christian, the atheist, knows of it as well – the pain, the failure of love, the solitude which are our history and our private fate.  We know also about Sunday. To the Christian  that day signifies an intimation of resurrection of a justice and a love that has conquered death.   If we are non-Christians, we know of that Sunday in analogous terms – the day of liberation from inhumanity and servitude…. Ours is the long day’s journey of the Saturday.  Between suffering, aloneness, unutterable waste on the one hand, and the dream of liberation, of rebirth on the other.”

I remember when Amy was about to give birth for the first time, we read somewhere that “you can’t give birth with your head.” I’ve been thinking about my resistances to religion, to the life of faith, trying to remind myself that I can’t give birth with my head. How Guy Picciotto of Rites of Spring once sang: “I said I bled/I tried to have the heart/through the head.” And how Kahlil Gibran once wrote: “Faith is an oasis in the heart which will never be reached by the caravan of thinking.”

I’m thinking of light, feeling the light. Just as our days tilt toward the sun, each day growing in strength, the pulsing of life all around us strengthens—the suddenness of greens and birdsong, life, life, life. Despite all the literal and figurative nights we endure, the violence and war and torture and despair and heart-brokenness, there is this pulsing, this turning toward the light, seed-hopeful. We dream of being broken open into what we are meant to become.

I’m thinking of what my Iraqi and Afghani friends have endured at the hands of our empire. Of Shakir, Nawal, Salih, Dunya, Huda, Sinan, Wafaa, Zohra. I’m thinking of those who remain in Guantanamo. Of Mohamedou Ould Slahi. I’m thinking of all the victims of war and hatred, of black sites and drone strikes, of cluster bombs and depleted uranium, of prison cells and prison camps, and, closer to home, of racial oppression and sexual violence, of all our hurting hurting others. And the torment we visit upon ourselves. I’m thinking of all of us who find no reason to get up in the morning and nonetheless still get up in the morning, who wake with the light because there is something in us that lives in the light. There is something sleeping in us that rises with the day.

Thanks to Priscilla Wathington and Harvey Hix for their dialogues with “Compline.”

“And We Are Witnesses Of It” by Priscilla Wathington
            -a meditation on “Compline,” from Sand Opera

That     the tomb be opened, glass removed from the observatory’s blood-shot eye, that

we        who stood muzzled while a saw hunted its own dust would

await    a breathing into the dust’s nostrils, a bay of bones conferred

a          new leather to contain the

blessed man, pulp of

hope    remade by its own bloom.

My       fleeced lips unfit to drink this suffering garden of

God     to look into the dusk of olives for the

open    unwrapped body of God

the       prison guards rolled back like a stone 

spine    leavened. Remake the cotton

binding            into garments, forgive us

our       lumbering


On Easter in Palestine, I used to hear my friends and family members exchange this call-and-response greeting in Arabic: “Christ has risen / Truly risen / And we are witnesses of it.” Philip Metres’s poem, “Compline” is the final thought in a sober volume about the multitude of ways we have failed to approach each other as equal creations. It traces our failure of vision and how wed we are to a “spine” way of thinking. The poem acknowledges that this dark day has already been lived by many with long echoes that will spread beyond them and into the night. Despite this, “Compline” blesses its readers with a reminder and invocation: “That we await a blessed hope.” 

--Priscilla Wathington is a consulting editor to the children’s human rights group, Defense for Children International - Palestine. Her poems have recently appeared in Spark and Echo Arts, Sukoon, Mizna and The Normal School. 

“Echoes” by H.L. Hix

My God, my God, open the spine binding our sight.

My God, my God, open the spine binding my sight.

Their God, their God, open the spine binding my sight.

Their God, their God, break the spine binding my sight.

Their God, their God, break the bonds binding my sight.

Their God, their God, break the bonds binding my hearing.

Their God, their God, break the bonds chafing my hearing.

Our God, our God, break the bonds chafing my hearing.

Our God, our God, break my bonds, repair my hearing.

Our God, our God, break my bonds, restore my sight.

Any God, any God, break my bonds, restore my sight.

All Gods, all Gods, break their bonds, restore my sight.

--H.L. Hix is a poet and the author of numerous books, most recently American Anger (2016).

Friday, March 25, 2016

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 45: Mercy Mercy Each: Black Site (Exhibit Q) and William Kelley Woolfitt

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 45: Mercy Mercy Each: Black Site (Exhibit Q) and William Kelley Woolfitt

Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.

For all my foes I am an object of reproach,
a laughingstock to my neighbors, and a dread to my friends;
they who see me abroad flee from me.
I am forgotten like the unremembered dead;
I am like a dish that is broken.
            --Psalm 31

Last night was the beginning of the Easter Triduum, the three days of Easter, beginning with Holy Thursday, when the priest bends to his knees to wash the feet of his parishioners. In Rome, Pope Francis spoke about God’s infinite mercy. In his words:

Mercy restores everything; it restores dignity to each person. This is why effusive gratitude is the proper response: we have to go the party, to put on our best clothes, to cast off the rancour of the elder brother, to rejoice and give thanks… Only in this way, participating fully in such rejoicing, is it possible to think straight, to ask for forgiveness, and see more clearly how to make up for the evil we have committed…. 

We remind ourselves that there are countless masses of people who are poor, uneducated, prisoners, who find themselves in such situations because others oppress them. But we too remember that each of us knows the extent to which we too are often blind, lacking the radiant light of faith, not because we do not have the Gospel close at hand, but because of an excess of complicated theology. We feel that our soul thirsts for spirituality, not for a lack of Living Water which we only sip from, but because of an excessive “bubbly” spirituality, a “light” spirituality. We feel ourselves also trapped, not so much by insurmountable stone walls or steel enclosures that affect many peoples, but rather by a digital, virtual worldliness that is opened and closed by a simple click. We are oppressed, not by threats and pressures, like so many poor people, but by the allure of a thousand commercial advertisements which we cannot shrug off to walk ahead, freely, along paths that lead us to love of our brothers and sisters, to the Lord’s flock, to the sheep who wait for the voice of their shepherds.

(I’ve been struck, reading Scripture during this Lenten season, how much of the Gospel writing has precursors in the Hebrew Scripture, particularly in the Psalms and Isaiah. Either Jesus consciously echoed such voices during his life, or the writers of the Gospels wrote him as the fulfillment of longings within Hebrew Scripture, or both.)

Today is Good Friday, the day that commemorates Jesus’s crucifixion. What we have today is a person suffering the most cruel torture, torture unto death. Torture at the hands of those who felt Jesus was dangerous, a risk to security and the social orders. Like Mohamed Farag Bashmilah, rendered into black sites and tortured there.

Thanks to William Kelley Woolfitt for his contribution and response to “Black Site (Exhibit Q).”  

                                                                                                                                                                                   "so I could pass the time…” response by William Kelley Woolfitt

Two Digital Watches
Not for long, he marks the hours with a prayer chart, a watch with a map of the world. I did not have information I needed, he says. Guards take the watch, tape outside the glass another watch, its straps cut away. Time drags, he doesn’t look at the face.
When given plastic bottles with the labels stripped, filled from a large drum, he washes his head and feet for prayer, drinks what might be tainted, impure, he cannot know.
No Mat
Best efforts, he says. He kneels, lowers himself, touches his flat palms and forehead to the gray floor, the covering, the dirt.
Fastened to an iron bolt, the chain lets him reach the bucket-toilet, freights his body, he can raise his right hand no higher than his waist.
The Sound of Waves
The speakers blast music, then pause, and he listens for the call of a far mosque—then a recorded ocean, seagulls, waves breaking a shore.

William Woolfitt is the author of the poetry collections Beauty Strip (Texas Review Press, 2014) and Charles of the Desert (Paraclete Press, 2016). He edits Speaking of Marvels 
(, a gathering of interviews with chapbook and novella authors. His poems and stories have appeared in Blackbird, Image, Tin House, Threepenny Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Epoch, and other journals.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 44: My Feet (Flying While Arab) + Josie Setzler

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 44: My Feet (Flying While Arab) + Josie Setzler

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him,
“Master, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus answered and said to him,
“What I am doing, you do not understand now,
but you will understand later.”
Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered him,
“Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.”
Simon Peter said to him,
“Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.”
            --John 13

I find the synchronicities between daily Scripture and the poems uncanny; both John and my poem have to do with exposing one’s (dirty) feet! Here, Simon Peter first refuses to have Jesus wash his feet. After all, he calls Jesus his Master, and looks up to him with a certain kind of awe. It’s hard to know whether he is shocked and horrified that Jesus might bend to clean his feet, or whether he secretly wants him to do it—after all, he asks the question. But then when Jesus says that he must, or else there is no future between them, Simon Peter offers up not only his feet, but his hands and head. His whole body, his whole self.

In the poem below, my taking off my shoes—in the days after the Richard Reid failed shoe-bombing episode in 2002—became an occasion for a woman to suspect me of terrorism. FWA: Flying While Arab. I’ve thought about that incident often over the years, and how I failed to answer her paranoid gaze. The poem became a way of answering.

Thanks to Josie Setzler for her commentary!

“The poem with the sticky eyes” by Josie Setzler

Her gaze widened and neck craned as I (her eyes) slowly removed (her eyes) my shoes.

As I read Metres’s poem, I could feel the woman’s eyes sticking to him, just as they stuck to the words in this sentence. It was all I remembered of the poem at first reading. This was the poem with the sticky eyes. I could feel them on my own body as well, even though as a white woman of Dutch ancestry, I knew that Americans weren’t thinking of me when they repeated Homeland Security’s warning: “See something, say something.” 

Sometimes I’m afraid I’m carrying a bomb.

Yet it is the eyes themselves that are the weapon. Penetrating this man’s very sense of himself, they violate him. Violate…violence…eyes as bombs. The word violate comes from the Latin violare, “to treat with violence, outrage, dishonor.” Violare is thought to be an irregular derivative of vis, “strength, force, power, energy.”  And now I recall that I am white and those eyes are my eyes. I move through my days in a mostly white bubble and am barely aware of how I am protected by the ‘vis’ of my whiteness. Maybe my eyes have done a darting, shifting thing when I have been taken by surprise by someone who looks different from me.  Why do my eyes do that?

Later, visiting a Quaker meeting, I sat among scattered chairs.

Funny that the poet should mention the scattered chairs. Maybe it’s a relief that they are not all lined up, focused, like the sight on a gun.

On the shores of breathing, all eyes shut I waded. Silence our rudder, silence our harbor.

Silence is another relief. And now we read that the diffused space of silence acts as a rudder. A rudder gives direction, yet silence’s power to direct is different from the power of those fiercely focused eyes. Identity finds safe harbor when silence gives it precious space.

I’m still puzzling over the poem’s transition from those violating eyes to this Quaker meeting. I have trusted silence myself for some years now, trying to stay faithful to a centering prayer practice. Earlier it was Zen. My Zen teacher used to recommend that we keep our eyes half open, cast down and softly focused on a spot on the floor in front of us. He asked us to gentle our gaze. Gentling my gaze is never easy--in any part of my day. I need help. Poetry conspires with the silence to gentle not only my eyes, but my heart and mind as well.  I am deeply grateful.

The lamp of the body is the eye. It follows that if your eye is clear, your whole body will be filled with light. --Mt 6: 22