in review: Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance

footnotes cover.jpg


Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance
by Fady Joudah
Publication Date: March 13, 2018
Publisher: Milkweed Editions


Stepping into the pages of Fady Joudah’s Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance feels like slowly remembering pieces of a dream. The idea of recurrence is heavily explored within these poems, and as a reader making her way through each section, pieces and connections seem to fall easily into place. Joudah also examines reanimation in a multitude of forms—reanimation of body, of memory, of myth, and of emotion. The callback to previous images and ideas, coupled with the theme of recurrence, grants the collection a stunning cohesion that demonstrates the artistry of Joudah’s verse.

The book’s opening poem, “The Magic of Apricot,” uses fruit as a vessel for conjuring memory that “may well keep us alive / a little while longer than unnecessary.” Joudah alludes to Lazarus, the Biblical figure raised from the dead, as a way to underscore and even to question the way the things we have lost return to us, as memories are wont to do. Used in conjunction with memory, Lazarus becomes not only a symbol of physical resurrection but of figurative revival, which continues throughout the remainder of the collection.

The image of a human cadaver appears in several of Joudah’s poems, and each time the reader is called to regard these cadavers with tenderness and to reflect on one’s own place in the timeline of life. As Joudah contemplates in “Progress Notes,” “I had come across that which will end me, ex- / tend me, at least once, without knowing it.” The enjambment here is particularly poignant, as it points to the idea of a future self, a cadaver self, being examined by others in the same way that his narrator is doing now, yet the “tend me” seems to suggest a plea to do so with consideration. When Joudah speaks of the reanimation of the dead, he does so with caution, as in “Bloodline” when he admits, “Sometimes people survive in spite of us.”         

Grief, like death, appears cyclical in this collection. The sorrow born from grief is revived as easily as memory, and sometimes because of it. In the first line of the final poem of the book (the second of two titular poems), Joudah writes, “I call the finding of certain things loss.” The poet simultaneously gifts the reader with glimpses into lives we feel we have known and the sadness of watching them leave. The irony here—one of the greatest elements of Joudah’s writing—is the idea that it is possible to mourn the loss of something while currently experiencing it.

Motion is constant in Footnotes, made more tangible by Joudah’s ability to switch effortlessly between past and present events. Instances of solitude are never really still and instead highlight the tumultuous push and pull of words and song on the human mind. Language itself is treated at times as a double-edged sword, both a comfort and a curse if not fully understood. As in “After No Language,” “some cuts run deeper than speech,” and throughout we are shown that trying to interpret a line can remove the intention or feeling altogether, but still we are left with the motion of the feeling.

What we are given in Joudah’s poetry is the opportunity to feel without necessarily knowing the meaning of feeling. We see snapshots of shared experiences and grief temporarily relieved by verse, effectively mirrored in the poet’s own haunting lyricism. In “Thank You,” the narrator partakes in funerals for the cadavers, reciting lines from the Quran while his professor recites them in English. After, he “put on [his] best Barry / White and went into a trance.” The reader may not know the words to these prayers, but the calm of the moment propels the verse forward. The narrator and the professor may be speaking different languages, but they recognize that what they are saying is the same.

Maybe the greatest takeaway from these poems is a respect for both the dead and the living. The care shown to the cadavers, to the memories, and to the words themselves reflects how the reader should treat others. We are witnesses staring into these moments, called to listen rather than interrupt. As the narrator in “Palestine, Texas” states, “We were / granted the right to exist.” In Joudah’s collection, this right is innate. We simply exist. 


—Shannon Austin