October 17, 2021

Lucky Life

Arts Fanatics

Wrestling Spirits: A Dialogue with Philip Metres

17 min read

THE CINEMATIC OPENING of Philip Metres’s latest poetry assortment, Shrapnel Maps, qualified prospects us into the shade of a tulip tree, heavy with blossoms and the grief of a seemingly unresolvable conflict: “They needed to tear down the tulip tree, our neighbors, previous year,” the speaker states. “It throws shade in excess of their vegetable patch, the only tree in our yard. We claimed no.” And nevertheless, that “no” is eventually answered by the growl of a chainsaw. It is the type of conflict any homeowner dreads unfolding on an all much too personal domestic phase. The speaker’s wife protests, the landscapers issue a finger for their inaction, and the neighbors seethe although their greens languish. And the speaker? He chokes on the impossibility of it all, wanting to evade and excuse himself from judgment.

How to reconcile two visions of the entire world, two dreams, two histories that may well become — even in the poem’s smaller environment of fenced backyards? In this way, the poem “One Tree” serves deftly as both equally introduction and also metaphor to the far more than 150 pages that abide by. The invitation of Shrapnel Maps is to request us as visitors to stand, uncomfortably, with the poet among two opposing encounters of reality, every single with its extended report of agony and longing for liberation: the seemingly impassable gulf concerning Israelis and Palestinians. “Always the very same story,” the speaker of “One Tree” continues, “two folks, one particular tree, not enough land or light-weight or appreciate.” 

Metres, by rendering the stories of equally Palestinian and Israeli persons and families via imaginative, formally experimental — and usually multi-vocal — lyric and persona poems, invitations the reader to contemplate that all conflict is at its coronary heart own. In the planet of Shrapnel Maps, the poet’s own Cleveland, Ohio (and by extension any city we connect with dwelling), satisfies Jerusalem and Gaza, Jaffa and Bethlehem through Wadi al-Nar. A person of the most compelling factors about the reserve is this particular, empathetic emphasis — and the sense of vulnerability it asks of visitors.

Correct to Metres’s perform as a professor at John Carroll College, where by he directs the interdisciplinary method for peace, justice, and human legal rights, Shrapnel Maps is a job of radical listening and compassion. For as a lot as it reveals about the sophisticated nature of the violence in between Palestinians and Israelis, the reserve operates as a form of mirror for the polarization in our own communities and the willingness or not to refuse simplistic judgments and answers.

This job interview is tailored from my correspondence with Metres, who I look at a pal, around the superior portion of two decades. What started as a dialogue among us about the interplay of faith and art and the wrestle it engenders at some point came to include Shrapnel Maps, which is as much an artifact of Metres’s sustained engagement with the challenges struggling with the Middle East as it is proof of his wrestling for integrity in between his spiritual and inventive identities.


CAMERON ALEXANDER LAWRENCE: I study that you are inclined to maintain your Catholicism tranquil. It reminded me of anything you shared on social media a even though back again about Andy Warhol — how he experienced grown up in a Byzantine Catholic parish, which you felt had specifically affected his art — the iconography in specific. I’m betting it would surprise most people today that Warhol continued to be a practicing Catholic in some vogue, even at the height of his fame, but kept his faith hidden to the point of not receiving the Sacraments, for worry of staying regarded for the duration of his regular attendance of Mass. For people like Warhol and so numerous of us, the Church isn’t an straightforward house.

PHILIP METRES: Heading to the Warhol Museum in July 2018 and seeing the photograph of the iconostasis of St. John Chrysostom in Pittsburgh, where Warhol attended as a baby, loaded me with emotion. Serving as an altar boy at St. John, a Melkite Church, I was fascinated with the stern and gorgeous faces searching back again at me, the otherworldly singing (in English, Arabic, and Greek), the overflow of incense, the limitless parading in gold-stitched cloth. Of class, I thought quickly, now I see his Pop Art Marilyns, his substantial Elvises, as pop cultural variations of that holy wall of faces. I do locate Warhol’s artwork both equally interesting and disturbing, a darkish mirror on the materialism of our lifestyle. And nevertheless his have hunger for fame seemed craven at instances, he also did some thing attractive via his art: he elevated the outcasts of culture and built them into stars — demonstrating that LBGTQ people today deserved interest and like. I suspect that Warhol, like many of us, struggled with the Church and with God, and that the “secret piety” that was revealed in his eulogy was a piety of struggle. How could it not be? As a homosexual individual, he faced a religion and Church that noticed his orientation as sinful. I occur away from encountering Warhol once again with a feeling of the secret of currently being any individual — how comprehensive of sides we are, how various, how irreducible.

“Struggle” is an important phrase when it comes to getting a particular person of any faith, significantly when linked to an ancient spiritual tradition, which often looks out of move with the modern day environment. And possibly all the much more as an artist of religion. Currently, I have been considering a great deal about the impression of Jacob wrestling with the angel in Genesis as a metaphor for this knowledge. When Jacob struggled from the angel through the long evening and refused to permit go until finally he received a blessing, that blessing came with a wounded hip, a limp. It’s going to look at how Warhol (for all the causes you mention) might have wrestled, to live in that pressure, his entire daily life, however waiting and wanting to obtain, bearing the wound. I’m often fascinated to learn men and women who are attempting to inhabit that difficult, middle house as artists. Have you had ordeals that recommend being quieter about your spiritual lifetime is essential?

Finding out and operating in secular environments have produced me want to be solicitous of people who have other thoughts about the mother nature of reality. When there was a Mass at Loyola Academy, our Jesuit significant college, my friend Atanu explained, “Time for the brainwashing!” He reported it as a joke, but he intended it as well — for him, Mass was nakedly ideological. That made a big impact on me.

My reticence also arrives from realizing the background of the Church. Constantinian Christianity (imperial authoritarian Christianity, as opposed to the early Christian communitarian pacifism) has a extended background of pressured conversion, torture, and violent suppression of other faiths. I want to articulate my religion in a way that products my individual longings and struggles, somewhat than in a way that is about evangelization, doctrinal correctness, and ethical judgment of some others. I’m sorry to say that often I’ve uncovered conversations among the other Christians to be confined, hamstrung, as well yielding to authority and tradition.

If I’m being trustworthy, I obtain some God communicate to be suffocating. I want the God at the rear of the God of faith. The God at the core of the thriller of existence. But I also discover an completely secular existence to absence sustenance and slake, even though I know some atheists with whom I’d fairly commit eternity than spiritual persons. Both way, I really feel a little bit like an outsider, and that is not a bad put to be. It’s simpler to continue to keep my eyes open up.

Is there any way you can discern how your wrestle as a Catholic influences your writing?

I love the rhythms of the Mass: the singing the “calling to head our sins” and inquiring for mercy the consideration to the phrase and all its poetic, narrative, and parabolic powers in the Bible the homily the job of religion the kiss of peace the collecting at table for the Eucharist. When I was a youngster, like just about every youngster, I was bored as hell by it, but over the years, I’ve become rapt by the recurring tales, the rhythms of liturgical seasons, this enigmatic and stunning and vexing shimmering figure at the heart of it.

It would be difficult for me to pinpoint what is Catholic — whether or not Roman Catholic, the religion of my early upbringing, of Eastern Catholic (Melkite), the ceremony that we commenced to show up at with my father as he entered into even more communion with his Arab heritage. But what I cherished about the Melkite Church was its “smells and bells.” Church was a sensuous experience, replete with aromatic incense generously shared, unceasing singing, the flashing golden robes and crosses — like Yeats’s vision of Byzantium. It is at after utterly primitive and flagrantly beautiful. “I did not know,” the Tsar’s emissary was to have penned soon after traveling to Byzantium, “whether I was in heaven or on earth.”

Of training course, the radical in me miracles whether all that gold really should be melted down and traded for bread or occupation instruction or mercy for the weak. But which is the wrestle once more, isn’t it?

My wife observed that, in a radio job interview, that I utilised the phrase, “I was raised Catholic,” and that I did not say I am Catholic. I have been wondering about why I did that. It is once again that distancing, that battle. It had every thing to do with the recent report in Pennsylvania about the Church’s handling of predatory priests. I am entirely heartbroken and angry at the institutional Church’s legal failure to secure small children. The Church needs to entirely rework by itself, especially close to its longtime propensity towards speaking about “hatred of the world” and “the sinful flesh.” I lengthy for a theology that throws off patriarchy, hierarchy, and clericalism, a theology that facilities by itself around loving the world and the entire body, that sees all individuals as worthy of the priesthood, and all creatures worthy of dignity and reverence.

I see inklings of it throughout the tradition. I see it in Ignatius’s plan of observing “God in all factors,” in that fantastic longing to do the will of God, and in the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the ecstasy of audio and perception. In Thomas Merton’s vision (and without a doubt all mystics’ eyesight) of the unity of all, that we belong to every other. In Dorothy Day’s radical and gritty embrace of poverty, the place she never separated herself from the lowly. I noticed it when Pope Francis claimed, when interviewed for the first time as Pope, that he was to start with and foremost a sinner. And he reported it not with the angry self-flail of the flagellant, but with a very clear-eyed and sort perception of our human frailty.

O to have a faith like Augustine’s, to say anything like this:

Late have I loved you, elegance so outdated and so new: late have I beloved you. And see, you have been within just and I was in the exterior environment and sought you there, and in my unlovely point out I plunged into these charming developed matters which you made. You ended up with me, and I was not with you. The charming factors retained me significantly from you, nevertheless if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all. You referred to as and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You had been radiant and resplendent, you place to flight my blindness. You ended up aromatic, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I sense but starvation and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am established on hearth to achieve the peace which is yours.

When I shared this with my father, he mentioned that Augustine was plainly an Arab — perfectly, he was a Berber, but near sufficient. That eros!

You quoting Augustine’s Confessions will make me speculate what your go-to non secular texts as a poet might be. Is there nearly anything you see as vital to the intersection of your spirituality and artwork?

I want to wax Ignatian and say that any textual content can be a holy textual content, due to the fact it’s in the eyes of our coronary heart that the divinity sparkles as considerably as in development and our articulations of it. Naturally, the Bible would be up there. I shell out shut attention to Scripture in Mass, of program. I’m a lector now for the reason that I want to enter into Mass a lot more totally. This concern, though, it is this sort of a good a person. Recently, I was at a convention identified as “The Catholic Creativeness,” and I was in awe of all the modern writers not worried to be connected with this Catholic detail: George Saunders, Tobias Wolff, Alice McDermott, Fanny Howe, Patricia Hampl, Richard Rodriguez, Lawrence Joseph, Phil Klay, Paul Mariani, and many others. The Catholic Creativity is this sort of a substantial custom: St. Paul and Augustine, Teresa of Ávila and Hildegard of Bingen, Michelangelo and da Vinci, Dante and Bach, Chaucer and Shakespeare, and on. In 20th-century American letters, Flannery O’Connor, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Daniel Berrigan — I suggest, I’m speechless just considering about them. Even Bruce Springsteen observed in his autobiography that “I’m still part of the team.” It is a large staff. We do not even imagine of all these writers and artists as part of the very same custom, but they are. It was so huge (and hegemonic) that even these who weren’t part of it have been responding to it. I have under no circumstances even thought of it as a group or myself as part of it — that is to say, as opposed to anyone else’s workforce. I’ve by no means been intrigued in exclusivism in religion or religion. Usually, I locate it appalling and counter to the adore at the starting and stop of matters.

I see that you have taken up painting. Is that section of your non secular observe of late?

Of course, though extra as an embodied spirituality than an intellectualized a person. I restarted my studio observe in earnest Oct 2018, primarily as a crack from writing, which I had pushed challenging and far for a lot of decades major up to that level. Safe and sound to say I was burned out. Painting arrived back again into my lifetime soon after a just about 17-calendar year hiatus. The act of portray has the outcome on me of stopping the typical torrent of feelings going via my head — it assists me fail to remember earlier or foreseeable future and be right wherever I am: in the studio, obtaining my palms and apparel soiled. I don’t have enough language for how deeply this has touched me. Gerhard Richter reported something that resonates with me: “To talk about paintings is not only complicated but possibly pointless also. You can only categorical in terms what text are capable of expressing — what language can converse. Painting has almost nothing to do with that.”

There’s a little something releasing about operating in a new art kind (the Buddhistic “beginner’s mind”), as very well as an artwork kind that is liberated from “meaning” as this kind of. So a lot of my poetry starts in the space of wrestling, a struggle with how things look. For Shrapnel Maps, as a lot as I’m drawn to wrestle with the heart of our darknesses, I never want destruction, injustice, erasure, and non-meaning to be the ultimate words. I suppose that I’m seeking in art a place the place something else could possibly be feasible, a brightness we can’t but identify.

Any interval of wrestling, whether in some period of lifetime or in producing a e-book (which often spans several seasons of daily life), suggests to me a story. I’m curious about the form of period or seasons that led to Shrapnel Maps. What was happening in your life? How did you get there at this lengthy and sophisticated and gorgeous and normally heartbreaking collection of poems?

Shrapnel Maps actually started with my sister’s astonishing stories, owning come back again from a summertime at Birzeit College in Ramallah in the early 1990s, attempting to piece alongside one another what was occurring to Palestinians. Her witness was what launched my possess investigation — which has cohered into numerous voices and narratives, and the deconstruction of narratives. The poems commenced to be released in the past 10 a long time, but I held on to this ebook for a very long time. Why? Due to the fact I know how fiercely persons experience about Israel and Palestine, the Holy Land. (Is there any land that is not holy? Or, as Naomi Shihab Nye when wrote, “Are individuals the only holy land?”) I did not want to dedicate the usual sin of gross misrepresentation and erasure — of Arabs or Jews, of Israelis or Palestinians — and so I required to sit with the poems for a lengthy time, making an attempt to consider their reception, seeing them transform as I listened to them. I hope I do the people today and the position some justice, knowing how substantially injustice and violence has previously been done. There will be criticisms of the book, no doubt, and of me. That will come with the territory. My only hope is that everyone will wrestle, with me, in the tough thickets there.

What kind of future, in your brain, does Shrapnel Maps search for for Palestinians and Israelis?

I repeat my mantra: to come across the put the place peace and justice fulfill. There are so a lot of griefs — the point that the UN has predicted that Gaza would be basically uninhabitable by 2020, suggests that the upcoming seems difficult. In some respects, apocalypse has currently arrived. The identical could be explained for dozens of indigenous peoples all through the world, for whom apocalypse has already occur.

I go back again to the root of apocalypse: to uncover, to carry the veil.

And where by does faith in shape into all of this? Where by is hope? Where by is God? How can we think about past the earlier? It doesn’t happen with no very first accounting for the earlier. But it can not get misplaced in the past. What if the historical is also the future, as Augustine reported of God: “Beauty ever ancient and at any time new”? That is the query that Shrapnel Maps moves toward.

It looks that just one of the approaches the book does that perform of listening and imagining is by memory — of remembering and commemorating — exposing us to the traumas and experience of folks, and usually families, on both equally sides of the conflict. I see it not so considerably as a form of Western or American gaze but an act of empathy — specially to see how the poems enter the life and ostensibly the hearts of figures we’d generally label deeply problematic. I’m thinking specially of the suicide bomber and the discomfort his steps convey to a café complete of folks, who the ebook also reveals to us in an intimate way. I really do not want to use the word “humanize” right here for how it implies that anyone in that place is not totally human — an notion the e-book works hard to dismantle. But I admire the way Shrapnel Maps goes about on the lookout at the point beneath the issue and sometimes even to levels over and above that, like excavating an historical metropolis that is been constructed around numerous moments. To pull all this off, mostly by means of lyric poems, will have to have taken a terrific deal of synthesis in between investigate and encounter. I wondered if you could talk about the procedure of going so significantly, and deep, into the hearts and minds of individuals who call every single other enemy and arrive at a spot of adore, as poet, for equally.

Thank you. I’m happy you expert the guide in that way. It was a journey, to be positive, into striving to have an understanding of life that I are not able to know. All I can say is that the get the job done selected me, the voices arrived (as a result of research and the imagination, two unique kinds of listening), as I experimented with to make feeling of the thicket of actuality in which Palestinians and Israelis discover themselves — in which, in potentially a lot less severe techniques, we all obtain (or eliminate) ourselves. The ebook doesn’t talk for everybody, for absolutely sure. It’s just just one attempt to do that function of listening.

Looking at Shrapnel Maps, I just can’t help but consider of your get the job done with pupils in Northern Eire — the annual visits you co-lead to introduce them, in a firsthand way, to The Difficulties of the latter 20th century, with all the complexities and enduring consequences on the Irish people. I’d guess you’d say that engendering listening, as an essential act of peace developing, is at the heart of that venture. It strikes me that undertaking this get the job done of listening is something all those of us in the United States could reward from understanding how to do, polarized as we are, caught among contradictory narratives of what this place is and should really develop into. What might your expertise in looking into and crafting this e book, along with your endeavours in Northern Ireland, have to say to us now about how we can develop our own upcoming?

Your question reminds me how typically listening by itself is co-opted as a political posture — so-termed “listening sessions” that execute a listening much more about the advantage-signaling listener than about encountering the speaker and their story. To come upon radical alterity is to chance getting transformed. Most of us would prefer to switch away. There have been lots of times during my conversations close to Shrapnel Maps the place I just preferred to conceal. I go through a person evaluation of the e book that tumbled me into a melancholy. Soon after that, I would leave e-mails unopened for a few of times when I realized that I would encounter that radical alterity. I have figured out, again and all over again, that there are depths of human soreness that these poems touch, the struggling of yet another, that I can’t know, but in some cases near, and just about every time that has took place, I felt that there could be no reduced put. All of which to say: This is not uncomplicated work. For listener or speaker. But it is the only way I know. And the silence is something that desires to be damaged.

Finding out, participating with, and writing about Northern Ireland (or the North of Ireland, based on your standpoint) has taught me that even in that residing laboratory of peacebuilding, a person will have to be aware of any triumphalist narrative of peace. Nonetheless, the system that Northern Ireland has carried out is value analyzing and discovering from.

Now that this reserve has arrive into the globe, I’m curious if you have a perception of wherever you’re headed next in conditions of your get the job done. Do you believe you’ll continue on the work of Sand Opera and Shrapnel Maps, or are you emotion led someplace else?

If I’m not delusional, I believe the up coming guide of poems is currently rising. I desired to do a little something much more personal, a lot more private, more loving and positioned. It does range a bit (I just can’t assistance myself), but I do assume my religious and poetic get the job done is to build refuges in language, a dwelling area.


Cameron Alexander Lawrence is a poet and visual artist from the American Southwest.


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