I am seated in a well-lighted corner of the Student Center at Wayne State University. A few seats away from me is an Arab man with a thick beard and sunglasses despite being inside. I came here by way of a Lyft car driven by a young man named Abraheem who is generous with his smiles and inquisitiveness, who moved here from Gaza seven years ago. (He said that during his visit back home last month, they only had three hours of electricity each day and it took him more than week to get his laundry done–because why have bought laundry machine if you cannot use it? This is to also willfully say nothing of the people in critical medical conditions and hospitals and hospice who are also getting less than three hours of electricity — whereas some reports say Israel’s allowance of electricity for Gaza is down to one hour. This is to say nothing.). Walking past my window are large groups of high school students here for summer camps and orientation. Nearly all of the students are brown. Black kids. Arab kids. Desi kids. Latino kids. The brownness, the beardedness, the blackness, the hairiness, the dark-eyedness, the braidedness, the locked-ness, the hijabedness, the accentedness, the non-accentedness, the otherness, the all-the-us-ness is abundant here, and I am basking in it like sunlight.
Wayne State University is where my father went to college–where he got his B.A. and later his Ph.D. He had gotten into Purdue’s Ph.D. program and stayed here at Wayne instead. He stayed because it was home. Because home had moved to Detroit. All his friends from home, who had been uprooted during the Civil War, came here, and walked through this same same Student Center and the same same cement pathways and once upon the eighties they went to a Noam Chomsky lecture because they heard he was a friend of Palestine though there they understood nothing, Baba says. There is a choosing to stay and a choosing to leave, I’m saying. And Baba, though leaving to Purdue may have put him on a completely different trajectory, he chose to stay.
And me, I chose to stay. Wayne State is where I am doing my M.A. now. It isn’t in the highest tier of universities nor does it validate the elitism that festered inside me when I was in undergrad at a “public ivy” institution. But being at Wayne State gives me a strange sense of pride and community that no other school can give me. I don’t have to leave home to grow. I can be around my mother and my grandmother and my friends and the places that the years allow me to continue to rediscover and discover anew. I can be in Detroit and learn. I grew up with a certainty that I would have to leave a place in order to become what I must become. The fleeing, maybe I inherited that from my parents, who fled once and never again. My father fled war. My mother fled war. And she later fled a man who was not my father. My father fled once. Mama fled twice. Which is how it tends to go.
And I am seated here reading Al-Youm, a chapbook by George Abraham, a young Palestinian poet who I met briefly at this year’s AWP conference; though the acronym stands for Association of Writers and Writing Programs, it could also very well stand for All White People. We met during the Q&A of a panel titled “Poetry in the Age of the Drone.” It was the most current session of the entire conference; it felt even more current and necessary than the sessions centered around Trump’s presidency. Most of the poets speaking gave enlightening contributions that critically expanded poetic form and engaged a transnational and cosmopolitan ethics and aesthetic that expands the American Anglophone poetic subject in a necessary way. Inevitably though, I was infuriated by the way one poet on the panel felt entitled to aestheticize drone warfare, which isn’t to say this poet doesn’t have the right to write, but rather, my fury was a frustration in wanting to get a grasp on the ethics of this poet’s poetics by the time Q&A began and certify that they were indeed as infuriating as my instinct told me they were. Looking around the room, I saw new and familiar faces reacting with both mouth-gaping-open or anger or the passion that keeps us at the edge of our seats with hands wiggling in air eager to be called on.
The infuriating poet (I.F.), let’s start there. At one point, I.F. attempted to speak on behalf of the rest of the panelists, claiming: “we are these freaks that have this obsession with this American secret.” One poet onstage was Palestinian-American, another Iranian-American, one Jewish-American, and one other White-American besides I.F. I.F.’s tone in that statement was self-congratulatory. As if I.F. were doing archival research on, say, sexual deviants of the Kansas prairie in the 1800s or babies abandoned in New York City maternity wards or the various uses of placenta throughout time–although all of these “freakish” interests involve bodies, right? Queer bodies. Baby bodies. Rural bodies. Mother bodies. Human bodies.
Too, I.F. treated “this American secret” as if it were completely disconnected from any kind of body. And I.F.’s poetry did the same thing: When reading their own poem about thermal imaging and the drones mistaking some people for insurgents, I.F. imagined that the thermal imaging would have mistaken I.F., a tall person, for Bin Laden or Abe Lincoln or I.F.’s father. The willful blindness was disappointing; the blindness to brownness and that brownness being the lowest common denominator between all bodies blasted into the dust by drones. I wanted to tell I.F.: It never would have been you, I.F. It never would have been your father, nor would it have been Abe Lincoln. That is the fundamental fact, I.F. And your aesthetics and your ethics are obsolete and unless you learn to see, I.F., you’ll be left in the dust too, I.F.; you’ll be left in the dust. But not blasted.
In one poem of I.F.’s, I.F. writes from the perspective of a drone operator: “then it hits a bicycle”… “it wasn’t there 23 seconds ago.” In the poem, two boys on a bicycle are hit; however, the emphasis is on the bicycle and not the bodies. Sure, there’s a mediated distance between body and screen and body, a palindromic formula for death that appears to be symmetrical but is not. The formula is actually: body and boy and man and clothing and plastic joystick and machine and screen and unmanned aerial vehicle and attachment and thermal camera and mountain air and tree and grandfather and mother and father and cousin and historical self and geopolitical self and personal self and boy and maybe then body, maybe then we get to body. I.F.’s work recycles the word “jihadist” and “insurgent” imbuing them with no more meaning than Fox News does and adding nothing to the way we understand these words and their connection to bodies. I.F.’s work is a reenactment of violence and not a refusal of it, barely a critique of it. In a postcolonial theory class I took years ago, my professor asked “Is this work harmless [to the imperial or colonial establishment] or harmful?” and I have continued to ask myself this question. I.F.’s work is harmless to the imperial establishment from which unmanned aerial assault vehicles / weapons / drones fly and attack. It wasn’t like the Iranian-American whose book of poetry, in short, is both an inquiry of civilian self and interrogation of military state, and fosters a new understanding of the language that constitutes both. It wasn’t like the Palestinian-American who opened with a poem titled “Devotional” written after a Muslim prayer “because it makes sense for me to start with this and not a drone poem.” It wasn’t like the Jewish-American whose poem ends with a mother speaking: “My son was not with the enemy. He was in this kitchen with me, making labna from scratch. The yogurt still fresh on his wrist.” Not only did that poet imagine the afflicted son’s body, she imagined the yogurt on his wrist, a new image given as offering in return for the poet’s audacious representation of violence in aesthetic form.
Maybe that’s what I’m asking for: an offering. Maybe poets and artists need to justify their re-creation of violence, violences that affected real bodies and continue to affect bodies. If the representation is not justified, it is not in line with an ethics that we need. Maybe what I’m asking for is an intersectional ethics. And my pointing out of the ethnicities of the speakers is an attempt to identify trends. All I’m doing, really, is stating the facts.
I.F.’s work appears to want to continue to reside in a Modernist sterility of American poetry, in which the poem is separate from the poet, in which the poem delicately eschews the boundary between subject and object, in which the poem is a manifestation of our technological progress and modernization. However, this Modernist manifestation of progress has a continent-sized blind spot shaped like a mass grave that continues to fill. And I.F. acts like that blind spot isn’t there, continues to call themselves a “freak” of poetics for being obsessed with an “American secret” that is no secret at all to the people attached to bodies being attacked by “This American Secret” or the people whose cousins live in those bodies, whose relatives and friends and lovers and countrypeople live in those bodies killed by This American Secret.
In that room where I.F. and the other poets were speaking, I met George Abraham. I’ve been looking for poets whose work straddles both the personal self and the historical self. And I’ve long-been an avid reader of writing by Palestinians; first, because we need to read the work of Palestinians period.
More specifically, there’s a sensitivity to truth and the layers between perception and truth and an aesthetic nuance to the work of Palestinians which, as an oeuvre, varies so greatly that it dare not sustain any kind of certainty in generalization; second, to immerse myself in Palestinian subjectivity and learn to be an ally; and third, because within the Palestinian collective experience is both a prescient futurism of the nation-state/the unstated nation and a razor-sharp critique of a calcified past which then turns to dust and it is this lens that is the one we need to read through and see through.
“You are a lie,” says one of his poems titled “Demon-Possessed Poet attempts self-Exorcism.” Rarely do we hear the voice of the Palestinian in diaspora, the person in diaspora in general, who denies their own realness to themselves; we don’t often hear the voice of the internal monologue from the subterraneous reaches of existential self-denial created by genocide and ethnic cleansing and colonization. George Abraham not only gives voice to this voice of self-denial, he actively represents it and the erasure it necessitates; he does this on the page in content and form and he exorcises this voice on the page in content and form.
Throughout Al-Youm, we get a Queer Palestinian Poet negotiating his own experience and existence with the forces that try to erase him, the forces being 1) the overwhelming sea of American Assimilationist Whiteness that seeks to subsume light-skinned bodies into the history-denying folds of white supremacy, 2) Zionism, which expelled him and his family from their land and expelled Palestine from the map and seeks to expel Palestine from memory and reality and seeks to expel Palestine from the Palestinian until both are no longer, 3) his own propensity to disbelieve in his own existence, an arguably universal human condition driven by various particulars; in his case these are: inherited traumas, mental health, queerphobia, physical illness.
George Abraham brings to the page the erasures that others have made upon his narrative as a Palestinian. In his multi-part poem titled Inheritance, he replaces
auntie used to say the settlers took the hilltops & aqui
fers first. uprooted the olive trees & waged BIOLOGICAL
WARFARE against our lineage: reclamation. of INHERITANCE.
auntie used to say the settlers took the hilltops & aqui reclamation. of INHERITANCE.
fers first. uprooted the olive trees & waged BIOLOGICAL
WARFARE against our lineage:
[THE SETTLERS FLEE RELIGIOUS PERSECUTION,
MUCH LIKE PILGRIM SETTLERS FLED FOR AMERICA.
YOU DARE PAINT US COLONIZER FOR RECLAIMING
OUR PROMISED LAND?]
The originals are in a section of the poem titled I. Textbook Fragments and the erasures and additions are in the section titled IV.  [ZIONIST NOTES & REVISIONS]. In the same poem:
baba takes over shop at age 20 after sido dies of a heart
attack. his mother, widowed in this country where no one
speaks her language.
sido [ ] a [ ]
country where no one speaks
Throughout the poems, Abraham writes from the body, from the queer body and the body that desires, the body that desires to understand itself and the world it exists within. It brings to the page the erasures that Palestinians have endured both geopolitically and interpersonally. Those that queer folks have endured. That humans have endured. Throughout the book, there is no separation from the body, no mediated distance between the body and what happens to it; actually, the attempts at separation are embodied in the erasures, which are physically manifest on the page. If there was an erasure or a separation, the page gives us evidence of it. And the problems we face in this “post-factual” world where The Donald Trump has his pudgy fingers wrapped around the Nuclear Football are arguably the result of the proliferations of selective histories and the ardent separation of the physical body from the historical body, for some, for many; this world of “alternative facts” is because the empire has failed to document the erasures and make them available for public viewing. What George Abraham does is reveal the origins and the erasures and the struggles in the process therein. And he does this with breathtaking poetry, by introducing innovative poetic forms, by co-mingling beauty and tragedy and anger and desire and confusion and renewed certainty all into one gorgeous book, Al-Youm–The Day.
As we are ushered into a rapidly globalizing world in which transnational sensibilities make more sense than narrow mononationalisms and patriotisms, George Abraham’s articulations teach us how to deal with the future human condition and this work is fundamentally rooted in the past, present, and future of Palestine. It is placed in a place that has endured erasure and is also resisting erasure; because of this, it is both past, present, and future; it is here and it is not here; it is survival despite; it is survival regardless.
One of my favorite poems in the collection is “ode to my swollen, mono-infected Spleen.” I want to post the whole thing but instead I’ll digitize my favorite lines and hope that people buy the book.
–how could you expect to house
All this fluid & turbulence & history without
Imploding? Don’t they know you have a
Whole country in you? How can
You expect completeness when home is
A borderless entity; when you fit the
Infinite into a single body–how do
They look at you & not see God in that
Swell and undertow?
These lines exhaust and overwhelm me. That this work comes from a young poet who just graduated college is humbling and exciting. This is the kind of work that expands poetics in both content and form. This is the kind of work that lends to us an ethics in a dangerously unethical world. To the status quo, yes, George Abraham’s book is harmful. To our understanding of our own humanity, it is not only helpful, it is necessary.