Philip Metres has become one of the leading poets and critics discussing the position of Arab American writers in post-9/11 America. His work articulates the role pacifism could play in contemporary culture, and he is an advocate and occasional practitioner of documentary poetry.
Documentary poetry does use documents, the kind that are often thought of as “unpoetic,” but it also includes the voices of people who witnessed a cultural or historical event. A documentary poem can also include more traditional lyrical or descriptive moments. These devices are often placed side by side, in a kind of collage, to create a picture of an event that can be more complete and truthful than any other way of depicting a moment or an idea.
Metres has used this approach in his work about the Iraq War, where he attempts to approach the crimes that were perpetrated in Abu Ghraib prison through the voices of both the tortured and the torturers. But his most recent attempt at this method is in a very different kind of book, Pictures at an Exhibition: A Petersburg Album. Metres is a leading translator of contemporary Russian poetry, and in this collection (if it can be called thatit is difficult to label), he combines the fragmented voice of a tour guide describing moments in St. Petersburg, letters to contemporary Russians whose work he is trying to translate, bits on the difficulty of the Russian language, descriptive moments, and small narratives of his own experience.
In “Promenade: Nevsky Prospekt,” Metres combines some of these devices to capture a moment in one of the most famous settings in St. Petersburg:
Elixir of walking
gulyat’: to stroll
or to get drunk
we drink in the light
& light, & drink again
no negative to burn
in the urn of us, sun-
along the Prospekt.
Some of the poems are difficult to connect at first, but eventually the poets experience of St. Petersburg emerges clearly. My favorite poem is printed with one line on the bottom of each page. It describes what seem to be young lovers emerging from the famous museum:
Outside the Hermitage, drunk again
on images and the unceasing light
rivering through the profligate museums
open windows, flooding the black holes
of Rembrandts, the dark matter giving way
to ghosts of faces in burnt umber:
we lay ourselves down, surrendering to gravity,
hypnotized by the rivers thousand guises…
The young would-be lovers eat and have their deep, tenuous conversations. It seems exactly right.
Metres reads his work at UMMA as part of the U-M Zell Visiting Writers Series on Thursday, November 15.