The Body and the Butterfly: On Fady Joudah’s “Tethered to Stars”

January 21, 2022   •   By Valerie Duff-Strautmann

Tethered to Stars

Fady Joudah

The poem is always incomplete, the butterflies make it whole.

 — Mahmoud Darwish, “To a Young Poet” (trans. Fady Joudah)

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INSIDE THE PANDEMIC, a poem that rings most clearly in my ears is Elizabethan poet and playwright Thomas Nashe’s “A Litany in Time of Plague,” which ends each stanza with the refrain “I am sick, I must die. / Lord, have mercy on us.” But we can be too close to something to read about it directly, so we go in search of the metaphor, which is what I found in Fady Joudah’s Tethered to Stars. The body. The butterfly. The constellations and the cosmos.

Perhaps I expected a more forthright verse in times of Trump, climate change, and pandemic, from a doctor. After all, a year before the publication of Tethered to Stars, Fady Joudah, who practices internal medicine in Houston, did, in a poem titled “4/12/2020,” published in Alice Quinn’s anthology, Together in a Sudden Strangeness (2020), lay it all quite bare:

To separate the condition of siege
From the strain of encountering humans
At the high noon of death,

To make a plaything of hope.

It is a strange prelude to Joudah’s fifth book, this poem about a doctor facing a tidal wave of death, creating hope where there are no resources. He continues: “Throw down the gauntlet. / A mask falls off another mask // until there’s none to don. / We manufacture more.” I have no way of knowing when the poems in Tethered were written — I only know that Quinn’s anthology preceded its publication — but it is hard not to read much of Tethered in light of the starkness of 2020–’21.

That passage from “4/12/2020” was either absorbed into or absorbed from “Domicile, House, Cusp,” where it was punctuated further with section breaks (or stars). The “you” in “Domicile, House, Cusp,” is not as easily identifiable, as the poem pushes beyond the doctor/patient relationship. Couched in an exchange between an I and you, the ideas expand: “More air conducts me to you than me to me. / More bone conducts me to me than me to you. // Air is the distance. Bone is the difference. / And a nuance in the sand is Daedalus.” “And a nuance in the sand” is classic Joudah — the music of the line brilliant with internal rhyme (as are the lines that precede it). Sand and Daedalus invoke the Mediterranean, the ancient Mediterraneans, and the Icarus myth’s themes of grief, human ambition, and folly.

Joudah has always favored lyric over exposition, but this book is more opaque than The Earth in the Attic (2008), Alight (2013), or Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance (2018). Many of the poems are titled with signs of the zodiac or contain an astrological conceit, but they’re really the mask falling from another mask. A poem like “Leo” (here in full) starts as a conversation between two people (possibly a husband and wife):

Do you think we’ll ever get butterflies to lay eggs
            in our backyard after what I did to the caterpillars
            on the lemon tree?

I think you inhaled some of the larva on that tree
            and they got to your head.

Or my gut. They matured, migrated up
            my esophagus, slid down into my lungs, secreting a cough
            reflex suppressant as the worms hung upside down
            like bats, my alveoli their makeshift cocoons.

You’d better extract that cough syrup soon,
            it’ll be a sensation over-the-counter.

The newly formed butterflies would gently ride my exhalations
            but not all would survive the exodus.

You probably wouldn’t either. Your chest might explode
            or you might implode with asphyxiation.

Maybe. And maybe the butterflies are vested 
            in preserving their host.

You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Whenever you open your mouth
            a butterfly enchants us.

The butterfly has been a key image for Joudah throughout his books, in poems that recollect his Palestinian heritage and invoke the work of Mahmoud Darwish, whom Joudah translated, bringing the poems of The Butterfly’s Burden into English. Joudah’s poems occasionally converse with Darwish’s, and while the lives of Darwish and Joudah are very different, their displacement is similar — Joudah grew up the child of Palestinian refugees and spent his formative years in Libya and Saudi Arabia. Here, in “Leo,” he writes of the tenacity of the larvae, who will transform into caterpillars, the destroyers of the lemon tree, before becoming butterflies. The larvae might either finish him off (whether we read the “I” and “you” as a domestic scene or the “I” and “you” as both Joudah) or turn him into the breather of butterflies, as he lives as both invader and metamorphosed host. Importantly, in the closing image, it is the butterfly-breathing enchanter who emerges —  at least as a hoped for possibility.

It’s hard to ignore the elements of infection pervasive in the poem.

For much of the book, Joudah has erased his placement in it. In the past, the reader has been able to locate Joudah in his Houston home or office, or in Gaza. He has given identifiers and locators — his daughter and her bicycle in Texas, or the willows, olives, and cypresses of the Mediterranean. Tethered, for the most part, pulls away from this specificity and moves into space and thought. The body and the butterfly take on wider significance, as a constellation does, holding a shape but letting years and myriad stories flow through (as in “Pisces, Capricorn, or Solstice”). That doesn’t mean that Joudah has been a poet of a specific time and place in previous collections, but that he’s pushing the boundaries of what he’s already begun, giving the poems’ “tethers” even more slack.

Not all of the poems in this collection hover in the cosmos — in fact, there are some poems that return very pointedly to his family, the Middle East, and the current moment, as in “Sandra Bland, Texas”: “For you I name / this town, and after every woman / the police killed, a town.” In the poem, Joudah explains that the poet’s work is for Bland, for the displaced, for those who suffer and die:

Will you excuse me
for naming a poem
an imaginary place that,
as with any home,
one doesn’t inhabit
all alone, even if
in a coffin one is
all that there is?

Joudah is at his best, as in his other collections, at bridging the personal and the imaginary, the intersections of poetry, life, and science, and the insights these afford. Against the backdrop of a Texas storm, “House of Mercury” imagines a diverse community coming together to clean up the mess in an Arab family’s yard and to soften a father’s distress:

On the second day, I cut up the rest of the branches,
deepened the earth for the fig, enjoyed a long lazy
lunch with my parents, and on the way home heard
a radio report on whether the sky is bluer
during a pandemic. The third day
I took my son and daughter back,
we bundled up the heaps, nursed the flower beds,
delighted in another languid lunch,
hummus, falafel, shakshuka
followed by tea and stories about fear
that comes to nothing. The kids said it was the best falafel
they’d ever had. And Mom said that going forward
her morning glories will get the light they deserve.

Here is climate change. Here is the pandemic. And yet, both allow moments of community and hope. But hope is tricky, and in other poems one feels how the moment could go another way. “Every Hour Has an Animal” holds the vagaries both of the pandemic and modern warfare:

            I am     when I am
an almond blossom, a flower
doesn’t kill another bloom.

Among the few that do
release their toxins,
the wind does not discriminate.

In these poems one feels Joudah’s keen awareness of life and death, and the vastness of his associations.

In her introduction to Joudah’s first collection The Earth in the Attic, selected for the Yale Younger Prize in 2008, Louise Glück wrote: “As an Arab in the West, as a doctor who practices emergency medicine, as a poet writing in English: for a number of reasons, in a variety of situations, Joudah finds himself not at home, not among his people,” referring to the book as “a book of exile.” In Tethered, there is exile, but there is also return, admittance, equilibrium.

The poem “Venus Cycle,” a sensuous work written to the beloved and to the world, ends: “The water was clear. / We stayed in it.” Venus, born of the sea, or shining brightly in the night sky, emerges, but the mortal I and you remain in primordial soup. Water, for Joudah, is life, and the poems in Tethered reflect on our position in the universe:

We’re more water than blood,
and more than water, a sea
isn’t a river, just ask the rain.

We’re other worms
for other silk roads,

a theory unified,
a dream of nucleotides.

Joudah has an impeccable ear, and the poem is a song that rides on its internal rhymes and half-rhymes, assonance and consonance. He has a scientist’s mind, landing on the unusual coupling of “unified” with “nucleotides.” His ability to see the body for what it is — water, blood, food for worms, a mass of nucleotides, adding up to our fully functioning biosphere and microbiome, both clarifies and mystifies.

But that human position, for Joudah, is always tinged with anti-Arab sentiment, in the wariness of strangers and patients in “The Holy Embraces the Holy,” or in a poem like “Gemini,” that hearkens back to Darwish, in which Joudah describes walking by a demolished house:

How long since I’ve been out walking? A message appeared
on my phone: an American literary magazine
calling for a special issue on Jerusalem, deadline approaching,
art and the ashes of light. At the construction site
the live oak that appeared my age when I became a father
was now being dismembered.

This poem echoes Joudah’s translation of Darwish’s “The Cypress Broke,” the cypress symbolic of Palestine. In Darwish’s poem, the reasons for the tree’s breakage are tossed from speaker to speaker, but in Joudah’s poem, the brokenness of the oak is an ugly assimilation, part of the American way: “The permit to snuff the tree / was legally obtained. The new house is likely destined / for a nice couple with children. Their children / won’t know there was a tree.” In this way, Joudah watches himself erased, with the tree: “I paused to watch / the live oak brutalized limb by limb until its trunk stood / hanged, and the wind couldn’t bear the place.” The narrative for Darwish and the cypress is “[n]either mystery nor clarity, / the cypress broke, and that is all / there is to it: the cypress broke!” For Joudah, the life and death of the oak is not so straightforward — again, he offers us metamorphosis: “Farewell for days on end. They were digging a hole / around the tree’s base to uproot and chop it / then repurpose its life.” The final change is brutal, not joyful, but still leaves the reader with hope of new purpose, and perhaps recalls the throwing down of the gauntlet and the manufacturing of more masks in “4/12/2020.” Continuity and fortitude despite overwhelming loss.

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Valerie Duff-Strautmann’s book reviews have appeared in Salamander, the Boston GlobePN Review, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor to The Critical Flame.