Wrestling Spirits: A Conversation with Philip Metres

August 4, 2021   •   By Cameron A. Lawrence

THE CINEMATIC OPENING of Philip Metres’s latest poetry collection, Shrapnel Maps, leads us into the shade of a tulip tree, heavy with blossoms and the grief of a seemingly unresolvable conflict: “They wanted to tear down the tulip tree, our neighbors, last year,” the speaker says. “It throws shade over their vegetable patch, the only tree in our backyard. We said no.” And yet, that “no” is eventually answered by the growl of a chainsaw. It’s the kind of conflict any homeowner dreads unfolding on an all too intimate domestic stage. The speaker’s wife protests, the landscapers point a finger for their inaction, and the neighbors seethe while their vegetables 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 world, two desires, two histories that might become — even in the poem’s small world of fenced backyards? In this way, the poem “One Tree” serves deftly as both introduction and also metaphor to the more than 150 pages that follow. The invitation of Shrapnel Maps is to ask us as readers to stand, uncomfortably, with the poet between two opposing experiences of reality, each with its long record of pain and longing for liberation: the seemingly impassable gulf between Israelis and Palestinians. “Always the same story,” the speaker of “One Tree” continues, “two people, one tree, not enough land or light or love.” 

Metres, by rendering the stories of both Palestinian and Israeli individuals and families through imaginative, formally experimental — and often multi-vocal — lyric and persona poems, invites the reader to consider that all conflict is at its heart personal. In the world of Shrapnel Maps, the poet’s own Cleveland, Ohio (and by extension any city we call home), meets Jerusalem and Gaza, Jaffa and Bethlehem via Wadi al-Nar. One of the most compelling things about the book is this personal, empathetic emphasis — and the sense of vulnerability it asks of readers.

True to Metres’s work as a professor at John Carroll University, where he directs the interdisciplinary program for peace, justice, and human rights, Shrapnel Maps is a project of radical listening and compassion. For as much as it reveals about the complex nature of the violence between Palestinians and Israelis, the book operates as a kind of mirror for the polarization in our own communities and the willingness or not to refuse simplistic judgments and answers.

This interview is adapted from my correspondence with Metres, who I consider a friend, over the better part of two years. What began as a dialogue between us about the interplay of faith and art and the struggle it engenders eventually came to include Shrapnel Maps, which is as much an artifact of Metres’s sustained engagement with the issues facing the Middle East as it is evidence of his wrestling for integrity between his religious and artistic identities.


CAMERON ALEXANDER LAWRENCE: I read that you tend to keep your Catholicism quiet. It reminded me of something you shared on social media a while back about Andy Warhol — how he had grown up in a Byzantine Catholic parish, which you felt had directly influenced his art — the iconography in particular. I’m betting it would surprise most people that Warhol continued to be a practicing Catholic in some fashion, even at the height of his fame, but kept his faith hidden to the point of not receiving the Sacraments, for fear of being recognized during his frequent attendance of Mass. For people like Warhol and so many of us, the Church isn’t an easy home.

PHILIP METRES: Going to the Warhol Museum in July 2018 and seeing the photo of the iconostasis of St. John Chrysostom in Pittsburgh, where Warhol attended as a child, filled me with emotion. Serving as an altar boy at St. John, a Melkite Church, I was fascinated with the stern and beautiful faces looking back at me, the otherworldly singing (in English, Arabic, and Greek), the overflow of incense, the endless parading in gold-stitched cloth. Of course, I thought instantly, now I see his Pop Art Marilyns, his massive Elvises, as pop cultural versions of that holy wall of faces. I do find Warhol’s art both fascinating and disturbing, a dark mirror on the materialism of our culture. And though his own hunger for fame seemed craven at times, he also did something beautiful through his art: he elevated the outcasts of society and made them into stars — showing that LBGTQ people deserved attention and love. 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 gay person, he faced a faith and Church that saw his orientation as sinful. I come away from encountering Warhol again with a sense of the mystery of being anyone — how full of facets we are, how multiple, how irreducible.

“Struggle” is an important word when it comes to being a person of any faith, particularly when connected to an ancient religious tradition, which often seems out of step with the modern world. And perhaps all the more as an artist of faith. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the image of Jacob wrestling with the angel in Genesis as a metaphor for this experience. When Jacob struggled against the angel through the long night and refused to let go until he received a blessing, that blessing came with a wounded hip, a limp. It’s moving to consider how Warhol (for all the reasons you mention) might have wrestled, to live in that tension, his whole life, still waiting and wanting to receive, bearing the wound. I’m always interested to discover people who are trying to inhabit that difficult, middle space as artists. Have you had experiences that suggest being quieter about your religious life is necessary?

Learning and working in secular environments have made me want to be solicitous of those who have other ideas about the nature of reality. When there was a Mass at Loyola Academy, our Jesuit high school, my friend Atanu said, “Time for the brainwashing!” He said it as a joke, but he meant it as well — for him, Mass was nakedly ideological. That made a big impression on me.

My reticence also comes from knowing the history of the Church. Constantinian Christianity (imperial authoritarian Christianity, as opposed to the early Christian communitarian pacifism) has a long history of forced conversion, torture, and violent suppression of other faiths. I want to articulate my faith in a way that models my own longings and struggles, rather than in a way that is about evangelization, doctrinal correctness, and moral judgment of others. I’m sorry to say that sometimes I’ve found conversations among other Christians to be limited, hamstrung, too yielding to authority and tradition.

If I’m being honest, I find some God talk to be suffocating. I want the God behind the God of religion. The God at the core of the mystery of existence. But I also find an entirely secular existence to lack sustenance and slake, though I know some atheists with whom I’d rather spend eternity than religious people. Either way, I feel a bit like an outsider, and that’s not a bad place to be. It’s easier to keep my eyes open.

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

I love the rhythms of the Mass: the singing; the “calling to mind our sins” and asking for mercy; the attention to the word and all its poetic, narrative, and parabolic powers in the Bible; the homily; the profession of faith; the kiss of peace; the gathering at table for the Eucharist. When I was a child, like every child, I was bored as hell by it, but over the years, I’ve become rapt by the recurring stories, the rhythms of liturgical seasons, this enigmatic and beautiful and vexing shimmering figure at the heart of it.

It would be difficult for me to pinpoint what is Catholic — whether Roman Catholic, the faith of my early upbringing, of Eastern Catholic (Melkite), the rite that we began to attend with my father as he entered into further communion with his Arab heritage. But what I loved about the Melkite Church was its “smells and bells.” Church was a sensuous experience, replete with fragrant incense generously shared, unceasing singing, the flashing golden robes and crosses — like Yeats’s vision of Byzantium. It’s at once utterly primitive and flagrantly beautiful. “I did not know,” the Tsar’s emissary was to have written after visiting Byzantium, “whether I was in heaven or on earth.”

Of course, the radical in me wonders whether all that gold should be melted down and traded for bread or job training or mercy for the poor. But that’s the struggle again, isn’t it?

My wife noticed that, in a radio interview, that I used the phrase, “I was raised Catholic,” and that I didn’t say I am Catholic. I’ve been thinking about why I did that. It’s again that distancing, that struggle. It had everything to do with the recent report in Pennsylvania about the Church’s handling of predatory priests. I am completely heartbroken and angry at the institutional Church’s criminal failure to protect children. The Church needs to completely transform itself, particularly around its longtime propensity toward talking about “hatred of the world” and “the sinful flesh.” I long for a theology that throws off patriarchy, hierarchy, and clericalism, a theology that centers itself around loving the world and the body, that sees all people 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 idea of seeing “God in all things,” in that great longing to do the will of God, and in the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the ecstasy of sound and sense. In Thomas Merton’s vision (and indeed all mystics’ vision) of the unity of all, that we belong to each other. In Dorothy Day’s radical and gritty embrace of poverty, where she never separated herself from the lowly. I saw it when Pope Francis said, when interviewed for the first time as Pope, that he was first and foremost a sinner. And he said it not with the angry self-flail of the flagellant, but with a clear-eyed and kind sense of our human frailty.

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

Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all. You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.

When I shared this with my father, he said that Augustine was clearly an Arab — well, he was a Berber, but close enough. That eros!

You quoting Augustine’s Confessions makes me wonder what your go-to spiritual texts as a poet might be. Is there anything you see as essential to the intersection of your spirituality and art?

I want to wax Ignatian and say that any text can be a holy text, because it’s in the eyes of our heart that the divinity flickers as much as in creation and our articulations of it. Obviously, the Bible would be up there. I pay close attention to Scripture in Mass, of course. I’m a lector now because I want to enter into Mass more fully. This question, though, it’s such a good one. Recently, I was at a conference called “The Catholic Imagination,” and I was in awe of all the contemporary writers not afraid to be associated with this Catholic thing: George Saunders, Tobias Wolff, Alice McDermott, Fanny Howe, Patricia Hampl, Richard Rodriguez, Lawrence Joseph, Phil Klay, Paul Mariani, etc. The Catholic Imagination is such a huge tradition: 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 mean, I’m speechless just thinking about them. Even Bruce Springsteen noted in his autobiography that “I’m still part of the team.” It’s a big team. We don’t even think of all these writers and artists as part of the same tradition, but they are. It was so big (and hegemonic) that even those who weren’t part of it were responding to it. I’ve never even thought of it as a team or myself as part of it — that is to say, as opposed to anyone else’s team. I’ve never been interested in exclusivism in faith or religion. Often, I find it appalling and counter to the love at the beginning and end of things.

I see that you’ve taken up painting. Is that part of your spiritual practice of late?

Yes, though more as an embodied spirituality than an intellectualized one. I restarted my studio practice in earnest October 2018, mostly as a break from writing, which I had pushed hard and far for many years leading up to that point. Safe to say I was burned out. Painting came back into my life after a nearly 17-year hiatus. The act of painting has the effect on me of stopping the usual torrent of thoughts going through my head — it helps me forget past or future and be right where I am: in the studio, getting my hands and clothes dirty. I don’t have adequate language for how deeply this has touched me. Gerhard Richter said something that resonates with me: “To talk about paintings is not only difficult but perhaps pointless too. You can only express in words what words are capable of expressing — what language can communicate. Painting has nothing to do with that.”

There’s something freeing about working in a new art form (the Buddhistic “beginner’s mind”), as well as an art form that is liberated from “meaning” as such. So much of my poetry begins in the space of wrestling, a struggle with how things appear. For Shrapnel Maps, as much as I’m drawn to wrestle with the heart of our darknesses, I don’t want destruction, injustice, erasure, and non-meaning to be the final words. I suppose that I’m seeking in art a space where something else might be possible, a brightness we cannot yet name.

Any period of wrestling, whether in some season of life or in writing a book (which often spans multiple seasons of life), suggests to me a story. I’m curious about the kind of season or seasons that led to Shrapnel Maps. What was happening in your life? How did you arrive at this long and complex and beautiful and often heartbreaking collection of poems?

Shrapnel Maps really began with my sister’s astonishing stories, having come back from a summer at Birzeit University in Ramallah in the early 1990s, trying to piece together what was happening to Palestinians. Her witness was what launched my own investigation — which has cohered into many voices and narratives, and the deconstruction of narratives. The poems began to be published in the last 10 years, but I held on to this book for a long time. Why? Because I know how fiercely people feel about Israel and Palestine, the Holy Land. (Is there any land that is not holy? Or, as Naomi Shihab Nye once wrote, “Are people the only holy land?”) I didn’t want to commit the usual sin of gross misrepresentation and erasure — of Arabs or Jews, of Israelis or Palestinians — and so I wanted to sit with the poems for a long time, trying to imagine their reception, watching them change as I listened to them. I hope I do the people and the place some justice, knowing how much injustice and violence has already been done. There will be criticisms of the book, no doubt, and of me. That comes with the territory. My only hope is that everyone will wrestle, with me, in the hard thickets there.

What sort of future, in your mind, does Shrapnel Maps seek for Palestinians and Israelis?

I repeat my mantra: to find the place where peace and justice meet. There are so many griefs — the fact that the UN has predicted that Gaza would be literally uninhabitable by 2020, means that the future seems impossible. In some respects, apocalypse has already arrived. The same could be said for dozens of indigenous peoples throughout the world, for whom apocalypse has already come.

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

And where does faith fit into all of this? Where is hope? Where is God? How can we imagine past the past? It doesn’t happen without first accounting for the past. But it can’t get lost in the past. What if the ancient is also the future, as Augustine said of God: “Beauty ever ancient and ever new”? That is the question that Shrapnel Maps moves toward.

It seems that one of the ways the book does that work of listening and imagining is through memory — of remembering and commemorating — exposing us to the traumas and experience of people, and often families, on both sides of the conflict. I see it not so much as a kind of Western or American gaze but an act of empathy — especially to see how the poems enter the lives and ostensibly the hearts of figures we’d typically label deeply problematic. I’m thinking especially of the suicide bomber and the pain his actions bring to a café full of people, who the book also reveals to us in an intimate way. I don’t want to use the word “humanize” here for how it suggests that someone in that position isn’t fully human — an idea the book works hard to dismantle. But I admire the way Shrapnel Maps goes about looking at the thing beneath the thing and sometimes even to layers beyond that, like excavating an ancient city that’s been built over many times. To pull all this off, largely through lyric poems, must have taken a great deal of synthesis between research and experience. I wondered if you could talk about the process of going so far, and deep, into the hearts and minds of people who call each other enemy and arrive at a place of love, as poet, for both.

Thank you. I’m glad you experienced the book in that way. It was a journey, to be sure, into trying to understand lives that I cannot know. All I can say is that the work chose me, the voices arrived (through research and the imagination, two different kinds of listening), as I tried to make sense of the thicket of reality in which Palestinians and Israelis find themselves — in which, in perhaps less extreme ways, we all find (or lose) ourselves. The book doesn’t speak for everyone, for sure. It’s just one attempt to do that work of listening.

Reading Shrapnel Maps, I can’t help but think of your work with students in Northern Ireland — the annual trips you co-lead to introduce them, in a firsthand way, to The Troubles of the latter 20th century, with all the complexities and enduring effects on the Irish people. I’d guess you’d say that engendering listening, as an essential act of peace building, is at the heart of that project. It strikes me that doing this work of listening is something those of us in the United States could benefit from learning how to do, polarized as we are, caught between contradictory narratives of what this country is and should become. What might your experience in researching and writing this book, along with your efforts in Northern Ireland, have to say to us now about how we can build our own future?

Your question reminds me how often listening itself is co-opted as a political posture — so-called “listening sessions” that perform a listening more about the virtue-signaling listener than about encountering the speaker and their story. To encounter radical alterity is to risk being changed. Most of us would prefer to turn away. There have been many times during my conversations around Shrapnel Maps where I just wanted to hide. I read one review of the book that tumbled me into a depression. After that, I would leave emails unopened for a couple of days when I knew that I would face that radical alterity. I have learned, again and again, that there are depths of human pain that these poems touch, the suffering of another, that I cannot know, but sometimes near, and each time that has happened, I felt that there could be no lower place. All of which to say: This is not easy work. For listener or speaker. But it’s the only way I know. And the silence is something that needs to be broken.

Studying, engaging with, and writing about Northern Ireland (or the North of Ireland, depending on your perspective) has taught me that even in that living laboratory of peacebuilding, one must be mindful of any triumphalist narrative of peace. Still, the process that Northern Ireland has undertaken is worth examining and learning from.

Now that this book has come into the world, I’m curious if you have a sense of where you’re headed next in terms of your work. Do you think you’ll continue the work of Sand Opera and Shrapnel Maps, or are you feeling led somewhere else?

If I’m not delusional, I think the next book of poems is already emerging. I wanted to do something more intimate, more personal, more loving and located. It does range a bit (I can’t help myself), but I do think my spiritual and poetic work is to create refuges in language, a dwelling place.


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