Ian Demsky reviews Philip Metres' docupoetic chapbook Returning to Jaffa for Kenyon Review.
Documentary poetry exists on a kind of continuum. On the extreme end, you have projects like Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day, a laborious, letter-for-letter transcription of an entire issue of the New York Times—September 1, 2000. In paperback, it runs 836 pages, weighs almost exactly three pounds, and is basically unreadable in any usual sense. You might think of it as sculpture or the incidental record of a live performance.
Toward the other pole, I’d put works like C.D. Wright’s One Big Self, which she labels “an investigation.” It emerged from time spent with incarcerated people in three Louisiana state prisons. The poet here provides testimony—her own and others’—and performs the type of witnessing that can be done only on assignment, in the field. Ultimately, she serves as editor and assembler of fragments, voices and observations, stitching them into music, into poetry. “I wanted the banter, the idiom, the soft-spoken cadence of Louisiana speech to cut through the mass-media myopia,” she writes in her prose introduction.
What seems to bind the genre together is that its practitioners hold themselves to a standard of journalistic integrity to which we do not generally hold poets—courting the reader’s trust and gaining authority by drawing on the toolkit of nonfiction.
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Returning to Jaffa is a docupoetic inquiry into the mystery of what happened to Palestine’s most populous city and its municipal archives during the Nakba in 1948. Working with vintage postcards, Haganah leaflets, and personal photographs, Returning to Jaffa tells the story of one former resident of Jaffa, Nahida Halaby Gordon, a Palestinian who fled her native land during 1948, and who periodically returns to visit her childhood home, confiscated by Israel after the war.