Philip Metres

Author's Statement: On Diaspora, Exile, and Poetry

I am the descendent of refugees who fled violence and starvation. On my father’s side, my great-grandfather Iskandar went into exile when he fell afoul of the Ottoman Empire in Dayr al-Qamar, Lebanon, in 1907. The family wound up in Salina Cruz, Mexico, where he set up a dry good store until 1923, when he was brutally murdered by bandits, after which the family fled to El Norte, in the United States. On my mother’s side, our Irish ancestors fled West Cork, Ireland, in the mid-19th century, because of An Gorta Mor, the Great Hunger, the product of another empire’s callous disregard for the people it rules.

Like many Americans, I’m the meeting of migrations. There’s nothing particularly novel in my experience, I don’t think, except perhaps in how I carry it. As the first born of the first born, I had an intimacy with my father’s family and its numerous migrations caused a hunger in me not only to know the lands where my people come from, but also the stories that they could and could not tell. The first generation often are the survivors. The second generation are the witnesses to that survival. I heard the stories and, in the face of the erasure that assimilation causes, felt the need to write them down so that future generations of our family don’t forget—not only where we come from, but how we came, and how we carry those places. I wish I could talk to my grandparents again, to ask them all the stories I didn’t have the time or foresight to ask. Now, I commune with them only on the page, the medium between us the whiteness of a screen. The language that comes is not my own, but comes through me, and they are with me when I write.

My sister, brother, and I all left the U.S. as part of our coming-of-age—my sister to Palestine and later in the Foreign Service, my brother to Nicaragua, and I to Russia. My sister’s marriage to a Palestinian man utterly changed my life, as I write extensively about in Shrapnel Maps. When our family gathered for the holidays this year, we taught my brother’s young children how to roll grape leaves, waraq enab, what many know as dolmas. They were adept at it because they had been rolling tamales where they’ve grown up biculturally. My attraction to Russia began when Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire.” I could not believe that an entire people was evil. I had known Orientalism in my bones, the demonization of the peoples from Palestine to Iran that happened every day in U.S. media and popular culture. When the Gulf War of 1991 took place, the media coverage and climate in the country felt crazy to me. Everyone seemed to be celebrating mass murder. I went to Russia on a fellowship to study Russian poetry, but I mostly went as a kind of exile, a penitent from American empire. In Russia, I discovered beauty and suffering in ways that I never knew before. After a year living in Moscow and traveling through Russia, I returned, but I left a part of myself there. I continue to translate the Russian poets that I read and met there, hoping to carry across something of their vision and wisdom, forged in the crucible of that benighted country.

In a time of another war, Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine, Russian poets either leave the country, like Sergey Gandlevsky, to the Republic of Georgia; or maintain an inner exile like the generations previous, like Dimitri Psurtsev, hunkering down, trying to persist in a dignified life. The three Russian poems in this selection were originally published in 2014, but remain equally timely. It is Dima’s hope, and my own, that poetry may have a way to alleviate the misery and offer a counterweight to oppression. I hope that, in addition to uplifting Ukrainian voices, we offer an ear to Russians—and, indeed, all people—who resist the siren song of empire and chauvinism.

Poetry Folio

Tweets to Iskandar from the Capitol, One Hundred Years After His Death

A Letter to Dima Living at His Dacha in Pravda That I Began Two Decades Ago, But Now That Winter is Coming Again, I Resolve to Complete

[Time, keep your ear keen] by Dimitri Psurtsev (translated by Philip Metres)

The Well and The Stars by Dimitri Psurtsev (translated by Philip Metres)

[In the cloister—where tourists] by Dimitri Psurtsev (translated by Philip Metres)

Philip Metres is the author of ten books, including Shrapnel Maps (2020), The Sound of Listening: Poetry as Refuge and Resistance (2018), and Sand Opera (2015). His work has garnered the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Lannan Fellowship, two NEAs, seven Ohio Arts Council Grants, the Hunt Prize, the Adrienne Rich Award, three Arab American Book Awards, among other awards. He is professor of English and director of the Peace, Justice, and Human Rights program at John Carroll University, and Core Faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts.