What if orchards could tell the histories? What if lizards, stones, rivers, hand-dug wells were talked to when compiling archives? After reading and listening to testimonies by Nahida Halaby Gordon, whose family was forced from their home in Jaffa, Palestine, in 1948, Philip Metres composed haunting poems for “Returning to Jaffa,” drawing on her memories and witness. They’re particularly searing to read during days when annexation of the occupied West Bank is bandied about like a bargaining chip and people make decisions for other people’s lands with no just resolution. I looked long and hard for a phrase like “Arab-Jewish cooperation” in a poem. It’s not impossible. Selected by Naomi Shihab Nye
Ode to the Oranges of Jaffa
By Philip Metres
My father used to buy the ones too large to ship. We’d scoop the insides and eat it and then make jack-o’-lanterns out of them.
Nahida Halaby Gordon
For you’re oval & thick-peeled, easy
to remove. For you’re seedless & tough
skinned & suitable for export.
For your juice starts sweet, then runs
bitter. For naranj comes from Sanskrit,
meaning “fruit like elephants.” Memory
the earth you come from, & perfume
the whole city, when wind pages through
your leaves. For by 1845, thirty-eight million
shipped to farther shores. Then symbol
of Arab-Jewish cooperation, before the war,
then orange engine of the new Israel.
For the last Jew to grow them now says, to cut
the orchard down would be to cut out my heart.
Naomi Shihab Nye is the Young People’s Poet Laureate of the Poetry Foundation in Chicago. Her latest book is “Cast Away,” from Greenwillow Books. Philip Metres is a professor of English and the director of the Peace, Justice and Human Rights Program at John Carroll University in Cleveland. He is a recent Guggenheim Fellowship recipient and the author of 10 books of poetry, including “Returning to Jaffa” (Diode Editions, 2019) and “Shrapnel Maps” (Copper Canyon Press, 2020).
Illustration by R.O. Blechman.