Remi Kanazi’s second, and most recent collection of poetry, Before the Next Bomb Drops: Rising Up from Brooklyn to Palestine, could be summed up with the line: “the world is a messed up place,” the first line of the poem, “Nothing to Worry About.” Is the line fitting? Yes, and, no. Most poems, after all, are connected by themes of exile, displacement, colonialism, homelessness, violence, and police brutality, themes that, at first glance seem bleak. Nonetheless, to the attentive reader, these themes are the building blocks of a larger argument, an argument that calls for human solidarity against oppression of all kinds.
In addition to the formal rejection of all punctuation, one of the admirable elements in this collection is Kanazi’s ambition to address social issues that are relevant in today’s world, issues that are often ignored because they are too “difficult” to talk about, or because no one seems to care enough to risk their voice. This is not the case with Kanazi. Rooted in spoken word poetics, his voice is loud and clear. If we detect traces of anger and frustration in some of these poems, it might be precisely because no one talks about the issues that Kanazi finds important. These poems, in short, are exercises in Kanazi’s search for truth. It will be easy for some critics to label Kanazi as an “angry Brown poet,” but once we read the book as a whole, we realize that, instead of trying to be divisive, he wants to establish a relationship of solidarity with the reader. One way Kanazi does this is by urging us to:
keep that finger pointed
and work on your own shit
because I would rather be labeled
an angry Brown poet
than be an apathetic American
who turned away just long enough
to never actually have to give a damn. (“Tone It Down”)
Kanazi wants us to give a damn, to open our eyes to what happens in our backyards, in our neighborhoods, in the countries of origin of our fellow citizens.
As the son of Palestinian refugees, one of the central questions that Kazani tries to address throughout the collection is: What happens when a land is colonized? More specifically, what happens to a country, in this case, Palestine, after it is colonized by Israel, a people he deems as invaders, “terrorizers”? The first poem, “Nakba,” tries to give us an answer:
not from here
plant flags, call it home
rename cities and villages
memory that this
is not theirs
This is what happens – a systematic erasure of those who first made the land home. As the poem progresses, however, we also encounter a testament against forgetting:
we will not forget
veins like roots
of olive trees
we will return.
The simile’s sentiment is echoed throughout the collection, one that evokes endurance and survival. Following through with these motifs, Kanazi reminds us of the endurance of the exiled Palestinian in the poem, “Refugee”:
we are the boat
returning to dock
we are the footprints
on the northern trail
we are the iron
coloring the soil
Lines such as these resist injustice; in their concreteness, they stand loud against erasure.
In poem after poem, Kanazi condemns the oppressive systems that are in place, that rob us of peace. For example, in the poem, “Nothing to Worry About,” he writes:
2.1 million dollars a year
to put a soldier in Afghanistan
35 thousand to lock a Black kid
up with racist laws
a third of that on education
and only 15 thousand dollars
on a minimum wage job.
This poem returns us to the beginning – “The world is a messed up place” – a claim not made by the poet, but by they who profit from the world’s rottenness, they who keep ignoring what really matters. To Kanazi what matters is to find a way to make his enemies understand what they have done to him and his people: the bombings, the displacement, the violence. Impossible to get along, says the speaker of the poem, “Out of Season.” At least not until Israel acknowledges its transgressions: “your furnace is heated with our wood / table covered with our cloths / your figs are plucked from our tress / and you want us to coexist?” This idea is continued in the poem, “An Empty Vessel,” in which the speaker tells the colonizer: “you are not the victim / not the narrator / don’t get to tell us / how to process our pain.”
Because social media, and the media in general, sometimes tries to dictate how we must feel, Kanazi criticizes it. In poems such as “Lit Up” and “Until It Isn’t,” Kanazi draws attention to the media’s failure to report the truth when it comes to the bombing of Palestine. It neglects to report the violence perpetrated against innocent people. Similar in theme, in the poem, “Until It Isn’t,” Kanazi denounces the world’s love affair with violence, violence transmitted via social media. In fragmented lines, he writes:
death becomes exciting
tolls, pictures, videos
hearts racing to break.
Kanazi condemns the voyeur of violence and the disconnection from reality that ensues. The poem suggests that we become desensitized: “death becomes / exciting / until it isn’t / until boredom sets in.” Once we become bored with watching one form of violence, we get on a new ride, “somewhere else / more captivating.”
The poem, “Lit Up,” compares a city’s bombing to “fireworks,” a thing often associated with entertainment and beauty. But there is nothing beautiful or entertaining about a bomb going off in a crowded street, nothing beautiful about seeing a woman’s skin on fire, or “deformed babies / crying out loud for help.” This is what the media often ignores, Kanazi points out. Bombs make too many dead, and there’s “not enough space in a poem / to read all [their] names.” This naming motif appears again in the poem, “Say Their Names,” a poem that closes with the lines, “say their names / so we / never repeat / never lash out again / never forget the boxes / the innocent have been / put in.” In poems such as these, Kanazi reminds us of how easy it is to ignore the violence imposed on innocent people – victims of genocide, displacement and exile. The media is unreliable to tell the truth. Social media transmits violence as entertainment. It is up to us to remember the names. It is up to us not to forget.
One of the most interesting poems in the collection is “#NoLessWorthy,” in which Kanazi highlights various forms of violence and transgressions against the undocumented and minorities. Broken into sections by asterisks, the poem alludes to Tariq Abu Khdeir and Michael Brown, and makes it clear that “combating oppression isn’t / a game you get prizes for.” Combating oppression can get you killed.
In the end, Kanazi returns home. In the poem “Layover in Palestine,” he is questioned at the border, but makes it through. He writes:
got through and felt lucky
got through and felt ashamed
got through and felt ashamed
that I felt lucky.
But he was home, and all he wanted to do was “sit and be present / feel what it is like to be home.” Overall, in this collection of poems, Before the Next Bomb Drops: Rising Up from Brooklyn to Palestine, Kanazi makes us reflect about what really matters in our lives, about why the world outside ourselves is important. Why we should love it. Why we should strive for more peace.
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Kanazi, Remi. Before the Next Bomb Drops: Rising Up from Brooklyn to Palestine. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015. 94 pp. $16.00 paper.
This review appears in Red Wedge No. 2, "Art Against Global Apartheid," available for purchase at the Red Wedge shop.
Octavio Quintanilla is the author of the poetry collection If I Go Missing (Slough Press, 2014). His work has appeared in Salamander, RHINO, Alaska Quarterly Review, Southwestern American Literature and elsewhere. He is the regional editor for Texas Books in Review and teaches Literature and Creative Writing in the M.A./M.F.A. program at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, TX.