Considering borders, marginalization, and structure with poems by Philip Metres

Today’s post is by guest author Charles Ellenbogen, who is in his 27th year of teaching. He teaches Language & Literature at Campus International High School in Cleveland, Ohio, and has recently published a teaching memoir, This Isn’t the Movies: 25 Years in the Classroom. As of this writing, he is safe at home with Kirsten, his wife, Zoe and Ezra, his children, and Lincoln and Chocolate Scales, their pets.

Students start with “Marginalia with Uprooted Olives” by Philip Metres from Shrapnel Maps (April 2020, Copper Canyon Press)


(For in the classroom) Ask students to take out a piece of paper. Tell the students they will be taking dictation. Slowly read them the first 8 lines of the poem being careful not to pause at the end of Metres’ lines. They should aim to write out how they think the poem appears on the page.

(For online teaching) Using, if possible, a format that will allow students to manipulate the words, type out the first 8 lines of the poem (avoid capital letters; do use the back slashes) not as they appear in the poem, but as if they were traditional prose. Like this –

the margin is not the margin to the margin / above, the drone trails a sound like a mower cutting up the sky / you look up

The goal is the same. Ask students to put them in the form they think Metres put them on the page.

Ask them to explain their choices. Show them how it actually appears on the page. Get a few immediate reactions to the look of the poem.

Share the actual poem. Read it out loud. Twice. Make sure students number the lines. Make sure all of the vocabulary is understood.

Essential Question:

Why do you think Metres made the choice he did about

how to put the poem on the page?

Discussion Questions:

  • What is a margin? What are some words related to ‘margin’? Review these definitions: marginalia, marginalized, marginal
  • Metres’ collection, from which this poem is taken, is called Shrapnel Maps. It addresses the Israeli / Palestinian conflict. Based on your understanding of this conflict, which group is marginalized? What makes you say so?
  • Consider the first 3 lines. Who is the ‘margin’ in the third line? In what way(s) do these lines introduce the ideas of perspective and point of view?
  • The poem is dedicated to Emad Burnat, the director of the film, 5 Broken Cameras. Here is the trailer.

In the trailer, Burnat says, “When something happens in the village, my instinct is to film

it.” Why do you think filming what’s happening is so important to him, especially when it

seems like it might be dangerous for him and his family?

  • Here is a case when filming something seemed to make no difference at all –

So does filming something really make a difference? (Extension: Ask the same question about police shootings.)

  • Why do you think Israelis destroy so many Palestinian olive trees? What do the olive trees symbolize?
  • In the trailer for 5 Broken Cameras, Burnat makes reference to the proposed “separation barrier.” The protesters chant, “No to the fence!” What are the connotations of each of those words – separation barrier vs. fence?
  • Consider the structure that Israel has put up between itself and Palestine. What word or words would you use to describe it? Why? How do you think Israelis describe it? What about Palestinians?

(Extension question: Ask the same question about the barrier between the United States and Mexico.)

  • Look again at the appearance of the poem. In what way(s) is a margin like a wall, a fence, a separation barrier? In the poem, what’s being confined to the margin?
  • Consider lines 12-15

in the


margin to turn

outside is to


riddle the inside

  • What do you make of the phrase “to turn outside”? Why do you think Metres breaks the line and stanza where he does? Why would turning outside “riddle the inside”? Connect to the idea of maps, borders, boundaries, margins – staying within your assigned lines
  • “margin” seems to be reclaimed in the line 24 – stony referring to the land (not fertile – a place where there are old weeds), to the throwing of stones?
  • Consider the the juxtaposition of ‘scrawl’ (18) and ‘write’ (20).
  • What does “write you gone” mean? How do the ideas of writing and filming make it difficult for ‘them’ to write you gone?
  • Return to essential question: Why did Metres place the poem on the page in the way he did? How does it serve his meaning?

Connection – Read Metres’ poem “One Tree” – what are the connections between it and “Marginalia with Uprooted Olive”?

What are the implications of these two poems when you consider the question of borders, a question that is essential to the Israel / Palestine conflict?

At the risk of bringing in a dead poet, Frost’s line: Good fences make good neighbors (from “Mending Wall”). In Metres’ poems, do they?

Thank you for reading! Do you have a story, lesson, activity, or something else to share with Be a guest author! Email me at 

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One thought on “Considering borders, marginalization, and structure with poems by Philip Metres

  1. Pingback: Teaching Unit for Sand Opera by Philip Metres | #TeachLivingPoets

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