“What should the war do
with these jigging fools?”, said Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
And he was the good guy! The fool’s representative? The poet. It’s important
here, and subtle, as is much in Shakespeare (easily overlooked during bombast
or mellifluous speech), that the poet is present, yet Brutus speaks about him
to Cassius. And why not? The poet is known to the Imperial generals, but is not
important enough to bother with. This is also the status of the poet (and
artist in general) today, as Anis Shivani well knows.
In My Tranquil War and
Other Poems, published in 2012 and ten years in the making, the
Pakistani-American’s rhetoric is longer and wider than a Houston freeway.
(There’s a you tube car cam video showing a driver’s entrance into the squalid
asphalt-and-concrete maze that is Houston that’s at once frightening and banal,
fixed states that Shivani also implants in a cumulative overdose throughout the
volume.) The numbing fear and enraged impotence one is assaulted with, in poem
after poem, is the result of increasingly sophisticated international political
systems married to an amazingly naive liberal ideology.
Shivani’s first poem,
“Harold Bloom’s Old Age”, acts as a transitional introduction. Composed as a
sonnet (appropriate that it’s a Shakespearean sonnet, though with a twist), the
turn achieves what every good sonnet should: a surprise. But surprise isn’t
quite the right word. The tack-on couplet can be seen as a sarcastic swipe at
Bloom’s footnoting self-importance, but there’s a further shock, and a queasy
aftershock ( a 7.2 to a lingering 3.8), that Bloom’s ordered world is gone, and
has been gone for over a century, “as each day I’ve murdered my sad Macbeths”,
a terrifying modern abstract metaphor for suppression of grief based on
collective guilt. We can still plunder the canon, but we resurface (or should)
with an awful reminder that the same humanism, however talented, has today been
neutered, (often justifiably) derided, or (most often) ignored.
Political poems are
notorious for their propensity for propaganda or sentimentality, the worst of
them combining both features in equal measure. (Read any essential Bush Jr.
poems lately?) But contemporary examples exist. Robert Bly wrote some angry and
affecting anti-Vietnam poems when he bothered to temporarily jolt himself out
of a decades-long search for spiritual mentors in forest ponds. But almost all
options have been pulled from under the poet’s aesthetically pleasing rug.
Anger either gets you ridiculed by the academics or profiled by Homeland
Security. Arms-length irony has long been an ineffectual boring reflex.
Humanism (again), is naive if not hypocritical, and has also been co-opted,
anyway, by the phony-holy purveyors of priestly consumerism. So what’s left?
Well, as I remarked in a different post while quickly running through the
origins of surrealism, as a preface in a review of Stuart Ross’ You Exist.
Details Follow., it’s always puzzled me why that mode hasn’t undergone a
renaissance. But on further thought, it should have been obvious:
post-poststructuralism has shattered and dispersed a creative and passionate
response into a Chinese doll of meta-meta-meta pay for academics and their ambitious
students who couldn’t give a flying fuck about poetry.
Shivani, despite his
pessimism, is no quitter, though. A disjunctive rage, for as much in what’s in view
in the mirror as out the window, persists. In “Modernism on File: Writers and
the FBI”, “What had happened to the ‘pure and lyric dreamer’ in the futuristic
forest?” gets as much thought as “[t]he direct object of those readings was to
unearth seditions”. A little more consideration shows those seditions overseen
not just by the FBI, but by the “critic-spy” (wonderful double meaning,
politically, here). And, as is adroitly deployed throughout this volume, black
humour surfaces, this time briefly, like a hangman slipping on a wet platform
while holding the noose: “Just because paranoids have real enemies does not
mean they cannot also be paranoids”, which is also, of course, another take on
an established joke that I shouldn’t have to repeat. (The original is still
funny because it’s true. Many tin foilers are still laughable, but some have
Liberalism’s naivety has
always been a bigger cause for anger and disgust, with me, than its see-saw
partner, imperial consolidation and defense, if for no further two dozen
reasons than its infuriating sanctimony, intellectual bankruptcy and cowardice,
entrenchment, sentimental persuasiveness, rampant advocacy, and sickening
superiority. Not to mention (did I just mention it?) its blithe optimism and
complacency. And on that latter flat note, Shivani’s hilarious and timely poem,
“Billy Collins Confronts a Herd of Mexicans Caught in a Trap”, is part ironic
fable, part suburban nightmare, part liberal mystery. It’s a full two pages,
but here’re a few snippets from images and psychological poses which are
captured wittily and with exquisite voiceover bafflement: “standing at the edge
of my unmade bed in clarified mystery”, “I like to arrest the world in its act
of entrance,/before it makes a case study of me”, “Perhaps the return of my
next-door neighbor’s cocker spaniel,/delivered from the place lost dogs survive
in limbo”, “Perhaps my editor, shown from afar, missing her tempo.//’Stand
back!’ citizen Collins was ordered.”, “I would not have my answers.”, “What
kind of a morning was this?”
Forms are matched to
subject and tone in effective conjunction throughout the collection. “An
Address to Walt Whitman after Reading the 1855 Edition of Leaves of Grass”
is a galloping long-limbed rhetorical filibustering stump speech that, though
it overreaches in its national condemnation, nevertheless is reminiscent of the
Master in its sweep and drive, its spill and out-of-bounds passion. In “When
Dean Young Was Young” (I love the title’s additional meaning, and don’t take it
as an abnegation of identity, but as a considered acceptance of confusion) the
channel-surfing images and caroming non sequiturs ape Young’s brilliant
creativity, though don’t approach his impulsive enjoyment. Djuna Barnes gets a
formal, terse appreciation as a multiple transgressor brought up to date as
ironic icon. And the personal Cold War fatwa victim, in a wonderfully inventive
and funny “Salman Rushdie Detained (and Deported?) by Homeland Security”, is
the cause for further confusion among the birdbrain minions of obtuse
bureaucrats, who, in first-person Keystone Kops holding-cell officiousness,
regale the unfortunate author with, “Is there not/for Christ’s sakes, a fatwa
against transporting barrels of/homemade secretions, which you call the poet’s
muse, prose-/writer though you may be. Acchoo! Bless you!”
There are many other
audacious successes throughout My Tranquil War and Other Poems,
successes in packed content within severe formal constraints, as well as sonic
repetitions and variations both within each poem and with the originating
subject across multiple poems. I’d like to choose, and close with, one of them,
“Ghazal: War”, an incredibly wise consideration of the book’s two intertwining
themes. The classical ghazal signature, in the final couplet, is sobering in
its self-laceration, but also condemnatory of us all, master or slave.
We think of the thirties,
expectant in the squiggly room of war,
as unrepeatable: never
again that prearranged doom of war.
Hamadryads lounge in kilts
– there, soldiers cleaning guns –
the obscene sceneliness
inspires Parnassian boom of war.
Among kings and kingpins,
logomachy is the timely art;
they say no sensuality
overwhelms the wordy perfume of war.
In the narrow straits, the
oil tankers have been quickly reflagged,
the reticulum of
allegiances rewoven to the womb of war.
The secretary of state, in
her hour of fame, brings the charts.
Her periphrasis disguises
the revealed nom de plume of war.
O known and unknown
soldiers, Samadhi, in sleep, is yours:
eternal sleep, where
seraphs fly on the witch broom of war.
It is never too young to
die for the homeland, never too gory.
At home, weaklings are
enlivened by the purple plume of war.
You, Anis, logrolling
joints, stare into the abyss of your Hallux.
In the closet sits your
effervescent self, the bloodless costume of war.