“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 become prophets.)
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.