Ali Alizadeh’s ‘Ashes in the Air’

Cover_Ashes in the airAnger and frustration shades many of the poems in Ali Alizadeh’s new collection published by UQP. If you learned about social injustice and cultural displacement by emigrating from Tehran to the Gold Coast as a teenager, you too would probably be angry and frustrated at your observations of racism, religious and cultural hypocrisy, and conservatism at two supposedly opposing ends of the political spectrum. But these poems aren’t strictly political or necessarily activist in essence, they also dwell partly in the realm of confessionalism – offering personality and warmth to the politically engaged subject matter.

The speaker is like that friend you have who is a little too intelligent for his own good, who is highly sensitive to others while remaining vigilantly self-aware and who cares about the state of the world and gets down about it … But every now and again, through the heavy shadows of realism he shines a beautiful bright light and reenergises your mind and your spirit.

Stylistically, it’s refreshing to read poems that are formally consistent and have a strong sense of voice. Every poem is written in unrhymed couplets that rely on inter-stanzaic enjambment so that the image in one couplet bleeds into the next. Using this form to its best advantage, Alizadeh carries the reader from a school-bus in Tehran to a Gold Coast high-school, to a Dubai skyscraper with easy poetic control. Alizadeh opens the poem ‘Exile and Entropy’ with:

I sink in the leather of my chair
a donkey, can’t bother with braying

in a bog. Village animal in the marsh,
an image to denote dislocation: removed

from Tehran’s clamorous scenes
of coups, rallies and revolutions

to an island. Here rain makes the headlines
and ‘history’, a post-script to ‘sport’…

(from ‘Exile and Entropy’)

The couplet form has great significance in Persian history and culture. A thousand years ago Persian poet Ferdowsi wrote Shahnameh (translation: The Book of Kings) to critique the social and political conventions of the time, the result of years of Arabic infiltration in Iran. This epic poem was originally written in some 60 000 couplets.

Having been reminded of the power of the couplet form after reading Ashes in the Air, I took the inspiration into the classroom. I’ve started recommending that my poetry writing students attempt to edit their narrative poems by rearranging their stanzas into couplets, forcing them to push through a new poetic image every two lines in order to drive the narrative economically and improve their dynamics – even if they do away with the couplets in final redrafting.

In our contemporary poetic age of formal bastardisation, post-post-mod experimentalism, and the great divides separating grassroots and academy, performance and publishing, it’s a pleasure to read a new book of poetry that doesn’t ‘try hard’, so to speak. In dealing with issues of cultural displacement and immigration, there is no self-indulgence, no residue of teenage angst, no sense that the speaker in the poems considers himself a victim of fate. Instead, the speaker remains self-reflective (at times, even, self-conscious) in his criticisms:

predating Communism. Cancer? Opium
may be more apt – but listen to the Alabaman

conducting the chorus of the Saved upstairs.
She’s meant to be teaching diction, syntax

For fuck’s sake. I grunt. You grin, discard
your last card and win the game. OK, I’m sorry

to be such an intransigent atheist; but I just can’t
stomach morons spreading their beliefs, politics

and bad singing with impunity. Did you know
missionaries like our musical neighbour got

their heads lopped off during the Boxers’ Uprising?
You sip your vodka-and-orange, deal the cards, laugh

off my bloodlust. I arrange my hand, realise
I’ll lose this game too, and wonder what it’d take

to shut the Yank up or to compel the Chinese
to resume beheading impudent, tone-deaf barbarians.

(from ‘Americans’)

From the American evangelist singing loud Christian songs upstairs in Dubai with her Chinese English students to the pop-music savvy children on the Tehran school bus in ‘Listening to Michael Jackson in Tehran’, Alizadeh colours his numerous settings with a diverse range of character sketches, all of whom are observed with a healthy scepticism and represented through the likably downbeat tone of the speaker. So, when the Ameri-vangelist disrupts a game of cards and a quiet vodka, or when the savvy schoolkids thwart a burning desire to exhibit rebellion, the trademark frustration emerges, reengaging the reader in what becomes phase two of each poems macrostructure: The Reaction (phase one being The Observation):

…desperate for attention/approval

from the other kids. My copy of
dangerous Western ‘art’ would

unsettle the boring, Islamic world
of my classmates – and elevate my

cowardly, chubby, unpopular
self. I whispered to the kid next to me

if he had ever heard of ‘Billie Jean’
and ‘Beat It’; if he knew anything at all

about the number one famous
star of our wicked enemy. “I love

Thriller! Aren’t zombies so scary
In the music video! They’re so ugly!” His

Boisterous words echoed. The bus
Vibrated with the singer’s name…

(from ‘Listening to Michael Jackson in Tehran’)

What really does it for me about Alizadeh’s poetry is that his subject matter is important. These poems are unlikely to bore a reader who shies away from the overtly political because they also engage in everyday scenarios and experiences. Alizadeh’s poems about cultural displacement take a different approach from many other Australian poets who write on the same theme but tend to dwell in the realm of sentimentalism (a natural, valid treatment of the theme, but one which may risk alienating un-empathetic readers). It’s as though these poems have ‘gotten over it’ just enough to allow a more sophisticated depth of knowing and exploration of the subject through everyday representations, without compromising emotion. The anger and frustration that manifests in many of the poems in Ashes in the Air is not of the confused or deluded variety – it’s justified and it’s eloquent.

Tara Mokhtari

Tara Mokhtari is a Persian-Australian poet and screenwriter based in New York. She is the author of The Bloomsbury Introduction to Creative Writing and Anxiety Soup.

More by Tara Mokhtari ›

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