Poetry: The revolution happened and you didn’t call me

The Revolution Happened and You Didn’t Call Me
Maged Zaher
Tinfish Press

Although I was rather disappointed by a recent novel billed by its publishers as an ‘Arab Spring novel’ (you may read my review of that book here), I am not prepared to accept that the cataclysmic events that have rejuvenated and disfigured so much of the Middle East cannot result in good Anglophone writing. A serious researcher of the literary dimensions of these upheavals would, of course, consult Arabic-language poems, fiction, blogs, nonfiction and song lyrics; yet, as a non-Arabic speaking fan of political art, I have no choice but to look for the literary accompaniments to these events in the work of suitably engaged, English-language writers. I am therefore grateful to Hawaii’s Tinfish Press for publishing the new collection by the Cairo-born, Seattle-based poet, Maged Zaher.

Zaher began to write in English a few years after arriving in the US from Egypt, and has since published four collections, including the book under review. As indicated by the titles of his collections – including Portrait of the Artist as an Engineer and Farout Library Software, a collaboration with Pam Brown – Zaher is something of a wit and has an interest in many facets of contemporary life. But do contemporariness and light-heartedness make for a political aesthetics? Can Zaher’s detached, ironic voice succeed in a cogent treatment of the recent – and, seemingly, ongoing – revolutions that have toppled rulers and instigated civil wars?

Zaher is an abundantly self-reflexive, self-deprecating writer, all too aware of his own privileged status as a transnational observer of his turbulent birthplace. In concert with the perspective described in one of the earlier poems as ‘a postmodern version of everything’, this book does not seem to directly engage with the revolutionary events and their consequences. Many of Zaher’s poems instead depict comedic instances of a world reduced to style, affect and atmospherics, a world saturated by what philosopher Jean Baudrillard has termed transaesthetics:

Sipping beer at random downtown
Cairo is sexy today
The old left are fashion-conscious
And the anarchists are tangoing with everyone

Zaher’s Cairo is – to use another famed Baudrillardian term – a hyperreal space in which the exaggerated aesthetic surface of things has displaced their socio-political Real. Here, what matters is not why millions have taken to the streets and squares of Cairo and other Arab cities, but the potential for such events to offer amusing vignettes in the voice of a sardonic, cosmopolitan onlooker:

Despite the ruling elite
We can now park for free downtown
And watch the masses
Engage – kindly – in border disputes

This level of subjectivity – no matter how fluid, flexible, nomadic, deterritorialised and so on – cannot stand in for a tangible investment in transformative political action. And it is to this reviewer’s relief that Zaher’s poetic journey to and from his native city during the uprisings is not entirely made up of a kind of Romantic, apolitical sophistry which has been a dominant feature of so much innovative poetry of the last forty years in affluent Western societies. At its most effective, Zaher’s work is an articulation of the need to break with bourgeois apathy and boredom, and a subtle attempt at taking part in the suffering and struggles of the oppressed.

The following poem, for example, starts with a solipsistic, jocular deconstruction of the self, but it soon turns into something of a call to interrogate social hierarchy:

A day without sexual concerns
I got – unnecessarily – over-caffeinated
Sitting somewhere in the ghetto
And flipping a coin:
To accept or not to accept the surrounding privileges?

What would this ‘not accepting privilege’ look like? The poem’s urbane speaker is perhaps reluctant or unable to imagine this possibility, but he does not resume dwelling on egoistic motifs either. That he comes to propose the prospect of rejecting inequality – by ‘flipping a coin’, however offhand the image may appear – challenges the speaker’s initial ‘sexual concerns’ and his anxiety about drinking too much coffee; and it invites the reader to wonder if preoccupations with sex and health are not somehow related to being unfairly privileged.

The book’s most engaging and most politically astute poems are those written during the poet’s second visit to Cairo earlier this year. This section of the book starts with a curious piece in which it is deemed ‘appropriate’ to use language – ‘to cuss’ – against riot police. It seems quite unlikely that the author of these poems would have personally participated in street battles; yet his suggestion to deploy language as a form of resistance grows into a compelling, even truthful proposal for the reminder of the book. Here the poet finds himself engaged in ‘netting a home from conversations’ and wondering what this home would ‘look like without this second language’.

It may be observed that here Zaher is indirectly referring to a sublimated urge to somehow revive his own first language – Arabic – by writing about the goings-on of an Arab country in his ‘second language’, denoting that his project is, at least in part, one of an exile’s never-ending search for an elusive home. As such, Zaher’s poems come to articulate the void of political disenchantment. Incapable of either directly participating in the revolutionary passions of his native country – by admitting, with admirable honesty, that he is ‘not a good rebel’ – he cannot help but find himself drawn to the historic gravity of these passions, and finds it difficult to come to terms with their ‘failing concepts’

In between historical events
The body is dragged
So little time to conquer
So little time to make peace with the failing concepts

The book ends, in my opinion, on a false note, with a rather blasé remark, with Zaher claiming that his work is ultimately ‘concerned with sensuality / It was written while walking a city / With soft desire toward everything.’ I am delighted to write that in this book’s most gripping pieces, in their mostly understated yet undeniable yearning for an alternative to trendy, commonplace passivity, I’ve found a hard, inquisitive intelligence contemplating the shortcoming of our postmodern condition. Zaher’s poems highlight the inefficacy of our ‘failing concepts’, and by so doing encourage the reader to countenance – and perhaps even imagine breaking with – the limits of contemporary, middle-class existence.

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  1. Hi Ali – fascinating review, which makes me want to read this poet. But one question: “And it is to this reviewer’s relief that Zaher’s poetic journey to and from his native city during the uprisings is not entirely made up of a kind of Romantic, apolitical sophistry which has been a dominant feature of so much innovative poetry of the last forty years in affluent Western societies.” Is that the case? I’m curious what you mean: or maybe who you mean. When I think of poetry considered innovative, it’s usually far from apolitical. Although I can think of some that is, it’s not dominant, at least in my mapping.

    • Hi Alison. Thanks for an excellent question. I think the terrific essay by Keston Sutherland on your own website addresses this query rather well: “in truth it is impossible to imagine answering a demand like Luxemburg’s for a revolutionary poetry with anything written by Charles Bernstein or Ron Silliman”. Interestingly, Sutherland also claims, as i have, that this has been the case for the last forty years. (and I came up with that number before having read him – I suspect he and I both see the problem starting with the onset of ‘the postmodern condition’.) This said, I think there are, as you’ve very correctly pointed out, a number of innovative poets who are also far from apolitical (the great & brave Vagabond Press of Sydney is just about to release a few full-length collections by poets that fit this description rather well, e.g. Lionel Fogarty, Jess Wilkinson, Ali Cobby Eckermann) but I’d still contend, as Badiou and so many others have, that much of the innovative/postmodernist art of the last forty years (or so) has been an extension of, to quote Jameson’s famous phrase, ‘the cultural logic of late capitalism.’

  2. “breaking with – the limits of contemporary, middle-class existence”

    That’s been the hope – and absurd expectation for change in western societies- the allegedly comfortable middle classes overthrowing their (our) own ensconsed social positioning.

    Thanks for the hatcheck on this one.

  3. Thanks, Dennis. But, as you point out, it’s ‘alleged’ that our lives in the middle class western milieu are comfortable. I’d go as far as saying that many who think they’re middle class are also under false suppositions, deluded by the Thatcherite fantasy of everyone being able to join the ‘ownership society’. In reality, i feel that our lives are far more uncomfortable and un-middle class that we’d like to think.

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