All poetry is political.
This is not to say that poetry is an especially political form. All poetry is political because all poetry is created by people, and all people are political animals.
And, yes, in fact, poetry is whatever people are: political, sure — but also loving, spiteful, awkward, romantic, horny, judgmental, and overly obsessed with our little glowing screens.
So I guess what I’m saying here is that all poetry is horny. But also, all poetry is political.
It’s almost impossible to write about Maged Zaher without discussing the fact that he maintains residences in two distinct worlds. Zaher simultaneously chronicles daily life in his native Egypt—where the unrest of the Arab Spring still reverberates in every public space—and the more mundane life of a software engineer in Seattle.
At first, these seem like opposing factions, or even disparate subjects. But if you read enough of Zaher’s work, you understand that he’s making a broader point. We are all, in our own way, an off-kilter mix of boring, bumbling everyday schlubs and passionate, political revolutionaries. That friction—between the dramatic and the banal, between the oppressed and the willfully ignorant bystander—is what makes modern life so maddening. Most of us like to surround ourselves with art that portrays us as heroes, but some of us like art that only considers the awkward and unfortunate aspects of human life. (We like to call the latter “realism,” which maybe says a lot about what we think about ourselves as a species.)
The rich and the poor, the aware and the unaware, the passionate and the hypocritical—they’re all given voice in Zaher’s poems. The language he employs is friendly and familiar; some of his poems, if spoken aloud, could be mistaken for the hilarious rant about online dating you overheard at the bar last Friday night. He speaks to the hero and the corporate stooge, the romantic and the cynic.
Zaher’s newest collection, The Consequences of My Body, is perhaps the best example of how he employs disarming language to make sharp political points. Here, in the middle of a moving essay about the aspirational and demoralizing aspects of revolutions, Zaher unleashes a stream of consciousness prose poem about the connecting points between his two worlds:
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri point at the network as the dominant paradigm in our era. Modes of dominance and resistance take the shape of a network. In computer science, the grid is a form of a network. The airport in Seattle is a major node in the networks our lives go through…Coming in and out of Seattle, my sentences get shorter. The city has poets, engineers, investment bankers, and — of course — musicians. The city also has its homeless. The ones who are sacrificed daily.
In a network, everywhere is home and nowhere is home. You’re always in an in-between state. We take for granted now the fact that people don’t spend their entire lives in one place anymore. But with Facebook and Twitter, all those worlds come crashing together, so we’re everywhere at the same time. Zaher doesn’t live in one world and then the other. He lives in both at once, and neither.
Like most of Zaher’s recent books, Body is fragmentary, a book-length biographical essay on politics and current events with social criticism, told in poetic form. But unlike some of his other books, Body feels less jagged, less distracted. He’s interested in developing ideas for longer than a page or two. His stride is changing.
Right now, I am investigating the sentence. It is calmer, and allows more contemplation. The fragment keeps you anxious, its incompleteness is a cliff-hanger to the next fragment, etc… The sentence instead, removes this anxiety, a thought is completed, and one can move to the next line without racing…
The line from that first quote about Zaher’s sentences getting shorter is telling. It’s not that his sentences are particularly long, or even that the rhythm of his writing is particularly different than it was in his collections of choppier, shorter poems. It’s that his short sentences arrive in flocks now, or flurries. One short idea is supplemented immediately by another short idea.
Where once Zaher required huge expanses of big white space in between his short poems, he’s now comfortable to pile them on top each other, as sentences, and to see how they interact. The borders are disappearing, and what was once an array of incomplete sentences is now a paragraph. For Zaher, the perestroika between prose and poetry is resulting in an even more complex investigation of his themes.
Body is a book that is interested in corporeality: the awkwardness and wondrousness and confusion of having a body, of moving that body through the world, of using that body to communicate with other bodies.
Zaher employs a number of different poetic forms to examine his subject: short, experimental poems; more formal poetic traditions; Facebook posts; essays. He circles the globe in his body, indulging its whims and fretting over its failings. All the while, he wonders if he is doing the right thing, if he is in the right place, if he is being a person in the right way.
And his body falls in love. A lot. Much of Body is turned over to love letters — more properly, love emails —written to undisclosed recipients. “[M]y boundaries are a mess,” Zaher writes. But he’s not talking about the boundaries of nations, for once. “I am terrified of taking a chance — actually in this slightly drunk state — I am loveable — and I think parts of you are softening up for me.” Later, he writes, “Forgive me if drunk emailing feels disrespectful — I drank after I read your email” and he concludes, “Enough of this rambling — I will push send — you are insanely beautiful.”
So if all people are political, and if all people feel love, does that mean that all love is political? Zaher acknowledges in Body that “aesthetically, it took me a while, but I can confirm now that I am a love poet.” The wine-stained love emails that barge into the more thoughtful passages on revolution and nations are interested in seduction, in the crossing of boundaries, in the collusion of bodies. They do not feel out of place in the midst of all the violence and politics.
While Zaher seems at peace with becoming a love poet, he’s also trying on other personas. “I want to be lost in Seattle dimness,” Zaher writes, “Turning slowly into a nature poet/Writing about leaves changing colors.” It’s a marvelously self-reflective line: Zaher’s becoming a Seattle nature poet would be like a leaf slowly sapped of its life: suck out the chlorophyll, the ichor, and you’ve got a pretty-but-dead thing to admire for a second before moving on. Thankfully, that’s not going to happen. Zaher’s body, and his body of work, is too full of life, in all its hilarious, contradictory, political permutations. He’s not a nature poet; he’s a force of nature
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant