There comes a time in every poet’s life when they must set aside their lofty goals and get on down to the pressing business of fucking. I’m not talking about flowery love poems — I mean the kind of horny writing that drops all metaphor and imagery and makes it clear that genital-to-genital contact is about to happen.
The poems in the beginning of Maged Zaher’s new collection, Opting Out: Early, New & Collected Poems 2000 – 2015, are about as thirsty as poems can get. The third poem concludes, “well, the truth is, i was too drunk to unhook her bra/but we fucked anyway.” Elsewhere, he says “i drove to work/thinking of undressing you/only with my mouth.” The bra doesn’t stand for eternity, the mouth is not a clever use of synecdoche for Zaher’s work. This is a man who wants to get it on — joyfully, unapologetically, repeatedly.
There’s a particular pleasure to be found in these sorts of massive volumes that collect a poet’s work chronologically through the years: you can watch trends and fascinations come and go, you can see the work evolve and take on new shapes. About fifty pages after those early horndog poems, Zaher starts to drift into a new realm:
once you overstep your limit
and learn to follow
the best practices document
invite your friends over
to decipher cryptographic codes
and alleviate your failings
The poems still reverberate with lust, but corporate language has been introduced into the mix. This is a young man learning that there’s more to the world than just screwing and truth and beauty. Zaher’s writing regularly incorporates the language of a software engineer — he seems fascinated by the beige-wallpaper banality of workplace vocabulary. The early capital-R Romantic language, with all its yearning and preening, interacts strangely with the best practices documents and the presentations. He writes, “our software is healthy/and the lovers we left behind are calling us back.” What more, in the end, could a poet possibly desire?
Once the language of work insinuates itself into his purview, the third essential component of Zaher’s poetry introduces itself in short order: he begins to identify as a global citizen, as a revolutionary in love with “the wonderful world/the total fucking brilliant world.” He chides Canada for its “lame socialism,” but admits that “we envy” it just the same in the free market of the United States. And then he launches himself around the world.
will anyone contact me if I am lost
in mistakes? if I slip off the grid
and belong elsewhere? if I have to pack up
all over again and head to a place
that I would call a sort of home
Sydney, Seattle, Melbourne, Cairo…
From this point in Opting Out, Zaher bounces back and forth between Seattle and Cairo, holding meetings in coffee shops and reporting on what he sees. It’s a time of Arab Spring and Obama, of 9/11 and Mubarak, and you can see the dawning of Donald Trump’s American carnage off on the horizon if you squint. This is a poem from Cairo in 2012 that could just as easily be about a Black Lives Matter protest in America this year:
During street battles
It is considered appropriate to cuss
At the officer who fired the last
Tear gas canister
From the safety of his tank.
Everywhere you go on planet Earth, you’ll find men wearing too much armor cracking the heads of poor people at the behest of a small but powerful upper class. Those animatronic sons of bitches in Orlando were right: it is a small world, after all.
Zaher’s poems are short, unadorned with titles and epigraphs. To a careless reader, they can seem like a jumble of disconnected lines, but that reflects the schisms in his life — from an awkward conversation about a TV show in a Seattle nightclub with a disinterested woman to an earnest discussion about socialism in a Cairo café, Zaher is comfortable everywhere, and nowhere. In Seattle’s fluorescent glow, he is a revolutionary, but in the less ironic light of Cairo he is a soft engineer.
For a time, Zaher felt rootless. But at a recent reading to celebrate the launch of Opting Out, he announced that he was moving to Atlanta to be with his son. He insisted that though he was leaving Seattle for a few years, he would be back. He was surprised as anyone to learn that he would miss the city. “Cairo is home,” he told the crowd at Arundel Books, “and Seattle is home.”
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the LA Times, 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