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By Khaled Mattawa
Western Michigan University Press, 71pp, 2010, $15.00 , pbk.
A solid and radical route through
Tocqueville is Khaled Mattawa’s fourth book of poetry, comprising fourteen poems across seventy or so pages and, while there are a number of shorter ‘lyrics’, the great part of the book is made up of the title poem (it goes to 25 pages) and four other longish texts.What sets this book apart is the poet’s subversion of both fear and incomprehension, the weight of which he manages superbly.
The poetry is lyrical (or well capable of such) : “ . . . Rubbing the ashes of his/bones unto my face I become his blue/screams at birth” or as he writes in “Power Point I”: “Yes, the need for lyric persists, for to love one person/you must contemplate loving the whole world.” But if that is a starting-point – our lives and how we write in a world ingrained by paranoia – Mattawa is gone far beyond there. Thus in “Power Point III” he is able to say: “And you begin to think the “world,” / if such a word means anything” (could many poets write in the voice of Wyatt and Brecht at the same time?) and “Elegy, a product consumed by a man alone in a hotel room exists in the grid of one, and in the grid of nine billion.” And, later on, in “Power Point I”: “Everything meanwhile is coated with a substance as fine as Anthrax”. The poem ends, yes lyrically but, with “a catharsis that hurls us screaming unto the street/our faces coated with history.”
Mattawa’s childhood was spent in Libya and Cairo and he came to the US in his teens. This, together with his intimate knowledge of Arabic poetries and poetics and his long practice as a translator has allowed him to bring a wide range of sensibilities and understandings to the English he writes in. But it is not just a matter of language: or, rather, it is the fact that his control of contemporary English is so solid and here, so exact and sharp and mapped to and from this our huge and tiny world (even if, or rather just because he can doubt that the word “world” does mean anything – not something many poets have even a sniff of – that he is able to enrich both the language & poetics of contemporary English-language poetry.
Much of the writing – and this is particularly so with the longer poems in the book, the title poem “Tocqueville” and “Power Point I”, “II” and “III” – is a form of collage or a collaged assembly. That is one way Mattawa deals with the fractured realities of our “world” and again it is very effective precisely because he is sceptical of the very semantics of the world. He is offering us something rare and real: a solid and radical route of negotiation through duplicity, fear and institutional paranoia. As he puts it in one of his shorter poems, the last in the book :
“Somewhere beyond faith and grace there is the footprint of logic lost in the purest light”
The title poem alludes – in a far from self-important way – to many writers, and books: Brodsky, Fanon, Homi Bhabha, Edward Said,Walcott, Whitman and the wry French chronicler himself, among others. It locates America’s place in the world within, if you will, its own fracture-rooted democracy and it would take a book here to do justice to Mattawa’s poetic achievement. It quotes “The scent of virtue begins to sting your eyes because you know it’s rising from a pile of burning corpses” but in the same poem he also writes: “I don’t know what to call it, love or exhaustion, or love by exhaustion.”