Some Propositions on the Poetry of Maged Zaher
I first heard of Maged Zaher when Leonard Schwartz told me about a poet new to him who made Seattle into a suburb of Cairo. (Or was it the other way around? I don't think so.) Suburbs exist outside urban centers. Zaher is an outsider's outsider: he's a Copt in Muslim Egypt, a brown man in white America, a software engineer and a poet. He is a materialist and a Christian, and he veers between expressions of righteous anger (see “brown man in America” or “Arab from the Middle East”) and pleas for peacefulness (see some versions of “Christian”). He is often the “you” of his own poems: “you move as if you were trained from childhood / to inhabit someone else's country”[.] “You” often stands in for “I” in poems, but it also suggests a relation between the you and the I. In Zaher's poetry, this relationship is often fraught.
The problem of space is also one of time: if “you” are of two places separated by thousands of miles, a language and a culture, the shift between what you remember and what is is dramatic. In these poems, Zaher moves back and forth between Cairo and Seattle, with stops in Atlanta to see his son, Daniel. When he changes places, “Each action is threatened—while it is performed—to be the last of its own kind.” It sometimes seems impossible to represent this wash (whitewash?) between two versions of the poet: “Before even heading to Cairo,” he writes of one trip, “I can imagine myself sitting in Cairo airport, on my way back to the States, and in between, a block of time that I know will capture nothing, because there is nothing to be captured, and I think, trying to find a purpose, an immigrant is just someone who is deeply implicated in the problem of time.” The time of transport (which transcends nothing) exists out of time, or is perhaps the only thing inside of it. The immigrant is neither here nor there; he shuttles constantly within this no-space that is not part of either of his own cities. What had been home, as well as what is, takes on a quality of temporal confusion. If Maged Zaher is a lyrical poet, his “I” is more fractured than most. His English-reading audience can only witness half of this fracture, while the other half remains a phantom.
If Zaher's Seattle is Cairo's suburb, does he also meditate on the passage of time t/here? No doubt, as on the “wariness” of corporate and military power in the USA. Power is wily. Whoever possesses it quickly abandons utopian dreams for hell realms of industrial complexes: military, corporate, even poetic. Seattle sits at the center of Microsoft's power, which is as pervasive as it is often unseen. A space needle looks over all of it, and it's sharp.
But Cairo is also a power center. In a recent poem, published on-line, Zaher writes: “Cairo – then – is a meditation on the passage of time and wariness of state power.” He called the Arab Spring's counter-revolution before most in the West saw it coming. He warned against the Muslim Brotherhood before many of us knew who they were. He knew that out of revolutionary fervor comes a reactionary one.
But time is itself an immigrant now. What is time when it's been digitized? What is time when you share it between computers, and not in person? What is the time of social media? For several years now, Zaher has posted his poems on Facebook, which calls them “status lines”; they answer the corporation's question, “what's on your mind?” His mind is a rhizome or rain globe (Seattle gets little snow): it shakes up into scenes of late capitalism and mysticism, sexual love and persistent loss, the language of the workplace and that of Middle East conflict. There's a consistency to what's shaken, but not to the patterns these elements take when they hit the page. These poems occur on a “timeline” that moves. If you catch them, they sting. If not, they move away without your ever having known they happened. And his poems “happen,” even more than they seem to be written-things. They float on a digital pond, the 1s and 2s of our ever-dividing and divisive world. These poems are whole until they break apart. Then they happen again. Only the process offers the promise of completion. And so he continues to write. The poem is also an immigrant. It's about “this business of being an outsider,” to which Zaher returns obsessively.
The life Zaher describes is one of transactions: like him, we transact business with our credit cards, on-line or off; we transact our poetry via facebook; we transact our love lives on social media. These transactions are exchanges, but they don't necessarily change anything. To the extent that our digital world renders us into passive consumers of music, video, love, we ship ourselves out to the suburbs of a revolution that doesn't happen. When I told him about a poet who wondered why the revolution had not started, Maged said: the real question is why revolution is impossible in the west. No revelations here: just more of the same. A persistent unraveling.
What is the recipe for a Maged Zaher poem? I think it is this: one part political anger; one part wry observation from a cafe window; one part cynical aside; one part blurt of hope; one part lust. His recent poems are short, diaristic. He is the Basho of our age, but without the frogs or the pond. What gets made is a fairy tale about class structure or about a princess who is not one and a prince who lost his magic just moments ago. The moral has to do with an immoral world through which we negotiate our passages as truthfully as we can, even if truth is simply a taking note of.
Desire drives itself apart in his work. There is no such thing as clarity of purpose, unless it is to get a kiss (or a fuck) that lasts a while. Desire comes in the middle of everything else that distracts this poet. One could say that desire is his poetry's center, the one feeling that is not suburban. Distraction is his muse, as befits someone who lives so much on-line. But this is not the distraction that entertains us, so much as a distraction that threatens to hurt us into recognition. Distraction, in other words, not as puddle of confusion but as a knife that cuts through certainty. Distraction as counter-insurgency against the fundamentalisms of our age. Distraction has a bad name, but a carefully witnessed distraction is the mirror in the street that Zaher holds up to his readers.
As poetry publisher and editor, I've received interesting submissions over the years, with cover letters that run the gamut from overly showy CVs to “hey, Susan.” When first I heard from Maged, he wanted to send me a project he'd been working on with Australian poet, Pam Brown. He'd sent Pam poems for consideration by the Australian Jacket. He'd forgotten only one thing: the poems he'd intended to send. I'd done a collaboration with Pam, myself. In our collaboration the seams between our voices were clear. Hers were poems, mine were prose. In Maged's and Pam's poems, I could scarcely tell who wrote what line. They existed in a mind-meld that defied separation, of thoughts or words or images.
How does an Egyptian poet, writing in American English, meld with an Australian poet, writing in her own version of English? Theirs is a global poetry that has nothing to do with shopping malls or image consumption. Global poetism asserts the primacy of the imagination over Kapital. It's capital in its subversions. This is not to say that assertions win the day, but it's to note that not everyone's been silenced, yet.
Many of Zaher's poems address the problem of languages. “Embedded is the knowledge that I lost fluency in Arabic and didn't acquire it in English—So I operate despite the notion of the poet as a master of language—I operate specifically because I am not a master of any language”[.] But literature is not just made of language; it also comes with assumptions. Those in Arabic are different from those in American English: “Growing up in Arabic, I was exposed to a heavy amount of literary criticism that focused on the 'message' of the poems. Forever I am marked by confessional-ism”[.] What this means is unclear to me; does he mean to say that a message inevitably confesses something? Because “confessionalism” is clearly an American preoccupation, nay a poetic movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It also bears the freight of religious meaning. He begins the poem I just quoted by writing, “I grew up with the concept of evil.” A message offers mastery, even if it is only a confession. But without the mastery of language (as he puts it), there can be no fixed message. The message is a migrant, a crosser of boundaries. While Zaher is obsessed with some meaning-searches more than others, his poems never arrive. They are what happens in the terminals between countries and languages. They live outside of meaning, or as Ashbery puts it, “on the outside looking out.” That does not mean that nothing means, however.
He writes that he transferred the notion of Satan onto capitalism. If there is a character in Zaher's poems, other than the poet and his constantly shifting beloved (who never quite materializes into a person), it is Karl Marx. The full extent of his work is haunted by the promise of Marxist theory, and the impossibility of its taking root in the West. In one of the most consistent narratives among his poems, Zaher (with Pam Brown) writes: “Marx was here for breakfast / he said good things about the Proletariat, / ate scantily, according to his needs, / stacked the dishwasher, according to his ability . . . / mumbling things like: 'fuck Castro' / and 'Rosa rocks'” The “we” in the poem, perhaps as close to a collective as Zaher comes, ignores Marx until he leaves. Then, we “sad commodities” run after him, begging for him to pray for us. But the poem ends badly, as Engels appears on Oprah and offers up Das Capital as a movie, coming soon. Like any of the revolutions Zaher inhabits or imagines, this one ends badly, with the appropriation of its fervor toward another—corrupted—end. Arab Spring ended with the Muslim Brotherhood's counter-revolution, just as any thought of revolution in this country ends on Oprah's show. If she's not giving away cars, she might as well give away copies of Marx's masterpiece.
Maged and I were in Denver several years ago to give a poetry reading at Counterpoint Press's gallery space; he read from Tinfish Press's The Revolution Happened and You Didn't Call Me. Margo Berdeshevsky, Ya-Wen Ho, Maged, and I went to see the Colorado Rockies play at Coors Field. After our bags were searched at the entrance, Maged was ushered off to the side, where an older white man frisked him. I proclaimed loudly, “he's a famous American poet!” and Maged wryly responded, “don't make it worse, Susan.” We lingered over the murals in the stadium, which record history from its origins to the taking of the west from native Americans by the heroic settlers. It's their descendants who inhabit the stadium from time to time. The narrative was totalitarian, the style Soviet realist. The stories were deeply racist.
Maged calls out racism in poetry, racism in the police, racism in our language. But he also calls himself out, often. His poems are objective, like Basho's, but they are also confessional, deep and self-lacerating and ethical. Maged's soul is often in danger, but his wit is not. He possesses one of the largest laughs I know.
Later on the trip to Denver, we went to the Terrorism Museum in Denver, lodged next to the wonderful art museum. Among its features are rooms where you can experience a terrorist attack (there are loud booms and the room shakes violently). There are also beams from the World Trade Center at the front, and a snack shop at the end. I forget what food they served. The museum is called “The Center for Empowered Learning and Living,” even if it seems devoted—like so much of American culture—more to death than to living. The Economist reviewed the museum and concluded: “If this sounds like an expensive, museum-size example of America's paranoia, that's because it is.”
What place is more paranoid in the American experience than the suburbs? Havens for white flight, they mushroomed outside the real or perceived violence of the inner cities after the Second World War and during the 1960s. In later years, many of them were “gated.” I remember seeing a film about Bible salesmen in the South who wandered a suburb of miniature castle-houses, each surrounded by a moat. I also remember that there were three suicides within a block of my parents' house in an upscale suburb of Washington, DC. The suburbs may have offered an escape from communal violence, but not from the violence we do to ourselves. Who needs a museum to simulate terror, when it resides so comfortably at home?
If Seattle is a suburb of Cairo, it is also a suburb of the American malaise. Which means that it lies directly at its heart. And, while it's part of the sleepy, rainy Northwest, real violence has been directed against the ravages of capitalism. 1999's WTO protests left many downtown windows shattered and some events cancelled; there were further disruptions on May Day, 2012. It was to revolutions what a single game is to a baseball season, and just as easily forgotten. When I visited Seattle in September, 2015, I saw the heart of downtown being transformed by Amazon. Like Honolulu, Seattle is full of people who live on the street, as well as people who live in comfort high above those streets. Zaher writes with uncharacteristic tongue-in-cheekiness about American consumerism:
this is the life come on
an abundance of optimism
we will do it and how bring it on
the wonderful world
the total fucking brilliant world
and oh how lovely is everyone
the car seat is lovely the child is lovely
and so on. Out of an abundance of optimism and the loveliness of everyone comes the phrase, “bring it on,” which emerged most famously from the lips of Pres. George W. Bush. I find a YouTube of him saying, with characteristic eloquence, in July 2003: "There are some who, uh, feel like that, you know, the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is: bring 'em on. We got the force necessary to deal with the security situation.” American optimism falls into a blunt equation between happiness and force. We'll be happy if we have enough firepower. If we're not happy, we need more. We go to eat with our guns strapped on. It's the death drive, but it makes us grin. And so the American proverb falls into itself, as Zaher ends the poem with a quick shift to the opposing position (he tends never to synthesize, only split):
we're making a difference from the beautiful car
passing by an infinite number of lovers
an infinite number of broken hearted lovers
and stacks of clothes they used to wear
cast aside in impulsive aspiration
of the liberty that promises independence
it's entirely fucking brilliant
“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” or what the Declaration of Independence mandated as the American creed, leads to thrown away lovers and dispensable aspirations. The language of this poem is steeped in the Declaration's undoing. We've taken the car, and thrown away our lives with the lovely, seat-belted baby and the bathwater.
I was in Seattle last September to give a reading with Norman Fischer that was organized by Maged. Maged was in Cairo, where his mother was in her last days. He trans-acts his life between continents and languages. He grieves on both sides of his lives. But I don't want to paint Zaher solely as a poet of conflict and despair. He is a love poet (or a sex poet). His poems often express unrequited love, but he addresses them to Seattle, to Cairo, to women, to other poets, to the vernacular sounds of English (the language most of us know him in). His texts may be brief, but they ping a note of delight on our devices. We read them, only to await the next. He doesn't use the typical language of the love poem, preferring software and capitalism to roses and hearts, but there's something alluring about these poems. “Mohamed tells me that I am obsessed / with language and that he likes my poems / best when I am falling in or out of love,” he writes. In one of the most upbeat of his love poems, one I adore for its wit and open vulnerability, he writes:
At 6:00 a.m.
With you in my arms
I could believe in God
I will even pray
And send thank you notes
To all the angels
We are half water
Half advice columnists
And the rest is love
I mean you should believe
In few maps
As our bodies traverse each other's
But usually, as in the section, “Simple Colonial Encounters,” the power plays of the world infiltrate his feelings. “let us chat freely / but please remember that all these pronouns / have no life in themselves / unless you bring them with your own imagination / well the truth is, I was too drunk to unhook her bra / but we fucked anyway”[.] The language itself (in love, there is little but pronoun) is dead, unless we bring our imagination to them. Which might be a lovely thing, except for the way the poem ends, more in brute realism than in imaginative (love)making.
To William Carlos Williams's adage that it's difficult to get the news from poems, Zaher responds: “Poetry is a ghost / That erases the good news.” But, if poetry is a ghost, “these words can be taken seriously.” The poem, according to Maged, is a division of labor—not a unifying force. But he keeps trying, over and again, on paper and on the internet, to disprove his own adage: “Then God—on a bad day—invented the poets.” It was not a bad day when Maged Zaher emerged as an English-language poet. We live in a serious time, and would do well to take his words seriously as they fill our “news feeds.” Join me in clicking “like.” Read on!