Friday, March 4, 2011

Maged Zaher, train & bus stories, & the corporate person

It's the first of March and I'm sitting in a train station in Olympia, Washington reading a poem by Maged Zaher from Portrait of the Poet as an Engineer (not his Tinfish book, with Pam Brown). The poem is titled, "Forget the bus take the train," but the funny/not-so-funny truth is that I have just realized that the train I was taking to Portland is not running and we're about to be put on a bus, when that bus arrives, that is, through Seattle traffic, and the snowy fog that is general throughout the NW on this day. The young women who dropped me off at the station, two of them students of Leonard Schwartz at Evergreen State College, the other a friend of theirs who heard I love Lakoff & Johnson's Metaphors We Live By and loves it also, had just been telling Greyhound horror stories, the ones they heard (a beheading on a bus in Canada) and those they experienced (one of them had been the only person awake on a bus who noticed the blow job going on behind her seat). And so here I am, reading Maged's poem, contemplating the train I cannot catch, and the bus I will have to. The poem is about globalization, beginning from a line about the KKK playing reggae in the background (ah, Bob Marley in a hood, David Duke smoking ganja). Talk about dread. But I am stuck very locally in Olympia, meaning to get to Portland and then, only then, the next morning to take two planes to Hawai`i, crossing a wide swath of ocean to get home. That would also prove difficult, as planes were delayed, the wind raged in San Francisco, other planes intended for some of us took off before we arrived, and the rest of the story we all know. All's well that ends at home.

When last this story ended (see the last post!), I was in Portland taking a walk with Kaia Sand and her daughter, Jessi, a walk that followed the form and content of her Tinfish book, Remember to Wave. Since then, dear reader, I have traveled to Seattle and then to Olympia, talking about dementia and poetry and memory as I went, meeting old and new poetry friends, seeing family. I learned several things along the way. It can get damn cold in Seattle. One can give a satisfying reading in a bookshop the size of a postage stamp, if that stamp is as lovely as the one called Pilot Books. Students and recent college grads are lively, intellectually engaged people, even if, as one told me, his generation is apathetic, knowing as they do that there's very little out there for them in this economy. Leonard Schwartz's students called me on some apparent paradoxes in Dementia Blog, including the need to remember, even as memory is not set down in linear fashion. That's a paradox I can live with, but it's worth thinking about consciously: that history matters even if it's episodic, like memory, rather than schematic, linear narrative, which is more constructed than memory. Another student said I seemed more passionate about politics in the book than about my mother, which startled me, though I had just said that I wanted to keep myself out of the story. It's not as significant that I went home and wept than it was that my mother's mind was falling apart. But then I realized that it was my mother, so engaged in politics herself, who made me passionate about such things. And so the link was there: passion about politics is also passion over my mother's decline. When she began to care less about politics, we should have known.

Blogs are episodic, so rather than writing back into this post, I will go on. Talking to Maged Zaher was fascinating, not just because he became a minor celebrity at Elliott Bay Books for being Egyptian ("is it ok to be a single woman in Egypt?" asked a much older woman), but also because he spoke about what matters to him as located outside others' interest in him. So he's not so interested in his poetry in writing about being an Arab or in his religious background, which is Copt, but he IS interested in the corporate world, how one navigates it. (He worked for Microsoft and is still in software.) "The other part will always be there," he said to me, "because it has to be, but that's not my focus." Having just ineptly quoted someone back to himself yesterday after a talk, I hesitate to quote anyone ever again, but that's as close as I can get for now to what Maged said. I miss you too. And by the way, how's corporate America treating you? ("Love letters from the middle class," 9). Or, less directly: Cyber-proletariat of the world, chat freely. (15). Cyber shall either set us free or quash us, brain-dead us. Or/and it shall do both. That Maged's poems are obsessed with the Organization and Sex is telling (and sometimes showing). These two intimate spheres connect within and without us. If corporations are people, should they not be permitted to marry? Do we not in fact marry the corporations we work for in a profound and intimate, if usually dysfunctional, way? Usually we wonder what language our bilingual friends love in, but Zaher turns that question on end, only to turn it back on its head a line later in "What if we offended your employees" (75-6):

What language do you do business in?
This landscape was once offered to Eros
And he declined it citing lack of ambition
Later he ventured in Persian carpets and bridging
intellect and passion
I wasn't sure what to do then with the love poems
I inherited
My friend said "no worries, I will get you a date
With the zoo's CIO"
She likes poetry, and she won't test your character
Yet give you plenty of coupons

In 1979's As We Know, John Ashbery ends "The Other Cindy" similarly, linking the corporation to "submission" of various, suggested and suggestive, kinds:

The one [city] with the big Woolworth's and postcard-blue sky.
The contest ends at midnight tonight
But you can submit again, and again. (LoA, 691)

Whether it's Woolworth's or Microsoft, buses, trains, or planes, the questions stay the same, getting more intense each week that Egypt and Wisconsin remain in crisis, and Ohio, and Indiana. So we return to Maged, a citizen of the world--or at least of Cairo and Seattle--whose interest is in the corporation more than in national cultures or religions. He may be on to a tectonic (yes, invoke nature to get away from nation-states!) shift in poetics, as well as in global politics. If our vocabularies have done this to us, who better to focus our attention than a second-language poet who dedicates his book "For the Arabic language" and then writes it entirely in English?

A side-note: we both laughed when Maged told the story of how he was flying into Cairo on the worst day of the Egyptian revolution--the day of camels and horses and whips--and the pilot decided to land in a safer place. That place was Beirut.

[a demonstration in front of Nordstrom by Libyans in Portland, Oregon, February, 2011]

I am now back at my desk, at my mac mini, and Bryant has loaded Donald Rumsfeld's memoirs on our new iPod touch. The world is poetry, the institution, and unknown knowns again, family and politics tangled, but last night's windstorm pruned some branches from the real trees.


Jonathan Morse said...

Greyhound news for the current economy:,19345/

David Wolach said...

I'm so sorry to have missed your reading--and lunch! What a traverse you had to make homeward, and how you can do it without disappearing! You touch much I feel close to, people and their typographical traces that are important to me, here in this post, but where distance-- doesn't always translate into time or lack of it. Sometimes we're monumental. Unmoving. Entropic. Home-bound shadow casters.

Pilot, these giving and rather amazing students and former students at Evergreen, your troubling and beautiful book, Kaia's too, - that walk I have yet to take, Maged's finger and the pulse it's on... and the image of you sitting there waiting, logistics becoming too problematic for laughter, and me down the street --one street plus a turn into town! I should have queried to see if you needed a ride once I found out you were in town! My apologies Susan...

This body is constructing a plexiglass cube, 8 by 5, that it can get into via a hatch n lock system above, needs knock to be let out of. I've been told there is a magician who is named Chris Angel and that he is a "Mind Freak." Perhaps a student with whom you spoke during your trip said to me that this Chris Angel places himself in suchlike contraptions. And people stare in awe at how he is able to fit into these spaces, how he can endure the cramped extremes of his own doing for so long. Ok, I said, but I was taking the construction of this box--sitting in the middle of my office/bedroom--as a place of banality, making visible the sort of enclosures we're married to most of the time. Some larger, where still we perform invisible, & yes, intimate, virtuosic, acts of production--like organelles, say, for a nervous system of board members. What's magical about living in a box? Maybe a lot, if the question is what COULD be magical about living in a box? But now, present circumstance, the question feels *almost* rhetorical--when friends and good conversation are right down the street. Wish I hadn't had such a week that would see me mess up on the dates of your being in town, failing to figure it out in any timely way--

Memory: I have very fond memories of your last reading here, in Olympia...Aleatory Allegories this small gem of a little book, and of course some earlier strokes of Dementia Blog. The contiguity between politics and memory and your mother-devastated us, language unfamiliar circumstances in some ways familiar. Jarring. Navigation of the prose, to quote Weiner from The Fast "an at home experience..."