In Praise of the Body
The Anatomy of the Bones, J. Barclay, 1829
by Scherezade Siobhan
The Consequences of My Body,
by Maged Zaher,
Nightboat Books, 160 pp.
When I begin to think of a (any) body and its liminal (autocorrect wants to reaffirm it as “luminal”) itineraries in a world that aches to slap a miscellany of labels onto it, two different declarations splice my grasp of reality –
We have acceleration. We have trajectory. But above all, we have synthesis. (Ahmed Salman)
I, the holding and the holding back. (Traci Brimhall, closing lines to “Arctic Lullaby” )
Is the parallax from synthesis to separation (and subtraction even, if we delve further into the act of holding back following the holding) merely another form of contour rivalry or an active, ungoverned metamorphosis?
Seattle-based poet Maged Zaher likes to send his poems swimming in this very fathomless arroyo, like the small, yet ancient pupfish of Death Valley, which I had the privilege and delight of saying hi to earlier this year. I also had the privilege and delight of spending time listening to Maged in his house, seated amidst books and plants, discussing the contemporary oral poetry of Egypt and the cumbersome hierarchies of software companies in the Pacific Northwest, over the most plump of pizza slices. So, as I began to read his newest offering – The Consequences of My Body – I imagined the poems in his voice, punctured by his frequent laughter, mimicking an ambulance siren.
Maged’s work semaphores a complex yet necessary balance in the realm of contemporary poetics – he is as much a sculptor of minutiae and momentary confessions as he is a weaver of larger sociopolitical crises and transactions, coating our solitary and collective worlds like quick-drying cement: each a very delicate skill. In his hands, the thread of any single line can easily be cross-stitched with another, seemingly disparate testimony and yet when perceived together, their combination is as revelatory as it is amusing, fragile, contradictory and yet all too relatable.
There can’t be a better way to throw light at the explicit cusp of the personal and political in our zeitgeist than the imagination of this sentence. We are tenants of digital communities– we catalyze, spark, forge our narratives through virtual stagecraft; our time has less space or our space has become deliberately timeless. And still, while warmed by the synthetic noctilucence of all our shiny iThings, has our loneliness gotten hungrier and darker than before? And if so, is its appetite defined by the presence of some undisclosed pecking order of who can feel what and when, and to what absoluteness?
My loneliness is a matter of presence not absence; in a noise of names, I engage with on a daily basis, my loneliness grows wider and sharper as if to say that filling an empty space can only guarantee its fullness not its wholeness. And these are two independent, mostly mutually exclusive destinations.
Through this book, the body is branched five ways.
Body as history
With blue collar desires
I heart your skin
To confront the violence
Of the father –
The only poem here is history
It is half amusing, half annoying, that automatic data validation converts heart into hear just to maintain some iron-fisted measure of syntax for the second verse of that poem. It is also prophetic – to transform a heart into hearing. Maged does this so frequently and so well, you think the aorta is streaming blood right into the pinna like it were the mouth of a wineglass. This sound is wet with the profusion of remembrances. I want to evade the easy psychoanalysis of any poem but especially this one and yet, here I find a mirror for my own summaries – are all love poems written first for our parents, then for our lovers? The violence of a blue-collared father, the blue desires of a violent father – how many depths can be pulled out from under the cleaving of these words? The story as unburnable as the memory it conceals as its birthright.
Body as a conversation
I am brown – I worry about my race and I worry about other things – would a woman like you really be able to consider me a possible partner – without the exoticism
I am brown too. I worry about my race too. I worry about its computed erasures. I worry if the man in Paris finds me beautiful because I am brown or despite it. The body for me – as it maybe for Maged too – is also a diary of troubled ink, a catalogue of colonized dreams. In this part of the book, an email inbox is both – an sensory deprivation tank & a crowded bar. Each rife with its musk of confessions. The urgency of desire is palpable in its simplicity – the body speaks into the humbling ether of digital dust in the truest tradition of man addressing god (mortality) in his most drunken honesty. We are voyeurs to a fraction of this dialogue. We are left to invent the missing echo.
Body as a journey
Everything here is exact
As if God never left
And if there is time
Perhaps the greatest hoax the body ever performs is convincing us it will stay ours or with us forever. And yet through love and death, we learn otherwise. We are slowly baptized by its wayward momentum, its unpredictable circuitry. We learn about being hitchhikers of doorknobs. We drown the sophistry of this form in cheap but copious liquor. We furbish the art of watering the nothingness. As if it will grow. As if it is anything other than a plate of porcelain fruit on my grandmother’s dining table. The imitation of an imitation. To perish approximately. And I, the reader, perish along its continued cadence.
Body as thirst
It is Mahmoud Darwish who proclaimed – ‘One day, I will be a poet. Water will depend on my visions.’
Almost like an telephone call answered decades later, Maged writes – “I come with few stones. I spill water.”
Is this a reimagined parable of the crow? The poet carrying words like pebbles in his black beak, then dropping them one at a time to watch the surface of language swell up enough to satisfy the thirst of his fantasy. Maged’s writing is easily identifiable for its unorthodox method of mixing instructions with invocation. He almost always composes statements in fuss-free hermeneutics where you are briefed about an event followed by an immediate transplanting of doubt leaving you with a neurosis-tinged comedy fluent in emotions.
I carry my body over the distance between home and work
I couldn’t save the streets from myself.
I imagine this incidental implant drowning the freeways of Emerald city like a river schemed from defiant satire. There is a gift here – the way the water of this writing clarifies and equalizes the many loose futures he serenades separately. Whether he is addressing the madness of buying horse, professing the kind of jealousy which allows him to perfume, reminiscing about prayers that wait for us – he discloses his body as a succession of thirsts. Whose satisfaction is immaterial when compared to their emergence.
Body as (Untranslatable) Language
The the tribe of Jamil ibn Ma’mar, a poet of Medina is turned down by that of his lover Bothania’s peoples because his poetry about her is considered a desecration of virtue and so she is married off to another man. Their relationship continues after her marriage; unconsummated, audacious. Udhra poets speak of love without attaching it to the body. This language of wanting withdraws from the supposed evolution towards a sensual closure. This part of the book is a barefaced antithesis to what preceded it but if you have read Maged enough, somewhere along the way you knew it was coming.
The circle seems complete. The history of language is stacked back as the language of history and he remembers its dauntless phases, its empiric sin qua non whether through attempts at interpreting Jamil or his own father –
At an early age my dad beat me up numerously so I would learn the letter D.
The origin of poetry in so many men I know of, lies in the storm their fathers pushed down their throats. That is the first seed of a language they turn to for mothering and molding. As the book turns towards its closure, it marries the clean acoustics of its dulcet yet sparse pronunciation to the monotones insertions of stray lines about software architecture, tourist attractions and faintly audible odes to the lurking shadow of Seattle.
That is the thing about Maged Zaher’s writing – it reminds me of the street buskers in Barcelona, their time-perfected art which is constructed like a daily renewal. This book doesn’t cheat on its title – it’s an open performance for Maged’s incisive blues, his graceful cynicism. Here is a collection that is undammed, is what Mos Def would call – fluid even in staccato. You put your fingers to the page and trace the parts that were written to expunge memory and those that were created in the absence of memory. It reminds you that the body which we carry in an everyday, self-replicating code sort of way, is both: song and instrument.