Heather Taylor Johnson reviews Luis Gonzalez Serrano and Ali Alizadeh

15 June 2007

eyesintimesofwar.jpgCities with Moveable Parts by Luis Gonzalez Serrano
Poets Union Inc., 2005

Eyes in Times of War by Ali Alizadeh
Salt Publishing, 2006

If Australian poetry is meant to reflect the lives and times of the people who inhabit this red and green land and its blue surf turf, then it is essential that the diminutive canon embrace the émigrés. They are the voices of a multi-culturally inclusive (or exclusive, as sometimes the case may be) society and what is truly unique is that they have a certain amount of inherent distance from the Australian culture which enables them to go where others have not the means to consider. For the most part, these poets' choice of Australia, and their desire to write in and about Australia, usually entails writing of the antithesis: the poet's native home. What these poets have to say is not always pro-Australian and rarely is it pro-motherland, but that's sometimes what makes it so important.

In his first collection of poetry, Cities with Moveable Parts, Luis Gonzalez Serrano writes of homecomings and departures and, within these themes, of an inevitable displacement, as in 'Suburbs, countries, continents':

But there's things only we can do:
speak languages
loud enough to affirm our existence,
sleep on hammocks tied
to the scaffolding of the universe,
fitting patience
where there's no room for peace.

And as his is a voice of experience, we have no reason to doubt him. Serrano's chapbook flip-flops between the lived migrant poem and the moving travel poem, though even in the travel poem, it is always the migrant speaking. One can sense which poems are from a place close to his heart, quite possibly his native home of El Salvador, as they portray a legitimacy that some of his travel poems do not. In 'San Salvador (2)', for example:

Perhaps the need for staying
comes from the sadness you'd feel
if the streets were deserted
after so much life, all your memories.
You should just marry here, settle down,
make a living, whatever.

Nostalgia and longing mix well with a teaspoon of antipathy and, through this fusion, the poet allows a glance at a grateful-to-be-elsewhere man, yet a man, nonetheless, who is grateful for his decorated heritage. As with his migrant poems, in the travel poems there is an underlying feeling of astonishment, not only for the city in question, but for the mere fact that the poet has been blessed with the opportunity to explore, as in, again, 'Suburbs, countries, continents':

So we find
the world is made of islands
the horizon a myth to chase all your life.
We lost the fear of falling
off the edge the Earth
and read the world as map.

Home fits on the tip of our index finger
pointing forward.

Serrano's precision proves his authenticity and that, in our age of dissecting diaspora through discourse in exile and belonging, is something many strive for but fail to achieve. Aptly named Cities with Moveable Parts, Serrano writes of the self-sufficiency, self-loathing and ultimately self-empowerment found in a number of Spanish-speaking places. There is a gentle quality in his poems that leave large impressions, as in 'Veracruz':

The things I see on the way back home
couldn't be painted
unless on a canvas with a heartbeat,
people sweating at the sight of it.

But nothing, however, quakes. Some poems read like writing exercises toying with a gimmick, while others lay bare his youth. It could be suggested that stricter editing should have been enforced but it is an immensely thin volume – a chapbook by definition – and one wouldn't want him to spend more time musing over individual poems as it is clearly of urgent timing in Serrano's journey as a poet. First we must discover who we are and where we come from; then we dream the possibilities. I believe this collection paves the way for a dreamer and a maker of dreams.

Ali Alizadeh's Eyes in Times of War is a far cry from a gentle and youthful collection; in fact it is quite the opposite.

Perhaps this is my problem and demonstrates my insecurities for being in the wrong country at the wrong time but I sometimes felt guilty, as if Alizadeh was directing his principles of morality at me, a first world citizen of a Christianised society, for better or worse. Luckily I agreed with his ethical ideals but does that excuse his emphasis on resentment? That said, if ever there was a need for a call to empathy and tolerance and such a necessity to do so with loud voice, it is now, in our twenty-first century of war, ignorance and blame. So Alizadeh's resentment is well-placed; whether you like his approach, his words are important. And though ten poems detailing the poet's genesis of his embitterment can be draining, Alizadeh gets it right often enough to make the experience an enlightening one. An example of this dichotomy can be seen in 'I am Filth':

             Do not spare a thought

for my history. I don't have one.
            Yours is the epic of discovery and triumph;

mine an illegible, fading footnote.
             Do not worry yourself with

the story of my culture being the Cradle
             of Civilisation. You shall rock

my history to the grave

Some poems are less grounded in the real-world with real-time and have an ancient mythic quality to them. It is in these poems, such as 'Rumi', that Alizadeh's control of language beautifully highlights his deep-found respect for his culture, be it the poetry, the history, the land or the people of his native Iran:

I thought about my tribe

butchered as sacrificial beasts.
I remembered their smiles

before the flames. On the holy night
I knelt before the moon

and wept. In the desert
tears are elixir. From their pool

a fountain bubbled. I cleaned my scars
in the water. The books

weighed on my body. I took them out
and one by one

dipped them into the spring.
All knowledge, all art, and all history

drowned before my eyes. Freed
from the clutch of paper

words' ink dissolved in the lake.
I then drank. I was saved.

As the title suggests, Alizadeh is concerned with war and all that it entails. He intuitively sections his book into Monsters, Battles, Embers and Retrospect and that, in itself, is poetry. It shows us the causes and effects in a linear fashion and, in a way, reads like a story: a twisted, sad story indeed.

For me it is the final section, Retrospect, which resonates the most as the poet finally leaves behind the rigorous structure of two-lined stanzas and two- to four-page poems for varied verse in style and length. His departure from the strict sameness of the bulk of his collection proves that Alizadeh is capable of adapting and expanding, of experimenting and surprising. Had he not gone this route, I would have been sorely disappointed. Perhaps his decision to loosen his style came from the fact that his mission had been accomplished; he had pinpointed the cause of his anger, detailed it for us to read with clenched teeth, if not fist, and given us the paper of his poetry to use as tissue to dry our eyes. It would appear that with his objective realised, he could enjoy himself a bit. Play a little. Breathe. We could breathe. So in the end we are given the opportunity to enjoy Alizadeh's deft use of memory, as in 'Teeth in Times of War':

They introduced a dental plan
the day Afghanistan got bombed
so I flicked my teeth with a fingernail
as the American Alliance carved
cavities into Kabul's ravines.

And 'ABC':

            It was all an incomprehensible religious/political thing to me
'cos an American kids' show
            diverted my curiosity from my uncle's smoking bullet wound
to an actor in a yellow feathery bird's costume on the box
saying: 'A is for apple'
                                                    the naïve imperialist Big Bird
couldn't teach me English 'cos more resonant than his singalong
                                      A was for Allah Islam's God.
Ernie's B for banana
                                                  was overshadowed by B of ballah:
                                                                            Persian for disaster
as a religious rebel's rock smashed our dining room window
              and Sesame Street was axed and replaced by the telecast
                           of names and photos of closed-eyed corpses
of the Peacock Throne's ministers and generals
                           executed by Muslim revolutionaries.

But let it be known that in exalting this section, I do not mean to decry what Alizadeh is doing with Eyes in Times of War in its entirety. In many ways, this is his war more than it is our war and I have no problem granting him that. His anger is grounded. His passion is real. His voice rings powerfully and echoes over land and sea. And he should be heard.

Heather Taylor Johnson holds a PhD in Creative Writing and is a poetry editor of Wet Ink.

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