the consequences of my body by Maged Zaher
Nighboat Books, 2016
This is love poetry for the Tao Lin generation. The consequences of my body offers a discourse on desire as it is mediated by the electronic interfaces that obviate the need for ‘skin to skin contact’ even as they turn out to exacerbate it: email, Skype, Facebook, Netflix (and chill). Part of this has to do with Maged Zaher’s unique trajectory as an engineer turned poet who still maintains a ‘day job [as] a software guy – a field in software called enterprise architecture … it is about overarching systems design’. Zaher is based in Seattle, which with its ‘poets, engineers, investment bankers, and – of course – musicians’ provokes some larger thoughts about networks and ‘the oppressive morality of productivity we live under’. Consequences is the work of a savvy poet in one of America’s savviest cities and one is made to feel it in the academic accent of such theoretical interludes as well as in the contrived flatness of Zaher’s low-strung diction: ‘I will / Also hide hope in an okay refrigerator’; ‘Thank you also for the few moments of hope / And for sleep after okay orgasms’. In such verses, ‘okay’ is pitched rather precisely at the point where whimsical satisfaction becomes difficult to discern from jaundice. Such ambiguity offers a clue to the kind of character we are dealing with in the poem: a digital dandy.
If Seattle provides consequences with one set of co-ordinates for its exploration of being ‘connected’ as a politico-sexual analogy, Cairo supplies another. The effects of the Tahrir Square protests of 2011 (stoked by social media), the revolutionary conflagration of the Arab Spring and the ensuing Winter are registered keenly:
I didn’t risk my life in the Egyptian revolution – yet somehow my worst moment of personal defeat culminated upon seeing Cairo itself defeated – Cairo – a city that I never truly lived in – I just walked its downtown streets an infinite amount of times and these same downtown store lights were/are to fuel my poetry journey until now …
It is an odd moment of candour that makes more sense in the context of Zaher’s work as a translator of Egyptian poets who were directly involved in the protests. Despite Zaher’s attempt to forestall the unearned pathos of mere fellow-travelling, the poignancy of political defeat lingers and infuses those moments that are located in a pallid elsewhere with an unexpected fragility:
This is not about seduction It is about hanging out tonight While surrounded by capitalism It rains And we call it love This continuous threat of collapse
The lover’s carpe diem has been transposed to the key of post-revolutionary disappointment. What might otherwise be a canny euphemism –‘hanging out’ – comes off as the delicate result of managed self-expectations, a twilight eroticism that has learnt from experience not to hope for too much.
The shuttling between Seattle and Cairo allows Zaher to trace out a hybrid poetic genealogy for himself. The fifth section of consequences contains a three-page manifesto, ‘Aesthetics: A Personal Statement – Rated R’, in which Zaher claims a joint affinity with the ‘Udhri’ Arabic love poets and North American L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, his own work situating itself on the ‘middle ground between the lyrical and the experimental’. Zaher seems to owe just as much to the slacker hedonism of the New York School which finds its way, rather appealingly, into the translations of classical Arabic love poetry strewn throughout this section. Take these lines from Abu Nuwas:
I circle around your house every day As if, for your house, circumambulation was created
The idiom of infatuation has been updated and, in the manner of contemporary pop lyric (think Lorde), invokes a love that in its sheer gratuitousness becomes absorbed into a larger ritual of holding unrelieved boredom at bay. But in one of Zaher’s riskier gambits, this flavour of hedonism is mixed rather surprisingly with the love-as-martyrdom trope to produce something out of Harmony Korine:
We have enough to order soda and lunch And walk parallel to some river The easygoing passengers reek of privilege You take over the hostages I will pretend I am peaceful
These are felicitous moments in a volume that is likely to amuse some and exasperate many through its skittish theatrics. Effortlessly hip, consequences blurs the line between bathos and pathos, the mundane and the sublime, the real and the virtual in legitimising love’s place alongside language and politics as one of life’s nobler distractions.