Tina Giannoukos Reviews Ali Alizadeh

5 September 2011

Ashes in the Air by Ali Alizadeh
University of Queensland Press, 2011

Ali Alizadeh’s latest collection, Ashes in the Air, blows across the fault lines of our manifold present. These are poems of strong rhetorical force. With remarkable alertness to volatile complexities, they engage in an argument with barely comprehensible realities of exclusion and inclusion. They are radical, philosophical and profoundly affective. They are not the stuff of the serenely observed or lightly recalled. Nor do they resolve themselves into the reassuring. Instead, they remain concentrated in their intellectual and aesthetic tensions. From the affective inquiries of the opening poem, ‘Marco Polo’, to the closing sorrow of ‘Staph’, the collection sets a profound challenge, in which “Reality/can be unforgiving” (89). There are poems here of love, of fatherhood, of migration, of friendship, of war and of death.

As befits the praise Alizadeh has garnered in recent years, his publications to date are indeed impressive, in terms of literary range and interrogations, including the much-praised and shortlisted for a 2011 NSW Premier’s Literary Award, Iran: My Grandfather, a moulding of history, fiction and memoir (2010). His other works include the novel, The New Angel (2008), a love story set during the Iran-Iraq War, three books of poetry, beginning with eliXir: a story in poetry (2002), and a range of theatrical and filmic work, including A Sufi Valentine (La Mama Theatre, 2004), a collaboration between Alizadeh and filmmaker Bill Mousoulis, in which Alizadeh performed English translations of the Sufi poets Rumi and Hafiz, as well as his own contemporary Sufi poems.

In fact, Sufism, with its preoccupation with love, animates a good deal of Alizadeh’s work, in which the rumination on the beloved assumes a modern, questioning face, as in ‘A Sufi Remonstrance’ in Ashes in the Air. He is also a critic, including being cordite.org’s reviews editor, whose reviews are often peppered with acute observations on poetics, in which works come in for a rounder kind of criticism than is sometimes the case in Australian reviewing. Often, he positions works within broader literary concerns, arguing in his review of Tatjana Lukic’s la, la, la (2009) that “poetry written by non-Anglo-Celtic Australians does not usually garner much recognition” since “[i]t is the prose narratives of dislocation and cultural transition, and not poetry dealing with these themes, which are de rigueur”.

In his oeuvre, Alizadeh is often engaged with survival, in which his language rarely, if ever, is circumspect. Reviewing Eyes in Times of War (2006), Heather Taylor Johnson argues that “whether you like his approach, his words are important”. It is not necessarily the case that his own abrupt teenage migration from Iran to Australia is the sole source of his aesthetic and intellectual preoccupations. It should be recalled that Alizadeh had already at the age of thirteen, as his own website informs us, “produced his first public writing – a simplified prose version of an episode of the early medieval epic Shah-Nameh (Book of Kings) – at 13, winning a young adults’ literary award, and becoming the subject of a documentary film for Iran’s national television”.

Thus, Alizadeh has continued, rather than cut off, his literary unfolding, taking on the challenge of a new language, not only making it his own, but, as his multifarious production reveals, also infusing it with new rhythms and images, and thereby widening Australian poetic preoccupations beyond the veins explored by many contemporary poets, for whom a concern with East-West relations, for example, is not necessarily as acute a concern as in Alizadeh’s work. This is not the same as suggesting that his politically inquiring eye is an unknown factor in contemporary Australian poetry. Importantly, Alizadeh is not merely engaged in politics, but traffics in the richness of language and ideas, in which innovation and experimentation are part of his poetic imagination. As Patrick Mangeni observes of Alizadeh’s first collection, eliXir: a story in poetry (2002), “eliXir is not just ‘a story in poetry’ … but a creative adventure, a collage of narrative experimentation”.

If reductive statements must be made, Alizadeh continues and participates in a politico-spiritual concern shared by other contemporary Australian poets, such as the sharply observant John Mateer, of whose collection, The West: Australian Poems 1989-2009 (2010), Alizadeh argues that it “presents potent instances of [Mateer’s] unique, unsettling poetics”. In this sense, then, Ashes in the Air picks up and continues Alizadeh’s own unsettling interventions in Australian poetry. As The Age’s poetry editor, the poet and critic, Gig Ryan, suggests herself in her recent review of Ashes in the Air in Australian Book Review, Alizadeh’s latest collection “reclaims some themes from his earlier poetry collection, Eyes in the Time of War (2006)” so that “[a]utobiographical sequences once again interweave with accounts of recent wars and oppression”.

Adapting for myself Alizadeh’s own observation of Mateer, “[t]here’s no reason to either over- or understate the fact of [Alizadeh’s] non-Australian national origin”, even if it infuses Alizadeh’s work with an extra-literary concern not necessarily part of the imaginary of other contemporary Australian poets. Alizadeh demands an acute interrogation of the objectification of the Other in Ashes in the Air but his self-deprecating wit is such that he spares not even himself. As Gig Ryan observes in the above-mentioned review, “Ashes in the Air is also a journey of self-discovery in which he too is prejudiced towards difference”. However, a poem like ‘The Heater’ raises for me the question of whether the poem’s speaker is too idly repeating prejudices or interrogating bigotries ironically, since he both proselytizes and retreats:

….. Today’s
superpower smokes the atmosphere, kills
Iraqis, pushes the world’s face
into the shit of ‘toxic’ debt. Will
Chinese world domination be any less
crass? I shiver, block my ears, sneeze. (40)

Turn to the blurb on the back of Ashes in the Air, and the eye catches a snippet of the opening poem, ‘Marco Polo’, in which are intertwined death and travel. Implicit in this is the suggestion that the poems in this book will engage us in a metaphysical journey. Is this, however, mere metaphysical conceit, something torn from the fabric of the poet’s life or high artifice? Perhaps the book is something of all three. Not to be mechanical about it, but Ashes in the Air consists of forty poems. Intentional or not, this figure in itself is significant, suggestive as it is of exile, suffering and illumination. Some of the poems have dedications: they are written after someone, are dedicated to someone, or have epigrams. This makes them part of a community; a dialogue is being had here, in which we are not necessarily cognisant of the greater details beyond those which we are allowed to glean via the playfulness of the dedications and epigrams themselves. Such dedications and epigrams suggest something of Alizadeh’s intellectual affiliations, conundrums and even perhaps something of the literal and metaphorical conversations he is or may be having with other poets and writers, living and dead, these streams of thoughts and threads of conversation that haunt all writing. Of course, the poems themselves offer greater, subtle clues.

To take up then the mutabilities of the opening poem, ‘Marco Polo’, Alizadeh’s itinerant speaker speculates whether he and his wife are “monstrous/parents”; indeed, the speaker wonders ironically “Why have we conceived/and delivered a life into the world/in transition?” However, the familiar trope of a father being held to account “by a solicitous young man/with my eyes (and my wife’s better/eyebrows)” for “depriving him of his deserved/comforts of sedentary genesis” assumes its more interesting existential dimension when the speaker concludes that he will tell his son:

…………………if we can see
death looming, like a dark island

on the navigator’s horizon
then we won’t be shocked when

time’s run out. This means
a life without our primal fear. That’s why

we travel. (3)

These are frequently poems with an urgent message, but their message is not the biased rhetoric of the politician, but that of the wounded voice that attempts to reach us from beside the trenches. Poems like ‘The Suspect’ address perennial questions of belonging and exclusion, but in their latest, more politically insistent manifestation. The poem, which was first published online in Cordite and anthologised subsequently by Alan Wearne in the University of Queensland’s The Best Australian Poetry 2009, is a masterful exploration of the impasse of being labelled “There, in the Other land” as “west-/smitten” and “Here, in Our land, I am/Muslim immigrant”, in which the concluding lines highlight the paradox of the speaker’s dilemma:

…. My likes

don’t belong to tribes, nations, et al; but
welcome at the cells of the Islamic Republic’s

Evin Prison, pliers pinching their finger
-nails; or sleep-deprived and hooded indefinitely

in the dark solitaries of Guantánamo Bay. (10-11)

It is important to note that the more politically engaged poems in Ashes in the Air are not narcissistic homilies to some self-proclaimed political vision, but play out against the shattered terrains of war, migration and terrorism with a prescience that lends them their moral forcefulness. A poem like ‘Our Democracy’ engages in a compelling critique of the claims to secular democracy. The rhetorical investigations of the poem, ‘Culture and Its Terrors’, and the speaker’s refusal of the abject position, are a linguistic unmasking:

And
your winds try to suck me up, have me

twist, submit to the cycles of your national
psyche. You want me as your grateful

immigrant, to emulate, in short have
my bones bitten by the teeth of your storm

in the name of harmony? Calling this
‘limbo’; dull euphemism. ‘Medieval torture’

melodrama. So I’ve resorted to natural
disaster metaphors: Mother Nature’s blights

complement Father Culture’s terrors. (8-9)

The speaker becomes the target of his own biting wit, when he deigns to be superior. Riffing on Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, the speaker’s hypocritical revolutionary action in ‘Listening to Michael Jackson in Tehran’ ends in self-humiliation. The poem is as much about the speaker’s desire for “attention” and “approval/from the other kids” as it is about the actual life going on in “war-stricken Tehran”, in which the speaker’s possession of supposed “dangerous Western ‘art’” is revealed as merely another product:

… Silenced, robbed of my planned
stardom, I sank in my seat; later threw out my

Thriller tape, the fetish of Great Satan’s
useless, ubiquitous popular culture. (13)

In his impassioned explorations, the speaker, however, concludes no treaty with any one blighted side. Nevertheless, exile exacts its price. In the poem, ‘Exile and Entropy’, the speaker concludes:

………………….To be sure, desire

boils emotions in my mind’s engine
but my body doesn’t move. It wanes

in the swamp’s mud, here
behind this desk, my muscles sag

submerged in exile, thoughts simmer. (31)

As has been hinted above, the collection’s more overtly political but by no means aesthetically stripped poems raise broader critical questions, such as where on the spectrum of Australian poetry does work like this belong. Not so long ago a poet like Alizadeh, Iranian-born, teenage migrant to Australia, might have been abruptly contained within the bounded zone of writing from the other side that disturbs the public conscience but slowly falls back into its silent prison. But since the early days of awaking to the voice of the migrant or multicultural Other within Australian culture, borders have been redrawn to some extent and what is “Australian” writing has thereby been challenged. It is clear that in much of his work, as in Ashes in the Air, Alizadeh is working across cultures.

This is not to suggest that Alizadeh is writing outside of the various streams of contemporary Australian poetry but merely to proffer the idea that his writing, drawing as it does on Persian traditions as much as Western, opens Australian poetry to new influences. Reviewing Alizadeh’s collaboration with Kenneth Avery, Fifty Poems of Attar (2007), in The Australian, Barry Hill calls it “a wonderful Australian production, a gift to the world”. In his more overtly political poems in Ashes in the Air, what makes Alizadeh’s investigations richly textured unfoldings rather than mere rhetorical maneuvers is the way the shockingly political is also the terribly inhuman. How can the speaker not grieve in ‘March to War’ when:

Now
my native land transcends an ‘axis of evil’

to perch on a nuclear fault line. (54)

The ambitious ‘History of the Veil’, with the obvious ironical invocation of Michel Foucault, becomes indeed an unveiling of the history of the veil, in which the body of the woman is the contested terrain. Masterful as it is, the poem unfolds at times less gracefully than it might otherwise have done, its rhetorical moves too hurried, as if the poem needs a broader canvas, perhaps an epic unfolding to expand the ideas more fully and let the images gain concreteness, unlike some of the other strongly yet shorter rhetorical poems in this collection, such as the moving ‘Politkovskaya’, in which, the speaker cries, “Forget Pushkin Pushkin,/Akhmatova, Pasternak, Yevtushenko/ Today /only you matter; you, Russia’s only true poet”.

In three parts, ’The History of the Veil’ beginning with “Once upon a time”, continuing with “Tension in the tale” in the second part and reaching “Towards a conclusion” in the third part” is nevertheless both a virtuoso recitation and discerning critique of ideas, not only on the history of the veil within Islam, or the control of women across cultures, but also the conflictual as much as the cultural interrelationship between the Christian West and the Islamic East, in which Crusaders who —

see Woman as the raison d’être of Man’s fall from Heaven

hear erotic Sufi poetry, return to their castes to inaugurate
Chivalric Romance, etc; (14)

Yet, as I have suggested above, some of the poem’s shifts can seem grandiloquent, in which the philosophical overwhelms the lyrical:

At any rate the West needs their oil more sincerely
than anti-racism activists could advocate tolerance, diversity,

etc. But fear of Islam – inter alia a pathological concern for
what women wear/shouldn’t wear – widespread in the West

as pursuit of cash, addiction to success, thirst for world
domination. So it can be exploited by politicians. (17)

It should not be thought, however, that the poem is thereby diminished, for in its breathless rendition, its imaginative expansion and its discursive exploration of incendiary terrain it transforms into a moral litany against the historical exploitation of women:

……..Perennially insecure
we’ll do anything to prove our power over reality, altering

the shape of the body; covering it by force here, uncovering it
by force there: woman will/not wear the veil un/happily ever after (18)

Throughout the collection the poems are composed in couplets, in which enjambment across lines and couplets underscores the poems’ meditative and narrative mutabilities. In fact, enjambment encourages the ambivalences of the more unsettling poems. In such poems as ‘Seduction’, for example, enjambment cuts across syntax with such exactitude that the poem enacts syntactically as much as rhythmically its brutalities:

………………..What else
did you expect? Flirtation

with my cutlass soaked in the crass
blood of the Minotaur? Never

underestimate the undesirability
of my love. …(61)

As Gig Ryan points out, Alizadeh “is influenced by the traditional Persian ghazal”, having, as we have seen, also translated the twelfth-century Persian poet with Keneth Avery in Fifty Poems of Attar (2007). It is no surprise then that Alizadeh renews his spiritual and intellectual affinity to Attar in ‘Attar’, in which he retells the death of the Sufi poet (49); indeed, his interest in Sufism is taken up again in ‘Sufi’s Remonstrance’, as mentioned above, in which the ethical challenge is made, like a latter-day spiritual anarchist:

… How dare You bewitch
in an aeon like this? …..(63).

As can be gleaned from my discussion of ‘Attar’ and ‘A Sufi Remonstrance’, it should not be thought from my more insistent emphasis on the collection’s political poems that Ashes in the Air speaks only of the politically urgent. This is to misjudge the poems. They are all complex, layered poems, in which profoundly forthright inquiries are being made. The poems are engaged with living itself. In the poem, ‘Now’, the speaker considers the damage being inflicted on “Mother Nature”:

…………………….We know
we’ve irreversibly crossed

the river, but too conceited to brace
ourselves for annihilation

we think us Caesars are winning
but only inch towards the dark centre:

the terror of a loveless mother. (44)

Other poems play out their urgencies differently. A poem like ‘Distance vs. The Heart’ becomes a playful love poem, in which the speaker supposes:

………………………….(I guess
you know exactly what these

metaphors have been
meant to show: my longing

for your body, this
lust for movement, from me to you.) (68)

Given my critique of the ‘The History of the Veil’, it might indeed seem as if too loud a note is being struck in some of the more rhetorical language of the collection. But in the play across lines, as I have already implied in ‘The History of the Veil’ itself, these are more compositional moments that strike a firm, emphatic note, one in keeping with the strong tonal register of the overall collection, than compositional failures. This is not to say that the collection is in one register. The tonal shifts within individual poems and across the collection make for a more satisfying aesthetic experience that translates into a powerful inquiry into the present than if they were cast in one expressive or analytical mode. Indeed, seemingly unrelenting language is offset frequently by sensuous language, revealing Alizadeh’s complex handling of language. A poem like ‘The Armistice’ gains power from its unexpected lyricism amidst the more strongly meditative inquiries of the poem:

……………When love
is deposed, paranoia

a sly hegemony
over other judgments, rules

in favour of suspicion
even terror. For example, skin

exiled from kiss and caress
in due course anticipates

force, roughness
even some kind of blade. …. (70)

To reflect on the play of the lyrical in the poems, these poems do not appeal to the lyrical as authentication of experience, in which the speaker’s identification with suffering is enough to justify the speaker’s impassioned call, since

…….Cunning
and assiduous as I am

I can’t always trap
the unknowable facts

in a cage constructed
of calculated artifice. … (28)

That is not the same, however, as saying that the lyrical is not activated; indeed, it erupts often in the midst of turbulent argument or is made to do work with the ordinary or the self-consciously ironical. ‘My Divine Comedy’, for example, plays on its references:

Let’s just say my inferno began in the dark woods
of rejection – by parents, compatriots and girls

and I had abandoned all hope of being absolved
of the sin of self-loathing. ….(69)

The instances of pleasure in reading the collection are too many to enumerate. Suffice to say that a poem like ‘Sufi’s Remonstrance’, as I have already suggested, is superb in its elaboration of the beloved. The poem ‘The Deep End’ is excellent in its performance of vacant middle-class life in Tehran. Even ‘The History of the Veil’, which makes its arguments too forcefully at times, becomes a commanding critique of the indefensible.

In a collection in which the speaker roams the globe, figuratively and literally, it is perhaps appropriate that he concludes with the elegiac ‘Staph’, in which news of a friend’s death reaches the speaker in Istanbul. The poem, however, winds its way through historic as much as private entombments. Yet the complex dance between life and death is enacted anew as the speaker’s son wriggles in his father’s arms:

………………………I was stunned, then

on the cruise, past the stone fortress
on the European side of the strait

that choked Constantinople
to death. Byzantium since entombed

by the Ottoman’s Islam. The boy
wriggled in my arms. … (90)

This is a fine collection whose rhetoric might infuriate, but whose affective power ultimately focuses attention. Indeed, the meditative and narrative explorations of the collection engage forcefully with a disquieting world.

Tina Giannoukos is a poet and writer. Her writing has appeared in various journals. Her first collection of poetry is entitled In a Bigger City (Five Islands Press, 2005). Her poetry has also been anthologised in Southern Sun, Aegean Light: Poetry of Second-Generation Greek-Australians, ed. N.N. Trakakis (Arcadia, Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2011). She has been a recipient of a Varuna Writers Fellowship, and has been a guest of the Melbourne Writers Festival and Overload Poetry Festival. She has also read her poetry in Greece and China. She holds an MA from the University of Melbourne, where she is currently completing a PhD in Creative Writing.

Note – this review was commissioned, edited and posted by Cordite’s managing editor, David Prater.

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