I've been reading Rebecca Solnit's book about walking, learning to distinguish between the walking of aristocrats and the walking of workers, and to see in Wordsworth the poet who empathized with ordinary people by way of his purposeful strides. The way we walk, or more particularly our reasons for walking, are themselves a language. My wander through her book has brought me to the Romantics, but not as far as Frank O'Hara (is he in this book?) and his brisk urban(e) walks through Manhattan. I remember asking a student this past semester why he thought O'Hara's lunch poems were all accurate to what had happened to O'Hara on any given walk. Why assume that they're non-fiction poems, as opposed to poems whose lines matter more than steps? I realized, as I asked, that I too had made that assumption about the truth of O'Hara's walks.
It's Frank O'Hara on the telephone that appears in Pam Brown's new book, Home By Dark--the telephone you can see him on, even as he types a poem, on a youtube video--not on one of his urban gallops. She's writing a poem to Gig Ryan, starting from the telephone. (See O'Hara's "Personism" on poems as phone calls.) And her poem, "In my phone," is indeed about poems: "in a poetry world / everything is providential, / or not, / and / sometimes, / just life on hold, call waiting," though very little in Pam Brown's poetry waits. It's kinetic, her mind skipping like her lines across the page, quickly, an eye to the world's scatter and ear to its white noise. Her poem walks are loopy; they come back around. Maged Zaher's new Ugly Duckling book, Thank You for the Window Office, also includes O'Hara, while charting a history of the past 40-50 years that offers new meaning to the walk:
In the middle of the acquisition meeting
I thought of Frank O'Hara walking New York streets
My lunch poems were composed over Chinese take out
While we decided whom to fire
In the window office of Zaher's software corporation, there is no longer a lunch hour in which to play flaneur. There is no break between work and walk. The lucky ones sit; the less lucky will walk. There is only a business meeting, and the question of who will walk, take a hike, lose their jobs. Walking on the street outside that office means walking away from a living wage and literally and figuratively to be "on the street." No window to one's soul this window, but (as the cover image shows us) a window from which to jump. Jumping is not walking, is more violent, more sudden, thought-shattering rather than meditative (to put it mildly).
One of Tinfish's plum chapbooks was a collaboration between Pam Brown of Sydney and Maged Zaher of Seattle/Cairo. You can read the story behind their chapbook here. (Tinfish Press also published a book by Zaher tout seul, here.) Despite the distances between their cities and their Englishes, they wrote poems so seamless that no one could tell whose voice was whose. Uncanny collaboration. It made sense, however, as they are both poetic kids of O'Hara, both urban poets, both write in the demotic, and both cast sharply ironic eyes at the daily worlds they inhabit. Brown wrote from her station at the library where she worked, Zaher from his software corporation. If O'Hara's walks on the concrete of Manhattan turned his mind to matters of art and friendship, Brown's and Zaher's walks can be said to be like his. And, if O'Hara commented on the civil rights movement and on being a gay man, then Brown and Zaher are also walking in their own time.
What is this time? It's one where metaphors get coopted as method. Hence, the time well spent on a walk now returns the metaphor to the literal "spending" that consumerist culture insists upon. In Brown's "Opportunities," she turns to the language of surfing the web:
add to cart
Lost toy panda
by the roadside
add to cart
add to cart
and so forth. That "lost toy panda," at once adorable and missing to a small child, might evoke pity were it not so quickly added to the cart, a cart that suggests our very observational empathies are best described as planned purchases. The cart is the shopper's purgatory; she can still change her mind, but the consumable is there (somewhere) to be paid for. We don't see the warehouse, and we don't feel the sore knees and backs of the workers, but we sense the aura of the object, and we want it. The very past cannot be remembered as before: "I can't google-map my past," she writes in "Windows wound down," "where we lived is classified." Classified as in secreted away by google, or classified as in up for sale, little difference.
If Brown renders "add to cart" poetic--the line is biting but it's also funny--then Zaher renders poetry into bitter reality. In a poem that includes the line, "Because it is time to save civilization," he continues:
One iPhone user at a time
Historical materialists of Cairo unite
And let us partake in the power of the masses
I saw the great minds of my generation working
For Microsoft and Boeing to be laid off later
How far we've moved from Wordsworth's similes to Zaher's "like a dog." His is a cliche, but it does not feel like one in this poem. This is not a poem about historical materialism in the philosophical sense but in the consumable one. "And these are the masses--they buy the stuff the leaders create," he writes near the top. In this context, "the power of the masses" is a dubious force, at best, like that of the crowds in Cairo that overturned one dictator only to suffer under another, and who are gathering once again as I write. No wonder he writes on another page, "I am tired of history / I am tired of this poem."
"Romanticism was something to brag about," notes Zaher and, while both poets emerge from the Romantic tradition, they find they have less to brag about. All that keeps them from the bitter is (if not wine, then) wit. Both poets have the ability to write punch lines, sometimes at the end of a poem ("One more poem about police brutality," writes Zaher, "Thank you for the opportunity to join the subculture") and sometimes not: "recessions don't stop / for Sunday" (Brown). And while neither poet is a symbolist, they have each arrived at their primary vehicle to deliver these messages about the ravages of capital and destructiveness, namely the United States. Brown's poems about traveling to the United States are some of the darkest in her book. "No worries" begins with the haunting lines, "flat out, too tired to die" and records new world factoids, like "tumbling economies" reported on CNN and panhandlers and exhortations to "live better" that only make the poet feel worse. In the poem after, she notes the evil of US drones, the black derricks of oil rigs in LA and tree clearing for better tourist vistas.
Zaher in his software office informs us
They selected me to die
I am proud though of the design I left on the whiteboard
And as I am close enough to heaven
It is time to remove this sentence
This is nearly Dickinsonian in it double-entendres (dying as being laid off; the whiteboard written on by a man of color; the sentence that is at once linguistic and legal). It might also serve as the eulogy to an expectation of steady employment in the late 20th century. It's a Romantic poem of sorts, but also a Trojan horse. Inside the horse is the empty office, not empty and Transcendental, but empty and lacking a pay check. No mistake that Zaher's lines, while vernacular and slangy, are not casual. They walk across the page like caged animals, pacing forward and then forward again, never past the ragged right margin that keeps beckoning them. He never ends his lines with punctuation, except for a couple of question marks. I'm tempted (it's so funny) to compare them to Merwin's unpunctuated poems, except that Zaher's do not breeze correspondingly from line to line, but seem instead to fall. There's a jarring at the end of his lines, as if enjambment were less a right turn than a wall to be schepped over, fallen off of. It doesn't mend, it scars.
The political content of these books is compelling. So too are the old provinces of the lyric, love, sex, and dying. Zaher's poetry is often about desire, sexual desire, though it's not thought through, and there are no flowers in it. Brown's poetry, in this book more than in her others, is about illness and aging. In fits and starts, amid and between her more political thoughts, she writes lines like these:
Leaving the World
is not as bad
as you'd think
the grand movement
the small movement,
you pull your swifty
I'm not persuaded that my Urban Dictionary has informed me what "swifty" means in this context, but the "is not as bad / as you'd think" is as moving as it is casual. Many of the details include memories of past lovers, other layers of personal history, and then there's this: "mid april / & / the xmas wreath / is still pinned / to the front door / of the neighbour / who died / on boxing day" These lines acknowledge a refusal that has earned the poet's empathy. It might be irony, but then again it is not.
Pam Brown at Michelle Leggott's house, Auckland, 2012.
Maged Zaher at Coors Field, Denver, June, 2013. Rockies 10-Padres 9, on a walk-off homer by the rookie third baseman.
NOTE: as I finish this post, Maged puts this on his facebook status line. He is writing a nearly moment-by-moment account of events in Egypt.