Sunday, March 18, 2012

Our faces coated with history: A Review of Tocqueville by Khaled Mattawa


Tocqueville, by Khaled Mattawa

Reviewed by Yvette Neisser Moreno

In his fourth book, Tocqueville, Libyan-American poet Khaled Mattawa examines the world and human experiences with a wide lens and communicates his perceptions to the reader in a multiplicity of voices and poetic styles. Mattawa has been straddling worlds for a long time, as one of America’s most preeminent translators of contemporary Arabic poetry, and in his own poetry the individual experience is inextricably intertwined with global events, and vice versa. Indeed, Mattawa’s ars poetica is summed up in these lines: “[T]o love one person / you must contemplate loving the whole world” (p. 10).

One such poem in which Mattawa brings multiple worlds together is “PowerPoint I.” Here the poet makes extraordinary leaps and striking comparisons between seemingly unrelated subjects, including a record-setting swimmer, an ordinary person training a puppy, imperialism, American movie culture, with references to World War II, the Vietnam War, and the current U.S. war in Afghanistan, among others. The closing stanza of this 6-page poem remarkably brings all these strands together in a commentary on contemporary society’s place in history:

The dog owner opens a magazine and reads about the swimmer’s accomplishment

which is to have become for a short while the cogwheel driving the second-arm of civilization’s time,

because to say Empire is to say: the Tet offensive and one step for man,

and going out to the movies and making sure the dog does not maul the new sofa,

wherein the blind man’s accomplishment, via an eye bank in Bombay, is another toddle unto revelation,

so many magical powers or advanced technology incorporated within

where the march of progress becomes loops and loops of human matter strung around the cinemaplex,

the human soul as a conglomerate, a spark plug winking within the universe’s internal combustion,

triumphs like motes of pollen from new epochs stinging the Cyclops’s eye,

so much dithering, a catharsis that hurls us screaming unto the street, our faces coated with history. (12-13)

The book’s centerpiece is its ambitious title poem, a 26-page collage of short lyric poems and prose passages, which takes its name from the famous chronicler of American democracy Alexis de Tocqueville. The choice to title this poem—and the collection—“Tocqueville” indicates that Mattawa sees the piece as continuing Tocqueville’s project of defining democracy and its impact on the American people and society. Perhaps the aim is to demonstrate the irony of the fact that the United States’ efforts to spread “democracy” across the globe have had sometimes devastating results.

The poem centers on recounting the shocking life stories of several Somali citizens during their country’s tumultuous recent history, as reported by the BBC. Prose fragments of these stories are interspersed with excerpts from works such as Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” Edward Said’s “Reflections on Exile,” and the Qur’an, as well as short poems written in a first-person, beautifully lyric voice:

Sometimes I want to call what I see

through the keyhole “a flower.”

Then I see the clock racing,

the digits tumbling over themselves.

Then I turn to her face

and ask a question of love. (23-24)

Although the notes in the back of the book reveal that the war zone described in “Tocqueville” is (at least primarily) Somalia, the poem itself provides no geographical or contextual reference.

Thus, the stories and images presented in the poem take on a universal quality—the sense that these horrors could occur anywhere. For me, this reading experience was somewhat reminiscent of Split This Rock poet Fady Joudah’s The Earth in the Attic or Carolyn Forché’s The Angel of History.

In terms of form, Mattawa—like fellow 2012 Split This Rock featured poet Douglas Kearney—pushes the boundaries of free verse into new territory by interspersing prose and lyric poetry. In particular, the book includes a series of poems called “PowerPoints,” which include charts and placeholders for images along with text. In a commentary on the writing process of his book Amorisco, Mattawa explains his experimental style:

I wanted to write in that pure mode that seems to transcend time and circumstance, and that it many cases acts as a skeleton upon which much of poetry is placed. In the longer poems that range freely among pressing questions and unresolved episodes I work in counter-mode attaching, welding, and knotting as much material (and prose) to a lyric impulse as it could handle. Of course, I love the lyric mode, but I sometimes resist its taciturn wisdom and the purity of its bones. (

While I deeply appreciate the way Mattawa’s longer poems challenge the reader to reconsider the relationship between history and current events, and between US society and US foreign policy, I am always drawn to simple, lyric moments. As such, I was quite moved by Mattawa’s poem “Trees,” which ends with the following meditation on how we should define them:

Should I group them by touch or color—

trees of pearly, gray smooth bark,

of leaves like old women’s hands,

trees of round, dark red fruit?

Should I name them to their stories—

tree that hides the stop sign in summer,

tree where I once shot a bird,

tree I planted to cast a shadow on her grave?

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