New Issues: Kalamazoo, MI, 2010. 72 pages. $15.00.
Khaled Mattawa’s fourth collection of poetry, Tocqueville, answers to its title, bearing witness to consequences of US foreign and domestic policy. The endeavor is “enough to turn a reporter into a novelist, / and the novelist toward myth for rescue / and the poet running toward the white heat of his soul / fed on the fuel of indignation.” Tocqueville journeys within and beyond American borders, its setting the years of the US war on Iraq—a world in which technological advancement and media sophistication have become atrocities of shock and awe. Mattawa’s poems bring us a Chevron tanker named for Condoleezza Rice, Somalian war stories, Vietnamese sweatshops, child pornography, torture, suicide bombers, “Abel’s / blood streaming endless from your veins.”
Formally, the poems in Tocqueville range from lyric prose to PowerPoint presentations, documentary film scripts, and conversations with a shrink. Mattawa’s lenses pan over, click through, devastating historical and political content, but seek out the individual: “The village women carry the moon on their heads. // Each carrying a piece. // Or each carrying her own moon.” He joins a rigorously nuanced political vision with a lyrical mythos, a sense of “a world now, a world then.” The final poem, “Before,” insists, “Somewhere beyond faith and grace there is / the footprint of logic lost in the purest light,” and the collection frequently finds the classical in the contemporary. Even in many of the poems’ dense, wide-ranging experimentation—complete with matrices and graphics—Mattawa foregrounds the continuity between the present-day political world and the mythic.
The lyrical, imperfect language that connects these worlds also unites the book’s many speakers, locations, and dictions, though Mattawa is skeptical of this function of poetry: “Who is talking now? Which ‘we’ are you inserting yourself into now?” Mattawa maintains a distance from the figure of Tocqueville, whose failure in the case of Algeria looms on the horizon. Tocqueville was famously a foreign critic on American soil; the poet today cannot have the purity of foreignness but is implicated, not free to be a stranger to the objects of his knowledge. To Mattawa, even the “white heat of [the poet’s] soul” is another danger, its indignation fueled by the “cum-light of self-love / a technique now perfected and taught / at military academies.”
Mattawa’s skepticism goes to the heart of the question of poetry’s ethical value. “There are potential applications for this concept in the real world,” “Power Point (I)” tells us, “but why take the dark turn, why mistake the swimmer’s head-gear for that of the one-eyed mullah of Kandahar?” Throughout, Tocqueville considers what it may be to “take the dark turn,” to shed light on any object of inquiry when the speaker knows that all acts of illumination cast shadows. In “Terrorist,” the problems of critical vision become the body’s blinding light:
. . . despite what I’ve
told myself, what I’ve grown to believe,
despite my bunkered heart and fortified
skin, my thick bile and phlegm, I am bled
white by an appalling battle.
For Mattawa, even “my silences / spill an ooze that fastens me” to the other. The result is a poetry in which politics are considered through both potent emotion and exacting investigation, a work haunting in its scope and, most of all, in its critical self-awareness that “lyric resolution / demands an arrival into what does not suffice.” Tocqueville commences with a question: “Will answers be found / like seeds / planted among rows of song?” The answer that emerges has the enduring fragility of lyric itself: “Someone will resist and a new song will nest in our heads and a river will run between hands as they shake a doubtable peace.”