Issue > Book Review
David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee is the author of School of the Americas from Black Lawrence Press (2013). Black Lawrence will also bring out Not Alone in My Dancing: Essays and Reviews next year.

David Rigsbee reviews "My Tranquil War" by Anis Shivani

My Tranquil War
My Tranquil War
by Anis Shivani

136 pages
NYQ Books

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For some poets, poetry itself is either/or: there is no point in getting steamed up over insufficient options. Poets holding this elitist position do not endear themselves to poetry groups, arts councils, or people concerned with outreach. Anis Shivani has made a name for himself taking down the fromages, both of the tiny ecosystem that is poetry, and of the larger world of fiction. No doubt this is a good thing, both tonic and clarifying. Yet one does feel that the firepower aimed at amiable, tragedy-free poets like David Kirby and Billy Collins hit a mark past their target. I confess I am a fan of these poets, precisely because they have beheld something, idealized though it be, beyond the world's continuously self-revising wreck. Yes, they have rejected history, but not in the pupil-narrowing way that the New Critics did, in an all-encompassing strategy that indoctrinated legions of Boomers (myself included) and their revered teachers. And yet, in another sense, Shivani has a point: poetry can't, in the end, prefer idealism to reality, without suffering further erosion, leading their participants to be shriven and ineffectual in the larger culture. Many American poets, especially since the translation boom of the '60s and '70s, have pointed to the special mission of poetry as somehow truth-bearing beyond the lexical mission of words. I am thinking, for example, of the work of European and Southern American poets. For these bards, the fog of politics required a comeuppance for rhetoric, combined with a return to writing degree zero, which is where surrealism got its legs. It may be, that with the end of the Cold War, it seemed that the larger political message no longer required the same degree of study on the part of upcoming poets. Or it may simply be that it entered into poppy fields of academic discourse. But then came 9/11 and all of a sudden, Said and Foucault and their demystifying ways were cutting edge again, as we sought to analyze and understand, even at the risk of rationalizing our patrimony.

This is where Shivani comes in. He wants to, indeed he means to, connect the curricular bobbleheads of literature (Woolf, Mann, Pound, Nabokov, Rushdie), art and film (Dali, Godard, Antonioni, Cocteau, Fellini) and politics (Bush, Hitler, Gandhi, Stalin, Reagan), as well as current names (Dean Young, Billy Collins, Derek Walcott, John Ashbery) with each other to see what eventuates from the dustup. He wants to know, at bottom, that the cultural stalwarts are as hardy in the present moment as they were in their creative and productive time. He also wants implicitly to compare them to their political and historical equivalents, for whom aesthetic beauty and all that flows from it, is rarely a concern. At first you begin to wonder if the poem is the right vehicle for such a weighty (or absurd, as the case may be) solicitation. The poem, for example, frequently takes the form of direct addresses—dedications and apostrophes ("To Robert Creeley," "Letter to Jack London," "To John Cheever," "To Derek Walcott," "To Djuna Barnes, on Nightwood," "To Edward Upward"). But the object of the apostrophe is not just the great person, any more than an elegy is a poetic device to plump up the mighty dead. The object is the self (or its deputy, the reader):


                           Creeley, I
      have to pay my accounts,
      I thrive on excess.
                                     ("To Robert Creeley")

Here's another that speaks, if you will, to the Jack London within, as much as to the author of adventures now left to REI members.

      You had quick worthy followers, Dreiser
      and Hemingway, Anderson and Orwell,
      and every mythmaker not a miser
      with expression who plunged into the well
      of our subconscious, and found there a hell
      of our own making. Now we want a myth
      the uninspired common man can live with.
                            ("Letter to Jack London")
                             
Like V. S. Naipaul, Shivani looks culture and its producers straight in the face and demands they justify their role in a violent world. And also like the Brit, he calls out the heroes whose art is suited only for walk-ons, can be cashed in, or put to use, as with socialist realism, in anodyne ways. Long story short, he is a moralist whose truth-tracking radar begins to look like an LED version of 'Diogenes' lantern. If the poem is in the business of finding out what will suffice, then that goes double for culture altogether. For culture is a thing; it is also the form-making through which that thing acquires significance in history. But the danger, as the poet knows, comes with over-familiarity. Having lost the capacity for wonder, we arrive tout de suite in the condition we know as being in-the-know. This, I take it, is partly behind Shivani's beef against M.F.A programs, namely, that we get a false sense of knowing (e.g., "craft"). But since it's one we can wrap our heads around without too much sweat, it's gained wide acceptance, regardless of the debased quality of the return:

    

      It is how we read today, in that knowing wink to Eliot's
     

      hesitation, as though we were of the Promethean genus
      barreling through department doors. But we are mute as

      drugged cats, draping ourselves on aristocracy's banisters:
      brown-fugged, prone to politics, reading like damn whores.

      Ron and Ken and John, I need this Guggenheim reference
      as a cow needs mulch, so will you shovel your last doubts up

      my anus? See again how the Strand fills with lissome
      (still a word?) blondes from Morningside arguing over bad

      Camus, as though it mattered which bed existentialism wakes
      up in, as though the prophets will swoon and rest after '68.
                                    ("Juvenal's First Satire")

Shivani's hyperventilated poems seem, in their range of reference, detail mix, and startling asides, the versified outlines of Audenesque table talk. And like the ceaseless, synthetic rush that was Auden's brain, Shivani's gray matter also radiates two 18th century traits, wit and sensibility: the former, one answer to Val Kilmer's need for speed; the latter, the mental climate under which treks, land speed trials, ambles, and sometimes wrecks unfold. In the sense that both primary and secondary experience must be mashed into a Parmenidian One, all poetry measures velocity in language. In Anis Shivani's work, it's the speed of association that marks its median style, a mandarin style, with its lunges and substitutions, its strangeness of juxtapositions, its keen doggedness, not of words in their deployment alone, neither of the syllables in their atomic authority, but of words monitoring their deportment and keeping their distance from the clichéd and the jejune. It's a lot of stuff to monitor, and Shivani's poems can seem longer then they are. One is aware, at the same time, that the speedy phrasing produces its own anxious duplicity, suggesting in equal measure the jittery deer and the hair-triggered hunter. It is also speed felt in the middle of a traffic jam. Take this, for example:

      Who among us has not torn up Aunt Miranda's notes
      to self when she was throwing up in Daddy's bathroom?

      – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

      I might shoehorn into my speech, for McMurtry's sake,
      what made Cybill Shepard in her prime the girl
      we used as waterslide, inside the confines of Main Street.
      Not even Disney alludes now to fascism's seeds.
      I've wondered if there's a fountain, not yet belly up,
      that generates automatic writing for the eternally
      blocked, its water rust free, sweet.

                           ("When Dean Young Was Young")

Everybody remembers the scene in Amadeus when the Emperor Franz Joseph ventures the tepid suggestion that Mozart's music contained "a few too many notes," to which the uppity prodigy shot back, "Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?" Many litmus tests exist to exhibit the preferential divides when it comes to poetry's accommodations. But the question of how many words are required is the question of poetry's economy, this "leaving out business" which is the mirror of the assertion that, in Stevens' formulation, the poem is in the business of finding (and by implication, of delivering) what will suffice. It may be that there is no way to decide whether a verbal plenitude (or excess) is any less artistically satisfying than the most austere imagism. Is brown hair to be preferred to red? Beats me. We could disagree, and there would be therapy in that, if no further truth in the working out.

Shivani's stylistic orientation, in contrast to his sensibility, leads him in the direction of Whitman, about whom no one would say there goes a master of economy. Indeed, "mastery" is not the issue. At the same time, he seems to wish that in elsewhere resurrecting the names of olden poets, the old guard had more to guard than turf. But Whitman is a special case (remember the Pound-Whitman kerfuffle?): so wrong and yet so right; so vulgar and yet so noble, so prolix and yet the compiler of tender audits, so flaunting of rules, yet so enamored of traditions. Though somewhat atypical of the work in My Tranquil War, "An Address to Walt Whitman after Reading the 1955 Edition of Leaves of Grass," itself a title of Whitmanian girth, is the collections's centerpiece and the one I would rank, mutatis mutandis, with the late Kurt Brown's "No Other Paradise" as an updating and strong revisionist reworking of Whitman's democratic vistas. It doesn't take a psychotherapist to tell us that what we don't say is what we need to say. And this is where Shivani locates the otherwise worshipful Whitman, wondering in the democratic embarras de richesses, if we don't know when a good thing is too much of a good thing and, if at points we may pass without knowing so, we may find that decadence lies in wait. There is a touch of accusation in his having made us believe in a mark we can no longer reach, or can reach all too well and so scorn as we move on. Or as he puts it in the final, majestic wave of a sentence, "how can you explain, bard, why we have moved so far from your vision by moving so close to it?" Naipaul is, now that I think about it, the last emanation of Whitman. At any rate, it is a fine poem and should eventually be popping up in anthologies.

At the same time, you must admit that writing to Whitman is like bouncing your résumé off Jupiter. The Whitman poem wears its rhetorical structure likewise, like a cloud projection: "you who breathed well-chosen diction, coming from the plain man/ into the overwarm cockles of the professional wits." Although everybody owns Whitman, he is not therefore our bitch. Shivani writes his poem as if he were a Whitman unto the Whitman, and in the course of nailing the homage, he raises Uncle Walt all over again. It is a super performance, the kind of resurrection Whitman dreamed of in Song of Myself and "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" ("and I shall be good health to you"). Shivani knows that one of the things that characterizes decadence is its rancidness, and Whitman is as far from the toxic as a bowl of Quaker Oats. Having nothing to hide toward the spirit whose bonds used words as their ties, Shivani's homage takes pains to reveal its formal moves too.

      Tell us now that a hundred and fifty years have passed, and America
      is perhaps an aged hag with a vast burden on her shoulders, when America
      is perhaps stooped and bunched and vertiginous, and might appear
      to beholders far and near like a personage who lived not wisely
      but only too well, flabby and flippant and ferocious...

      – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
 
     do we still contain multitudes, do we still admire contradictions...?

For Shivani, the "heart-minder" is the "teacher" and "believer" whom he would ask to "tell us how it goes with you." Or, "have we disappointed you...? is this the /American you expected to find...? how can you explain this...?" Shivani wants to know, as we all do (which is to say, at all times), how culture intersects with the violence of dangerous times and the blinkered pragmatics with which we drift forward into the future. What we carry with us, both rooted and exilic, is the recurring subject of Shivani's poems, for, one bomb past, the rooted and the exilic change places:

      The entente cordiale declares war by plan
      prethought. As if accidents don't exist
      in the high plane generals and emperors scan.
      I still see poor kmets barely subsist.
     

      Millions have since died in Europe's trenches.
      But I don't plead. I am not the agent.
      Assassination: a word that quenches
      rebellion. When war ends, what has it meant?

      Europe was the tinderbox I loathed so!
      My parents taught me well not to fear fear.
      As a boy, I came to this Sarajevo
      to learn a trade—hammer blows I still hear.

      ("Reflections of Gavrilo Princip at Bohemia's Theresienstadt Prison, April 1918")

That's for the old, which, though it set the stage for much we have had to emerge from, it is not longer a living misery. Rather, this is the present:

      The football field, where I used to cheer as a twelve-year-old,
      had been prepared to accept the deaths of forty murderous men,
     

      whose souls we witnessed exiting with the ease of needles
      running out of thread. It was like kicking

      in the style of Pelã and getting only the goal post
      on our bloody shin, and falling twisted and embarrassed to the ground,

      your playmates laughing over your sundered body, screaming:
      he is just like his sister, Daud pees sitting down like his sister.

                           ("I Watched Executions Last Night with my Sister")

Religion is in one sense off the table. God may be dead, but his is a puissant ghost, for our transcendental longings demand service. This is true even in the Socialist Paradise, where Shivani finds a poem for the Samson of socialist labor, Alexey Stakhanov:

      My labor will sweeten
      whatever stands between the state's changed moods,
      ill and gloomy most of the time, and I
      alone in a statue, its inner shell,
      a being expelled from time.

                                    ("Stakhahov")

At this point, literature and art get a call-back, their avatars, from Whitman to Orwell, to Auden, trimming their pencils and cleaning their throats, before the Brooklyn Eagle and the BBC microphones, to say nothing of soapboxes around the corner: The Paris Review, Encounter, The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books. If our heroes of aesthetic labor no longer fail to impress or meet their quotas, then what? Is it then just George Bush and al Queda all the way down?

Shivani's ultimate concern in these poems is that—God et al. to the side—the artistic legacy, which is an image of the metaphysical legacy, must uphold, direct, and inspire. Moreover, it has to do so, in a Shelleyan sense, with the clout and consequence of the other guys. Otherwise, it's not worth the bother.

      In Ch'ang-an, the winehouses gave me a special name
      I both abhorered and loved at the same time:

      Banished Immortal, meaning he who imagines life
      as a continuation of the mountain's other side.

                           ("The Death of Li Po")

It's no wonder, on the one hand, and yet a felicitous state of affairs on the other,

that Shivani departs from his day job as writer—and moreover a free-verse poet— to work in forms: sonnet, villanelle, sestina, ghazal. He is adept at all of these, as if to say he's working with a full hand, and the poetic culture he so frequently puts in the witness box is the same one by which he frames his questions. It's in the forms where Shivani finds a cadence to soothe the spikiness of history. For given free rein, that spikiness will file away at your receptors, until all experience (from the most violent to the most humane) becomes averaged and leveled, seeing beige, and singing only in B-flat: smooth, yes, but not therefore calming or becalmed. The sound that inheres in closed form comes closest to proposing alternatives by showing their image, while history sits it out in brackets, like a hockey player watching from the penalty box.

      My mates on the dinginauka sing old Tagore,
      his odes to the breath and gloom of stalwarts
      building the nation, while I question this lore
      for only sampling how the watery grave hurts.


      Our ancestors came this way and were content,
      we are told, stitching frayed nets and fixing
      the leaks in the boars, their future already lent
      to the moon that preys on love, any odd mixing.
                                    ("Small Time Fishing in the Bay of Bengal, 1970")

Sometimes history is itself sung, as in this villanelle:

      The strap on the shoulder could be a child.
      Or a bomb. How can a pacifist tell?
      The weather this month is serenely mild.


      The AP correspondent had just filed
      his last ever story before he fell.
      The strap on the shoulder wasn't a child.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

      What need exit strategy when we smuiled
      as the whisper of doubt turned to a yell?

      The strap on the shoulder will be a child.
      The weather this month is serenely mild."

                           ("The War in Iraq Poses Irreducible Problems of Identification")

As a reviewer, I sometimes suspect that there's a certain circularity to making a critical point, that the conclusion is just the premise, so to speak, in drag. You're just reasoning poorly, you say? Rather, disregarding a certain circularity may be a serviceable way to dampen contradiction, for without that handicap, it's doubtful any robust criticism can get started. You may assert meanwhile that all criticism begins in contradiction, and, in a sense it does, of course. So the reviewer finds himself on the horns of a dilemma: on the one hand he wants to evaluate the beauty of the verse, but in doing so, he finds his criteria tied up in premises he doesn't fundamentally buy. On the other hand, if he praises the prescience of theme and subject, he hears the music calling, like the nightingale in Keats, who says the individual doesn't matter, just the song. If that's so, then there is no tragedy, and the reviewer's likewise meets a dwindled mojo, while history, as Delmore Schwartz reminds us, is unappeased. Shivani is quite aware of these issues, and to his credit, he doesn't back down from moralist's dry creed, although his capacity for grace and ease and beauty itself is undiminished:

      The Viceroy's niece reveals a studious gift of gab, which she uses
      to plot sending down old colonels to their grief in the plains,
      and the reporter for the Times is too changed to notice.
      The munshis and darogahs pretend to no loyalty
      they do not have. The chill wind bears a redeemable ill-will.
      The parties go on so late at night the bachelors yawn,
      with all of empire's terrible boredom, its magnificent sin:
      These will be the days least written about, least recalled.

                            ("At the Simla Hill Station June 1910")

The moralist fears anomie and casual cowardice as much as clearly profiled enemies with their machinations and failings (Who among the prisoners will make so bold/ as strike the sheriff who frees the haters?" ["After the End of Books"]). Thus art that tries to take wing against historical grounding produces anxiety as if fearing, in doing what some think it does best, instead of thrilling, merely goes AWOL. On of the things that Shivan's poems do is show us the two-edged blade that art is. Yes, it inspires, edifies, and corrects. It also repudiates the history to which it owes its birth. Perhaps the problem with sweet airs, with music, generally and with all made beauty—is that it keeps us from the meeting. And instead of asking like Gary Snyder, echoing Herzen, what is to be done, it makes us cry to dream again.

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