by Khaled Mattawa,
New Issues, 2010,
paper, 71 pages,
ISBN: 978-1-930974-90-6
Buy the Book

It is with not a little irony that Khaled Mattawa, the Libyan-born American poet, titles this volume after the famous French observer of 19th century America.  In this sweeping, often cynical, sometimes daunting collection, the culture at hand is a modern one, one in which American influence has gone global and viral in matters political, economic, and military.  At once condemnation and lyric, both worldly and intimate, Tocqueville takes on this global order, its horrors, and the problem of how to at once inhabit, observe, and tell of any of it.

Early in the collection, in “On the Difficulty of Documentation,” Mattawa addresses an enduring quandary: making art of others’ torment.  The poem describes beautiful photos of Palestinian refugees, in which, the speaker rhapsodizes, light-bathed village women “carry the moon on their heads.”  But then, he writes,

I recall: Such people have no time for beauty.

I recall: Beauty is one of the great conversation stoppers of all times.

Punctuated with gleanings from Bertolt Brecht (“what beauty does is almost a crime”) and the 16th century poet Thomas Wyatt (“But why do / they flee from me / these beauties / that sometime did me seek”), Mattawa worries here and elsewhere over this beauty, and over the implications of lyricizing what one observes.

Of course, observation has myriad modes and products — photography and therapy, film and foreign policy — and accordingly, Mattawa charges this volume with audaciously varied forms, styles, and allusions.  The title poem alone, twenty-seven pages long, reels back and forth between a dozen or more different voices: There are first person narratives of wartime atrocities (a man recalls being forced to place his baby in a cassava-mashing mortar and bludgeon it).  There are letter excerpts that muse on the role of the classics in the face of wealth disparity and poisoned water sources (“You only have to see the present to realize how false the past can be”).  At one point, Edward Said weighs in on the hypocrisy of Tocqueville, who famously criticized treatment of Native Americans and black slaves, when it came for him to address France’s actions in Algeria.  There are dialogues between therapist and patient, and between two anonymous operatives whose conversations are sometimes ominous, sometimes positively vaudevillian (their routine on Condoleezza Rice’s “Electra complex” particularly deserves a rimshot).

Some sections are almost inscrutably fragmented, but cumulatively the volume does conjure a dizzying, absurd, often nightmarish landscape of global capitalism and militarism, much in the style of  cinematic montage.  Indeed, Mattawa freely employs film script directions, too, and even that most dreaded modern weapon of associative assault, the Power Point sequence. The form plays out ad absurdum in “Power Point III,” in which are embedded a series of matrices.  These charts describe four unnamed figures, or “Cases,” each of which is presumably somehow emblematic of the modern era.  In the squares of each matrix, the Cases are variously described by way of cryptic, sometimes grave, often snarkily funny crossword puzzle-esque clues.  This all may at first be off-putting to the formalist, but the Cases can also be increasingly addictive to compare and riddle out (no one likes a spoiler, so suffice it to say that they include a Russian politician and a former U.S. President, and Case #1 is so obviously Anna Nicole Smith that I’m really not spoiling that much).  Across one matrix’s row, labeled “Synthesis,” the text spills freely through all the Cases’ columns, an interesting attempt to “synthesize” these four odd representatives of modern culture into one archetype.

If such exercises sometimes feel a little glib, intellectual, and/or outrageous, it’s equally clear that beneath the cynicism and outrage of Mattawa’s poems lies a deep, searching compassion for dealing with this problematic culture.  Take “Trees,” which appears late in the volume.  This poem limns trees lost and found — a maple, a eucalyptus in a long-unseen homeland, invasive buckthorns, trees once seen bearing bodies — as invested with memory, hurt, and multiple narratives.  How we live with them, the poem suggests, is how we live with history, itself a living thing, and how we tell of them remains a puzzle:

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?

“Yes,” Mattawa writes elsewhere, “the need for lyric persists.”

Megan Grumbling