Review: Tocqueville

Issue #113
Winter 2010-11

Khaled Mattawa’s fourth book marks his second breakthrough (his first was his debut, Ismalia Eclipse). The title poem, and centerpiece, is a 26 page visionary reorientation in verse of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Mattawa’s Tocqueville is not a mere revision of that historical document, but a poetry based on motion, where narrative doesn’t construct a story—it is more a screenplay that metamorphoses into a democratic account, a lyric slide show that disrupts conventional time into “the befores that follow the first before.” The book is filled with references to film, not with a connoisseur’s encyclopedic sense as much as a flâneur’s vision of consumption whose “fiber optic lines [are] sabotaged / [while] the nation’s eyes go astigmatic. / The movie, as we all know, is a national-emergency-drill.”

The backbone of the title poem is a dialogue between two “fellow citizens” interspersed with many tender personal lyrics, narrative clips, letters, and commentary. The “we” here is “they,” and “they is all of us,” forgotten, pulverized: “they don’t have a language, they’re all body;” and “neither powerful nor powerless they vacillate between a desire to protect what they possess and the freedom to acquire more.” Here is part of a dialogue between the two citizens: “Where are they? I mean when do you meet them, really these fellow citizens?” “On airplanes mainly. They are perfect research subjects then. So oblivious.” “Does it bother you that you just observe? / It’s better than being oblivious. / How do you belong when you just observe? / You make observation your home.”

Mattawa’s fully aware of the predicament that underscores the socially and politically involved poem, and insists on the need for lyric while widening its scope. He knows “lyric resolution / demands an arrival into what does not suffice.” And surely enough, “herein lies the lyric moment,” Mattawa tells us, “a particularity that fences us.” Or, as he says in a letter to a friend about Robert Hass’ “Meditation at Lagunitas”: “To say all the new thinking resembles the old thinking is to say the fork in the road where one stood indecisive was not a crossroad at all, because one has not moved […] This is not to say that it is only a matter of perception, but that the classics do not console enough. Or maybe that they console too much […] which is to say, each particular just about erases the luminous clarity of a general ideal.”

A central motif in Alexis de Tocqueville’s study in the nineteenth century is also essential to Mattawa’s Tocqueville in the twenty-first: “reams of actuarial spreadsheets / […] divided by the square root of race.” But now there’s a conceptual or illusory twist: “Ajami, Abizeid, Rice, Gonzalez, Yoo, Viet Dinh/ with people like that leading the action, you can’t call it racism.” “What do you call it then?” “That’s what you call the karma of yellow/brown folks.” Or, for those who might be put off by Mattawa’s spoofs (“don’t worry, dear reader, he is not you”), they will appreciate another of his perfectly weighed aesthetic measures: “William Faulkner Sartoris, I see / your great granddaughter / eating enchiladas / made for her by her / Guatemalan husband and / they taste good to / her, they taste good to her / but must we wait / for those discrepancies / to blend.” Humor pervades the book, blunts the blade, intensifies paradox, yet makes the embrace clearer, genuine. Hilarity prevents the morbid from becoming moribund: “This hour is brought to you by / ?3? colonial adventures / slavery / depletion of fresh water, lumber, oil, and coal,” so “why mistake the swimmer’s head-gear for that of the one-eyed mullah of Khandahar?”

With almost each turn of phrase, Mattawa leaves “no way to shut down the Sapphic pipe”—a multitude, bold and tender, that graces his lyric agency. He does not forget about nature. In “Trees,” the natural world is “sad like a bird caught in the spill” where “oil hardens gloved fists around the birds’ throats.” But for the poet “perhaps it’s enough to speak of trees . . . if only to see [one] grow from seed to leaf. / The word, the words, the tree of the mind.” This poetic sentimentality, this necessary narcissism, runs parallel to the surgical wounds of Mattawa’s tightrope walk throughout the book. The poet constantly checks the inadequacy of the lyric via the branches of linguistic power.
Still, Khaled insists on affection and the fragility of memory: “Should I group them by touch or color— / trees of pearly, gray, smooth bark / […] 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?”

Any discussion of Tocqueville must include the three brilliantly experimental “Power Point” poems. Here, one is not watching a movie, but a preview, while attending a high-tech presentation by a field specialist or a sales representative, all at the same time. The “Power Point” poems are a visual structural innovation (that resist, to their credit, reproduction here); ornate with boxes that read “insert image here,” “CHORUS,” or “Context/Daydream” with instructions to “CUT TO,” “FLASHBACK” in triple-split screen with audio clips, grids, matrices, tables of case studies that range from the pros and cons of desire to a “transfiguration index,” designs that engage the reader in a multimedia existence. They map new brain circuits for art in the age of technology. The end of “Power Point III” is disarming: “Elegy, a product consumed by a man alone in a hotel room [and] exists in the grid of one, and in the grid of nine billion. To the man alone, a comfort:

each burning his share of the trees.”

Tocqueville is a major present in (and to) American poetry. Or perhaps it is as Khaled Mattawa says in the many tender moments in this fierce book: “I want to give you a rose. / I have to make it. / That’s how pure my gift must be.”