Friday, October 8, 2010

Software In The Fast Lane

Portrait Of The Poet As An Engineer, poems by Maged Zaher
Pressed Wafer, 2009.

Maged is from Cairo, Egypt. He is a large man with rich black hair that radiates from his head in filamentary exuberance, and his eyes are rich and dark like the khol-rimmed eyes of the pharoahs. His poetry is delightful, full of exuberance, humor, keen intelligence, giddy non sequiturs and wildly imaginative scenarios. It reminds me a great deal of Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, and Ted Berrigan. His accent is thick, which lends a very peculiar air to his poetry, at once exotic and droll, foreign and familiar.

I once asked Maged if he wrote in Arabic first, then translated it into English, or if he simply wrote in English. He said he wrote in English. Written Arabic is highly formal, with fixed constraints, and does not lend itself to a conversational style. English does. English is a supple language, by comparison to many languages, accommodating spontaneous outbursts as well as subtle distinctions. Perhaps it is because English itself is a polyglot, an amalgam of so many other tongues, so many other sounds and syllables, that it is so pliable, so adaptable, so indulging.

The poems in Portrait Of The Poet As An Engineer make this apparent. They propose situations of arch perplexity, a tumult of possibility, in which conflicting histories and desires come together to create volatile dilemmas. Sometimes there is a partial resolution, sometimes not. Sometimes there is advice, couched in the language of aphorism, but most often that advice is delivered tongue-in-cheek. For instance, in the prose poem “A Trap For St. Augustine,”

We learn about madness: about words walking as ghosts. The choice of verb tense will control your shadows and the extent of what you can promise your family. Weekend sex will not turn into geography, tell them that, and tell them that you are dead to the world, Augustine, and go on the wagon.

But remember that the two paths are not as parallel as you think. So spread the dense metaphor over multiple pages. (We might finally convince someone of heaven.)

St. Augustine (a.k.a. Augustine of Hippo), who was born in Souk Ahras, Algeria in 354 near the border to present-day Tunisia, and was connected by ancestry to the Berbers, is famous for his final resolve to give up a life of unbridled hedonism and embrace the monastic life as an ascetic, Christian theologian. Hence, the phrases “weekend sex” and “go on the wagon” have pertinence. The two paths referred to could be the life of the flesh versus the life of the spirit, the life of pleasure versus the life of abstinence, or the life of Christianity versus the pagan life of the Roman. It could be any of these things. Augustine converted to Christianity at a time when his career in the Roman empire was beginning to flourish. He occupied the position of professor of rhetoric for the imperial court at Milan, a position which frequently led to high political station. His switch to Christianity, the result of personal crisis, was influenced by the exhortations of his mother, Monica. Maged’s poem incorporates these conflicts in a language that is deceptively light and frivolous. But at its core is a dilemma of seething conviction. The “dense metaphor” of Christianity that Augustine worked so earnestly to spread throughout the Roman empire is collapsed in a concluding, parenthetical remark: “(We might finally convince someone of heaven).”

The title of Maged’s collection is significant: he is, indeed, a software engineer. In 1995, he led the team that did the analysis of the seismic effect on the Meridian high rise hotel in Giza, Egypt, and in 1998 he earned a master’s degree in computer science from the University of Akron, Ohio. The world of the software engineer is more foreign to me than the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia. This became glaringly apparent while recently watching the movie The Social Network, in which Jesse Eisenberg’s best friend Eduardo Saverin, dashes out a complex algorithm on the window of their Harvard dorm room. I looked at this in awe: how is it humanly possible for anyone to do such things? And what the hell is an algorithm, anyway? I understood, at best, half of what was transpiring in the movie. Subtitles may have helped, I don’t know. All I know is that that world and all the money that goes with it is more remote to me than the wedge-shaped cuneiforms written on Sumerian pottery.

Fortunately, Maged’s allusions to this world are accessible. There is little, if any, techno-speak. It is the more social aspects that are highlighted, often in oblique, fragmented phrases; references to Internet caf├ęs, cyber-proletariats, hierarchies of production. I don’t get the impression that Maged’s immersion in this world is anything at all like the art world Frank O’Hara moved in and brought to his poetry; O’Hara had real passion for art. Maged’s passion is for poetry; his feelings for the data flow diagrams and feasibility studies of software engineering are less apparent. His allusions to this world are neutral; his attitude is neither mocking nor caustic, nor does it seem to resemble the creatively stifling, Kafka-esque world of Dilbert. He appears to be reasonably happy and well-adjusted in his profession; poetry is not escape, but an adjunct. Poetry may be his true passion, but it would be misleading to say that it is his only passion.

In “My Software Mission,” a rather lengthy poem of eight pages, Maged asks, in a line that sounds a lot like O’Hara, “Why should I give up my benign neurosis?” The poem is too slippery, moves too fast to provide an answer, which would be impossible. There can be no single answer. Its world is too complex, its propositions too volatile. It is full of mercurial conceptions, a musing charged with a hodge-podge of references plucked from the everyday and not so everyday. Overall, it has the ambience of hallucination, the feverish imagination of a college student who has stayed up all night on Dexedrine cramming for an exam. “I was hoping to see you tonight,” the narrator states in the 18th stanza of the first section,

in one of those marginalized coffee shops
but the ocean wave took the night shift
and participated in the music sales:
trains of hands and shoulders,
the body easily dismantled
so there was little we can do about our desires.

It always comes down to desire.

And death.

“The poet’s business is to be surrounded by death
instead of local politicians,” the narrator states a few lines earlier.

Why death? Because death is the ultimate reality. And politicians, local or otherwise, are practitioners of distortion, giving hope where there is none, or practicing plain deceit to gain power. They are often removed from reality. Has there ever been a poet and a politician all in the same package? Can a human being pretend to represent the wishes and drives of a certain population without being dishonest? Without resort to hypocrisy, or dissimulation? Are poets always honest? Are politicians always disingenuous?

Which brings us to the question of morality, that social glue that keeps us from killing one another. At least some of the time.

“The writer’s morality,” writes Octavio Paz, “does not lie in the subjects he deals with or the arguments he sets forth, but in his behavior toward language. In poetry, technique is another name for morality: it is not a manipulation of words but a passion and an asceticism.”

There is little doubt that Maged Zaher’s has a passion for language. The asceticism is curiously apparent in other ways. If there are two poles to the themes running throughout this collection, it is that of irreality and desire. The social world is inherently irrational, but it is the theatre where we bring our desires and work to see them fulfilled. Poetry is where we bring our desires to lose themselves in trance, in enchantment, in semantic delirium.

In “A Love Song for Paris Hilton,” Maged invites Miss Hilton to “the cyber-ghetto of experimental poets.”

That cyber-ghetto has become Facebook, a place I can well imagine Paris slumming in, when she isn’t out doing coke and rum and slamming her SUV into other SUVs. Just imagine what Paris could do with an infusion of poetry! Maged is courageous enough to give her the keys.

“The night is freckled with its stars but my language is yours, dear; my dear language is dearly yours.”

Omigod. Did I just see Paris Hilton whiz by in a metaphor?

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