When a writer chooses their ground, there’s no point in fussing that a different arena might have served their efforts better. Writers ask us to meet them at a particular set of coordinates; we can show up or not. Anis Shivani has chosen the terrain of human cultural artifacts—paintings, poems, novels, films, and narrations of history—on which to restage the colonial era’s shocks, gashes and reverberations. These poems reminded me of Teju Cole’s much retweeted and reposted Twitter series “Seven Short Stories About Drones”: famous opening sentences of novels (largely, but not only, from the Western canon) ruptured irreparably by drone attack. The implications were clear and inescapable: all these things are ruined by how they were made. The war of their making must be apparent in them; all other readings are dishonest.
Where Cole maintained his efforts just long enough to bring us past the point where the point is made and to the moment where it sickens us, Shivani’s poems dig in. There’s a degree of almost puritanical relish for the tackiness and shoddiness of the hangover you get from mixing imperialism with liberalism:
“Unburdening Tennessee mountain-skies faint, then repaint
our polyester faces (denied since the seventies, Wal-Mart homes
vacant for boomeranging jibes), our nylon faces stripped
sit and take refuge in the emperor-president’s speech, disrobe
yourself of benign platitudes (those you learned in Shakespeare
and Plato), we’re about to launch into the journey of (corporate)
life where you find your umbilical cord stretched to infinity.
It’s a poetic world …”
For Shivani, the poetic world, our world now, is an ugly, lightless world. These poems root around in the structural ugliness of the past couple of centuries, and many of the images they invoke are ugly. But you can hear from the excerpt above that they’re also ungainly, crowded and toothy in their sounds and syntax, the shapes and shifts of their lines; they elbow and jostle their way. They make much use of forms—sonnets, sequences of couplets—that bulge at the rhyme:
“Do you not know your respective place, in the horny bowels
of wherever it is we manufacture garments and towels?”
Some poems, like “Memsahibs in India”, seem like chewed, partially digested and vomited (because indigestible, because toxic) rhetorics of colony and occupation. Shivani has also published two books of stories and a book of “Provocations, Polemics, Controversies” called Against the Workshop. The against-ness of these poems is strong and seeks itself in other cultural makers: “You willed the suburbs’ cancer to grow,” he writes of John Cheever. His“Address to Walt Whitman after Reading the 1855 Edition of Leaves of Grass” repurposes Whitman’s celebratory cadence to protest “a uniform sullenness, a talkless speech, a declamation promising apocalypse …”
My Tranquil War tries on many of the last century’s masks. Though Shivani resists a music of his own, “To Robert Creeley” seeks Creeley’s breath-tipping rhythms, “To Derek Walcott,” Walcott’s signature swings and landings. Inheritance is the matter. More and more as the book goes on, it seems to be asking: what on earth can we do with this, all this cruel garbage on earth, the “bloodless costume of war” that history has hung in every poet’s closet? The problem of art, his chosen arena—Shivani seems to say—is that it isn’t bloody enough, that it hides the stains that should mark it and damn it forever along with the disgusting perpetrations that enabled it. It’s as though he were applying heat to the texts and images he references and bringing out his own words, the undersigns written in lemon juice. Under beauty, ugliness; under tranquility, war. Or as though he were unwriting them, undoing any love he has for them, any influence they have on him; because of their imperial taint (whether conqueror, conquered, or complicit), vomiting them up as if only then could he, and we, stand on some pure ground.
Kate Schapira is the author of four books of poetry, most recently The Soft Place (Horse Less Press). Her eighth chapbook, The Ground / The Pass / The Wave, is coming out this summer from Grey Book Press. She lives in Providence, where she teaches writing at Brown University and elsewhere, and organizes the Publicly Complex Reading Series.