Saturday, March 26, 2011

Some Lybian Poetry

I followed a strange rabbit hole of interest tonight and found this Lybian poet Khaled Mattawa. This is simply a short piece of writing that I found interesting.


Imagine the singer. April in Paris, his first day out alone. He doesn't mind being lost here. From a small shop he buys a shirt he knows he'll never wear. He buys it because a new shirt with plastic, cardboard, and pins is perfection and that to him is transcendence. Now imagine the singer's pain, his liver eaten up by belharzia. You have to see this because there's a kind breeze blowing on this sunny day in Paris, and because our singer is elated--a new song to record in two weeks, a concert in two months.

Now imagine my cousin who leapt from a balcony the day the singer died. For years everyone said he's ill, he's ill. But such a small, unconfirmed fact is like one of the barrels of gunpowder the Turks stored in the Parthenon for decades. A cigarette or a misfired shell from the rebellious Greeks and the roof blows up. Or the fireworks factory in Tennessee, ten miles from where I lived, a tremor on the pavement, and a distant boom like a whisper that goes unheard. I don't remember how the fire started or how many people died.

I stick a tape of Zai El-Hawa in the stereo and the singer introduces the song. Dilwaati zai el-hawa. Kalimat (lyrics by) Muhammad Hamza. Applause. Talhin (music composed by) Baligh Hamdi. Enthusiastic applause. Tuqadimaha ma'ya (performed by) Al-Orchestra Al-Massiya. Applause. Screaming. One song. Forty minutes. Once a year. Enthusiastic applause.

They love this man, his handsome face, his peasant origins. That he was an orphan would've made them weep had they known it. He's kept the the lice infested orphanages, the molesting by older boys, the rancid food a secret. And only his closest friends know he started singing after failing to master the flute. His listeners only know humble beginnings, and now they see his name written with white roses in a bouquet larger than a bed.

By now they are screaming. Awid. Min Awil. (From the beginning. All over again). They love this song though it's like the others--candle lit nights, flowers, and a longing that's by now a pertro-dollar trope--except the singer insisted on including a saxophone and an electric guitar. "But this is Arabic music," his friends complained. "So what, so what" he yelled back at them. He was right. The crowd loves it. From the beginning, all over again, I chant along with them.

Once on a coffee farm in Kenya a woman began rhyming. The children working for her gathered to listen. When she stopped they said "Sing again, sing like rain." Once I read in a newspaper...

Now imagine the singer getting tired from his walk. He chooses a small cafe filled with sunlight and orders tea. Then a man enters, expensive suit, gold wrist watch, the kind of man who would insist on accompanying the singer all day, buying him gifts, treating him to dinner, the kind of man who would end up drunk late that night telling the singer "I memorize all your songs," and weep to him about his exile and nostalgia and weep and weep.

But the singer hides his face behind a newspaper, and when the man leaves he is relieved the way a dying man would be relieved in learning that all history is wiped out, and pain will no longer exist. Now try to listen to the singer express this with a sound, half-whispter, half-sigh, a gesture liable to make a crowd gather, all screaming "From the beginning. All over again," and a group of child laborers rushing into the cafe begging "Sing again, sing like rain," among them a teen-age girl, fireworks jutting from her hair. 1


Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Who is Bradley Manning?

23 year old Bradley Manning, a former intelligence analyst and private for the U.S. Army in Baghdad, has been charged with "aiding the enemy" for his involvement in the leak of confidential military information. He is charged for stealing State Dept. cables, Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, and a video of a U.S. Apache helicopter's unprovoked killing of over a dozen people in New Baghdad.1 This video was popularly labeled "collateral murder" by wikileaks. Reporters for Reuters were among those killed because their camera equipment was mistaken for an AK-47. Two children were also injured in the attack. Eyewitness and soldier Ethan McCord says that this sort of indiscriminate killing is an everyday occurance, elaborating on how justifications for firing upon civilians are justified by the ambiguous labeling of suspected Iraqis posing a "threat." His testimony is horrifying and deserves watching.2

While his case is being investigated, Manning is being confined in a marine brig in Quantico, Va.
Manning has been kept (for five months now) in solitary confinement where he is given one hour a day to exercise. Lately, he's was placed on "suicide watch" and was stripped naked for seven hours. This is a slight escalation to the usual stripping down to his boxers every night. I've never tried, but I imagine it would be difficult to hang one's self with a pair of boxer shorts.

Pentagon Press Secretary provides two major justifications for this imprisonment. One being that he poses a threat to his own health, although there has been no medical evidence to support that he's suicidal (other than the fact that he's being subjected to psychologically compromising confinement). The other justification would be that he poses a threat to national security. 3 Manning has been charged on accounts of "aiding the enemy" and the NYT reports speculations that the "enemy" in question is the wikileaks organization.4 Legal questions of who the enemy is becomes an important matter fPublish Postor debate.5

Manning's psychological and physical health are being compromised. His treatment is inhumane. Exposing even military atrocities is a noble effort and I can only pray that Manning finds strength in knowing he's a part of a just cause. For more information on who Manning is and how to help visit


Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Black Swan Lake (warning: spoiler)

About a year or two ago, there were talks of Darren Aronofsky directing a movie about Irish boxer Micky Ward with everyone from Leonardo DiCaprio to Mark Walhberg starring as the lead. When I read that he was not directing this film, I was initially disappointed. After seeing Black Swan, I could care less. Aronofsky's brilliance never ceases to impress me. His unreliable first person narration confronts the audience with the same melee of psychological challenges that made Pi such a brain teasing classic. However, the answers to these plot related questions in Black Swan take a back seat to the breath taking performance of both his overtly symbolic imagery and Natalie Portman's stunning performance. Portman ironically performs the role of a lifetime playing a talented ballerina who, despite her perfect form, can't act. Her inability to capture the seduction and darkness of the black swan in Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake drives her to insanity. By abandoning reality completely, Nina Sayers (Portman) finds a pscyhologically thrilling loophole in order to overcome her own diffidence. Instead of suspending reality on the stage in order to embody the duality of a suicidal "sweet girl" and her twin, a pernicious temptress, Sayers goes mad making herself all of these things. Black Swan is visceral, poetic, and ultimately awe-inspiring. Portman was impressive enough when Hugo Weaving enlightened her conception of reality in V for Vendetta. In Aronofsky's movie, Portman's character does it all of her own accord, all in her own pursuit of perfection. Perfection drives all of its pursuers crazy. It's a tragedy whenever an artist sacrifices themselves for their art. Aronofsky captured this tragic beauty wonderfully, and all he seems to have sacrificed himself was a chance to teach Marky Mark how to act.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Reflections on Procrastination: in lieu of examinations, final, and deadlines.

With regards to procrastination, a couple of things have currently struck me as interesting. First is how uninteresting the word "interesting" actually is. As a writing tutor or a teacher, I am quick to point out words that say something without meaning anything at all: good, bad (evil*), fun, exciting, thing(s), important, sad, or interesting. Formally, I disapprove of language that has been repeated or embraced to the point where it's ability to operate as a distinguishing, and therefore signifying, term has been lost. Nonetheless, when talking or thinking to myself I use the word quite often. "Interesting" even seeps into my conversations as responses to the thoughts of others. This isn't to say I'm not interested in these thoughts, but just that I privately allow for a term which I must formally disapprove of. Such are the hypocrisies of teaching something, of being paid to correct habits that we may ourselves possess, which regardlessly have snuck through the education system without considerable harm to our own development (we hope). The word "interesting" is one of these things. Even though I must resist the urge to describe how "interesting" certain scholarly articles are in light of a research project, and instead continually search for more accurate or succinct language, I am personally entertained by the allure of the simply Interesting.
There is a danger in interesting, its ability to inhibit is very real. For exampe, if I like a movie or a book because it is interesting than I have committed the first step towards authentic investigation. Something spoke to me, I am attentive, at least for a short period of time. Interest is a gateway to continued study, pointing the way but not revealing anything of value. If something is interesting long enough then the investigation will ensue. The next question becomes then, how long does it take for matters of the heart to switch gears from interesting to worthy of invested consideration? What will we dedicate our time to? This is an interesting question, but it is a question that often prevents us from making a second point.

* What's interesting about Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil is, as well as its claim on morality, its insight into the workings of vocabulary. Perhaps "good" and "evil" had merely come to be words which were overused and lacked substance. Not to say that the search for a more apt word or group of words should be abandoned, but that "good" and "evil's" forms were being grossly misrepresented.

Monday, December 6, 2010

A Little Larkin

Embracing poetry more and more, I thought I would share a new favorite of mine by Philip Larkin.

High Windows
When I see a couple of kids
And guess he's fucking her and she's
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives -
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide

To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That'll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark

About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds. And immediately

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Is Criticism Worth It?

I read an interesting chapter in Stanley Fish's book (something about free speech...I can't remember the title, nor the title of the chapter for that matter). He was arguing that much of the New Historical Criticism of literature, particularly on John Milton, was misguided. He had noticed a trend (I believe he wrote this around 1993) where random historical information which was (quite) loosely associated with Milton or his writings was being published under the title of historical criticism. The critical trend was justifying pointless archival work and the failure to actually make valid connections which could shed light on Milton. I enjoyed the article, largely because I have similar convictions concerning a whole.

Don't get me wrong. Nothing gets me hard like reading some arduously translated, loquacious account of how the margins, or what is not said, in a text holds some philosophical insight not only into the writer's soul but into an ideological reality of things. And, (yes, I'm starting a sentence with a conjunction) I have found myself in an accredited English program reading more of what people think about written works than the written works themselves. How have academics made a career of showing people what's really important about what they read? Even Stanley Fish's contribution to Reader-Response criticism is guilty of over thinking how people read. The meaning of a text is a result of a reader's participation with it. Of course, he goes into much broader detail than this, but is is somewhat commonsense, isn't it? People read books and make what they will of it. I suppose criticism is just one more example of this.

I suppose I'm realizing more and more that I don't necessarily care about half the shit that critics think. It's a battlefield. If Stanley Fish is right about meaning being a product of interpretive communities (ie I identify a main character in some text as a champion of Catholicism simply because I grew up in the Church-which is the interpretive community that has laid hands, so to speak, on my imagination) than criticism turns into class struggle. Perhaps my Marxist communal interpretation is showing. Nevertheless, why fight? Is it possible to write anything of substance if I'm concerned about how things will be interpreted? Is creativity or art or beauty of any kind furthered by pointing out that a Nobel Prize winner is an example of Freud's Oedipal complex? Read Freud than! I can't help but wonder if the goal of fiction isn't to inspire grandiose critical speculations on fiction, but to inspire more fiction. I can't imagine Milton or Faulkner getting some perverse satisfaction from a smart guy associating their work with some other smart guy's writing. I don't know.

Perhaps I'm getting frustrated with my end-of-the-semester projects.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Elizabeth Bishop/Kanye West=Confessional Poets?

This blog has a two fold mission: to ventilate pre-draft thoughts before I write papers, and to ventilate my obsession with Kanye West. My teacher probably doesn't want to hear about the new album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but Kanye correlates to the confessional spirit in Bishop's poetry. Although, Bishop is much more reserved with her confessions.
The first song of the album MBDTF, to the horn melody from the Rocky movies, is titled "Turn on the Lights". This light that Kanye is talking about invokes stadium lights, concert hall lights, club lights perhaps, but most importantly is the light that Kanye invokes of the reader as he turns the lights onto himself. Kanye is exposing the "twisted" "dark" and consequently the "beautiful" parts of his own fantasy, or of himself. Ye wants us to see him, all of him. His album is in many ways a confessional.
My favorite poem of Elizabeth Bishop's (at the moment) is "The Man-Moth". The Man-Moth is a Promethean monster that crawls from the underground and scales buildings to reach the moon. To the Man-Moth, the moon is a hold in the canvas of the sky. He wants to escape the night. The Man-Moth never reaches the moon, his escape, and is disappointed every time he fails...but not as disappointed as he would be had he reached it. The final stanza reads as follows:
If you catch him,
hold up a flashlight to his eye. It's all dark pupil,
an entire night itself, whose haired horizon tightens
as he stares back, and closes up the eye. Then from the lids
one tear, his only possession, like the bee's sting, slips.
Slyly he palms it, and if you're not paying attention
he'll swallow it. However, if you watch, he'll hand it over,
cool as from underground springs and pure enough to drink.

Exposing the monster creature to light reveals his tears, which for the careful observer are "pure enough to drink". These are the lights that Kanye begs his readers/listeners to hold up to his own eye. In so doing, we may see the "beautiful" in his dark, twisted fantasy. A rough or controversial outer image is only a facade. It is a filtering process, asking only the attentive to receive the confessional honesty of his poetry.