- Depiction and Reflection
Emerson was looking for the Great Poet of America. I'm looking for the Great Poem of Globalization. The long poem "Tocqueville" in Khaled Mattawa's collection of the same title is a draft of that poem. It is really a multi-genre piece, combining verse, prose passages, and dialogues; it is poem, essay, documentary, and dirge. Some portions are original to the author, while others come verbatim from disparate sources. It is also a montage, because it tells a story from various simultaneous points of view in order to perceive the whole. And because the "story" of globalization is so large, the narratives that the poem weaves together are heterogeneous: first-person accounts of life and death in war zones in Sierra Leone and Somalia; a patient telling a therapist the story of a friend who turns out to be a banally evil Internet child pornographer; an ongoing dialogue between social critics, one of whom is probably a white American, the other, a person of color who came to the U.S. from another country; and "special operatives" who cynically recount "interventions" in impoverished nations on behalf of—well, somebody with money. Thus, the work implicitly asks how anyone can connect anything with anything when the "theater of operations" is the entire planet. The book ultimately leaves one to connect the stories oneself—or to take up the task.
In "Tocqueville," Mattawa depicts neoliberal globalization by bringing together the quotidian and the Big Events, the masses and the "players," American racial politics and the global politics/ psychology of race. The portions that occur in the metropole tend to emphasize individual isolation— the kind Tocqueville warned us against: "Where are they? I mean when do you meet them, really, these fellow citizens? / On airplanes mainly.... It's fascinating, the quiet, the solitude." By stark contrast, the portions that occur in the global "periphery" are much more populated and sometimes include terrifying accounts of people fighting, killing, and exploiting one another.
This book marks a significant shift in Mattawa's poetics. As Philip Metres has noted, Tocqueville, "in contrast to his lyrically-driven previous work, pronounces that it no longer suffices to sing, even to sing of dark times." If Amorisco (2008) was cooked, Tocqueville is raw—and bloody. It is raw aesthetically—seams show, and Mattawa deliberately avoids the high polish of his earlier work. It is also raw in the sense that it doesn't pull punches, as in graphic accounts of unimaginable brutality, or in the (U.S.) poet's reflections:
A dream between usfogging what we want to see...A prison, but then everywhere else is a prison... Who ain't a slave, asks Ishmael.
The poem situates Ishmael's statement—not to mention Tocqueville's own observations—in a contemporary milieu unimaginable in the early nineteenth century. This book can be described as Arab-American literature, but it situates both the Arabic-speaking world and the U.S. in the context of a marketized, surveilled world dominated by a few corporations and nation-states, as when the poem notes,
the way the satellite eye zooms down on your house, and then out and out (like in the movies).
A scent grows in the mind then:
The fustiness, the ancient beard,the house made from sun-baked bricksand its salted sheepskins...the breath of dried palm fronds in my grandfather's house.
The scene at the end sounds like Mattawa's recollections of his native Libya in previous books. But here it is seen via Google Earth—seen, that is, by someone with access to a computer and a good Internet connection. Mattawa is intent upon zooming out and looking at both his natal and adopted countries in the light of the transnational networks that enmesh us all—not least of all the lyric poet: "Sometimes I want to call what I see / through the keyhole 'a flower.' / Then I see the clock racing, / the digits tumbling over themselves." Flowers and erotic love can never quite get beyond the equation time=money in this...