Poetry: Anis Shivani



Heavy water, Soraya, hectares of lithium,
your angry locusts past the seventeenth
year of pining, while your carnival mermans,
we—mercurial, mentholated, mephitic natives—
revive the rhythm of breathing in rhumba,
rewrite the vitreous record books to void,
sprockets of hope to your sprouting reich,
each of the thirteen colonies tone-deaf.
We, chimeriad of Sorayas in chilly cranes,
measure childbearing like faquirs out in
fanzines, live family trees hanging gimpily
on the lobes of pad, pat, bad, bat phonemes.
Secret shoppers are their own sect of spook,
tiebreaking tutors whisking voiceless vodka.


Hierophants who prowl like rock lizards
in the excipient foam of cabin class dreams,
come at me like bubble memories of the
Byzantine empire, for I was there, Soraya,
bucolic major domo in charge of majority
rule, malachite bearing archipelagos of
musique concrète. Mixing the membranes
of Niflheim with nightingales of nostalgia
was ever my referred pain. Soraya, smoky
quartz smolders beneath my candid snafus,
as though I were a compass to Baluchi in
drums, violent dropsy among the plumbers
of collapse: classical ploughshares sweep
past dive-bombing Sunday divertissements.

Soraya is my attempt to explore some of the baroque possibilities of language in poetry. It takes more liberties with language than I’ve ever taken in the past, deliberately playing up alliteration and other poetic devices in order to undermine all the rhetoric of poetry, and hovering over the abyss of nothing (since the sense of poetry gets so overplayed in this book). It aims for a surrealist reordering mining both highbrow and lowbrow culture, with the main character (Soraya/me) not so much slicing a path through the thicket of over-allusive techno-culture as rearranging the vocabulary itself by forming incongruous connections, observing surprise for surprise’s sake. I always use Soraya’s name once in the octet and once in the sestet, often use a contemporary scientific term juxtaposed with the medieval worldview, and often pair Asian references with modern American counterparts. I wanted to know how extreme the pairings could be and still make sense, and of course there are no theoretical limits.

A predecessor book from two years ago, Sonnets to X., soon ran out of steam, I think because I wasn’t emotionally distanced from the subject at the time, personalizing it rather than freeing the relationship, whereas this time I’ve been able to write 100 sonnets to finish Soraya in a mad frenzy over three weeks. I’m letting sound dictate its own momentum, intentionally deploying extreme vocabulary, making anomalous geographical and historical connections, all the while standing aside and observing what goes on between Soraya and me. The idea of coming to terms with the root source of poetic inspiration has been with me for a while; I consider it the most demonic of projects, because one never wants to get too close to the motive force.

I didn’t know who Soraya was when I started the project but the name had been obsessing me for a while. At first Soraya seemed like the exotic other, someone I would want to distance during the writing, but she was soon revealed as something quite different. Soraya is muse, demon, angel, best friend, worst enemy, all of those things, and much more besides. I described it as a “titanic struggle” with Soraya during the writing of the book, but it’s the sense of playfulness that mostly dominates from beginning to end. If it is a struggle it is one with internal limitations, and Soraya seems mostly within grasp.

I’ve noticed distinct phases, as in a novel, from genesis and growth to maturity and decline, and of course death. The first sonnet published here is actually the very first one in the book, and I think it sets the course nicely for all the conversation with Soraya that follows. The second is actually no. 72, three-fourths of the way into the book, when Soraya is less antagonist than self. The thickest texture occurs in the first half of the book, and then the book loosens up, with the leisure that comes from the sense of a game well fought.

These were some of my preoccupations when writing Soraya: 1) Sound dictates sense, but sense does not occur randomly; to highlight the patterns in which it recurs disarms poetic technique; 2) Surrealist ethics cannot deny the historical past; 3) Poetry is too caught up in the present moment; 4) Experimental poetry tries hard to be subversive, cute, political, apolitical, anti-lyric, pro-lyric; none of these stances interests me; 5) Each poem is a brick in the infinite wall, each poem speaks to the recurrent components of the whole edifice; 6) The transient occurrence is usually the least elusive, but does transience recur? 7) The tradition cannot be made over, it needs humility at the base; 8) But such humility tends to veer off into passive game-playing; 9) To make the old new is the odd contest of the moment; 10) Everything has already been said? Poetry resists respite beyond this (false) conundrum.

anis 1Anis Shivani’s first book of poetry is the recently released My Tranquil War and Other Poems (NYQ Books). After Soraya, he plans to work on a new poetry manuscript called Empire, exploring correspondences between the pratices of empire across a wide swath of historical and geographical space. His books include Anatolia and Other Stories (2009), Against the Workshop (2011), The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (2012), and the forthcoming novel Karachi Raj (2014). He has just finished a new book of criticism called Literature in the Age of Globalization, while current projects include the novel Abruzzi, 1936, a book of criticism called Plastic REalism: Neoliberal Discourse in New American Fiction. His work appears in Georgia Review, Southwest Review, Boston Review, Threepenny Review, Antioch Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Harvard Review, Iowa Review, Green Mountains Review, Boulevard, Epoch, Agni, Fence, Denver Quarterly, Times Literary Supplement, London Magazine, Cambridge Quarterly, and many other journals. He won a 2012 Pushcart Prize, is a member of the NBCC, and reviews books for many newspapers and magazines.