My Tranquil War

New York Quarterly Books, 2012
Anis Shivani’s new collection of poems is on its surface an extended meditation on a variety of figures (and figureheads) both of our time and of ages past. The subjects of Shivani’s poems range from luminaries of literary criticism (“Harold Bloom’s Old Age”) to figures of philosophy (Immanuel Kant) politics (President George W. Bush) and those of literature and poetry. At first glance, the table of contents presents an almost overwhelming array of historical and contemporary references upon and around which the poems are structured. Throughout the collection, Shivani manages the difficult feat of avoiding the pitfalls of writing about such figures without simply doting on them or restating their own work in his own words. Shivani’s command of poetic form and meter enable him to write poems that build on the work of those whom he references without being smothered by the weight of the undertaking.

His poetry is particularly powerful when figures of art and literature are used as a lens of interpretation for contemporary events. The difficulties of writing a poem about a poet (or any artist for that matter) should not be underestimated. Not only does the poet invite the comparison to the past greats and risk charges of hubris, but she also gambles with the prospect of writing a letter of admiration rather than saying anything substantive. The most provocative poem of this collection, “The Abu Ghraib Images,” speaks directly to the shortcomings of this practice:

The zero seconds in the pulses 
animating Goya’s Third of May 
have ceased: it is how we hood 
the crimes of the past, how we 
steal from classical conceptions of pathos, irrefutably current.
Guernica doesn’t do this justice. 
Nor Milgram’s prison experiments.

The identification of the past as a means of transposing the events of the present into an intelligible and living history is, in this poem, associated with the problems that come when one idealizes the past. In short, the present becomes viewed through the distance of “fiction.” The incontestable reality of the images, as well as the “benign names” by which torture is identified, reveal the ease with which history enables a disassociation of ourselves from the events that define our culture. I find this poem the most powerful in part because this impulse is so intrinsic to the creation of art itself. It is here that we see revealed the paradox of the artist: how to create art without obfuscating reality? Without lying? Without idealizing past and present?

The additional sentiment buried in poems such as “Abu Ghraib” is the motion toward Western orientalist philosophies of the East and the ease with which bodies of the “other” are made to suffer. Many of the poems in this collection elaborate on the immigrant and transnational experiences. Shivani frequently extends the concept of immigration beyond bodies and into the realm of thought, figures and places representative of different modes of experience. The collection draws from a great span of figures and places--from Stalin and Reagan to the Calcutta slums and Zulus in New York. With each new reference, Shivani demonstrates the ways in which globalization can intrude upon the life of the mind and the health of the spirit. The poems in this collection often seem to serve as a way of drawing together points of convergence and divergence in order to articulate the quiet and the chaos endemic to life in a globalized world.

It is in these respects that Shivani shows his strengths as a poet and a thinker. Some of his experiments in form are less than successful. The rambling and disjointed “Reaganesque” is an attempt at a summative judgment on the legacy of the eponymous President that trips over its own formal quirks. The results of other such formal experiments are similarly precarious. “The Essential Salvador Dali” is an extended meditation on Dali’s paintings, with a dozen or so subsections that feature a poem based on a Dali painting. Though conceptually intriguing, the subsections fail to arouse the reader to any holistic conclusions about Dali or the poetry itself. It is here that the danger of Shivani’s project is revealed; reinterpretations of past greats can provide a powerful springboard for new ideas and thought. Whereas many poems in this collection are quite innovative in this respect, “Dali” ends up falling into a maudlin poetic dance that doesn’t please in itself, nor promise anything better. Like many poets, Shivani is at his best when he is at his most reflective. Poems like “Abu Ghraib” and “Address to Walt Whitman” use the power of the past--perhaps channeling Bloom’s notion of the anxiety of influence--as a means to give meaning and enlightenment to the present. In a time when many fault contemporary poetry for its willing disconnection from form and history, Shivani demonstrates the value of engaging with and challenging the past to construct a better future.
MICHAEL RAVENSCROFT is a bookseller and (quite predictably) a writer. He lives in Washington D.C. with his girlfriend, two cats, and far too many books.