2011 has been something of a boom year for Ali Alizadeh. To start things off, his nonfiction work, Iran: my grandfather (Transit Lounge, 2010), was shortlisted for a category in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Following hot on the heels of Iran, Ashes in the Air was published earlier this year and looks set to garner considerable attention. An intriguing mixture of landscape and cognition, Ashes in the Air is an exploration of a young poet’s place in a confusing and disturbing world. Thematically, the poems cluster around a hesitant, conflicted sense of nomadism: Alizadeh is as concerned with returning to the Tehran of his childhood or the Australian coast of his teenage years as he is with meditating on observations made while travelling through China or the Middle East. He writes of his travels, and of xenophobia, falling in love and parenthood, as experiences that flare and recede along the trajectory of a life.
In the press release, Felicity Plunkett talks about the “muscularity” of these poems, and contrasts them with the “more delicate lyric poetry” that is currently prevalent in Australia. Bypassing altogether another discussion about whose work, exactly, represents this “delicate” Australian poetry (Alizadeh himself prompted one with his review of Petra White on this website), I can’t say that I’m sure of what makes Alizadeh’s own poetry particularly ‘muscular’. When I think of muscularity in poetry, I think of someone like Ernesto Cardenal; Ashes in the Air, on the other hand, is deeply intimate, confessional poetry, every bit as delicate as the poet’s sense of self. I emphasise this point because what is remarkable about many of these poems is their tremendous vulnerability: Ashes in the Air offers us countless admissions of frailty and doubt and insecurity. I cannot overstate how necessary this is in Australian poetry: Alizadeh seems to be one of only a small number of poets writing and publishing in this country who are willing to engage with the shocking horrors of the grossly unequal, destructive and oppressive world in which most humans (and, increasingly, other species) live. The voice of these poems doesn’t belong to some white, monolingual, complacent, bourgeois shell of a human being. This poet doesn’t simply ‘experience’, ‘enjoy’ or ‘grow’ from the world as if it were a theme park. Rather, the poems suggest that a wary, critical gaze is essential for navigation in the contemporary moment. I am delighted that this book exists.
The opening piece of the collection, ‘Marco Polo’, is one of the highlights. It is the first of many blooming confessions, and it is probably the most important. Simply, the poem sets out to explain “why // we travel” – why it is that Alizadeh and his wife are going to bring their son into a world bereft of the benefits of a “sedentary genesis” . There is no answer, either; that the poet “can only offer an image” of picture frames being removed from the walls of an apartment is a brilliant way of denying the very boundaries within which any answer might be enclosed. Note what is going on here: the primacy of the static image (in the frame) is giving way to something else; imagism is melting. What the poem does, in other words, is nomadically evade its own origins, focussing not on a mythical crystallisation of perception, but on the travel from one image to another:
visible discrepancy between
what we were and what we’ve become,
the possibility to uncover
and see it. The nomads treasure
wisdom: the reality of ageing
This is a wonderful poem because it establishes a dynamic, almost unstable foundation for the rest of the book. As a ‘Song of Myself’, it provides no single set of coordinates with which to locate the poet. Rather, the Alizadeh of Ashes in the Air is a trajectory; we can follow him, but we will never find him. A lyric about leaving a series of homes, instead of one that roots the self to a home place, strikes me as a particularly pertinent song for the twenty-first century.
From the long, scintillating streak of ‘Marco Polo’ (it runs for nearly three pages), things slow considerably in the second poem, ‘Aged’: from immanent child-birth, we leap to the lament of a “middle-ageing // X-Generationer”. This is the fresh, “sad, bemused poetry” for which I rejoice above. The poet isn’t smugly happy with himself or with his unique position in the world; he’s self-deprecating and quite open about his failings and limitations. Like ‘Marco Polo’ was important for establishing a moving geographical and cultural foundation for the book, ‘Aged’ is another crucial poem because it introduces the poet’s willingness to write self-reflexively; by page 4, the gaze of the poet has turned inwards, and here it will largely remain.
As the book continues, one starts to notice that a sustained process of self-mythologising has commenced. A few pages after ‘Aged’ we come to ‘The Suspect’, which is a litany of statements about who the poet is, and who he is not, in the eyes of Middle Eastern and/or Western structures of power:
There, in the Other land, I was
gharb-zadeh, Farsi to the effect of west-
smitten. Here, in Our Land, I am
While the poem on its own is a poignant and effective description of the manifestations of a self in different cultural contexts, within the course of the whole book it forms part of a lengthy proliferation and re-proliferation of the poet-as-character. I will talk more about this problem later on, but for now I will only say that such extended self-analysis and -description has strong links to those very modes of capitalist manufacturing, refinement and production that the poet is at such pains to critique.
In a formal sense, Ashes in the Air is a study of the couplet. Each poem in the book is written with the sleek, two-line stanza, but the poet knows how to work within and around the restrictions that the form imposes. Alizadeh is adept at modifying the relationships between line and syntax, using enjambments to skilfully alter rhythms, or to emphasise stresses:
Like the Italian one, my family’s rebirth
spawned masterpieces, caused a breakdown
like the civil wars of the Reformation
with few victors, countless casualties. Mine
a kind of persecution: bullied, beaten
at school for being a ‘dirty terrorist’
my resurrection stunted, my new
(from ‘A Familial Renaissance’,)
In poems like this one above, a couplet can be devoted to a discrete syntactical unit, or it can serve as a ‘lens’ that focuses on a stream of syntax as it flows over a number of lines.
At other times, however, Alizadeh’s adherence to form comes at the expense of poetic function, and the lines can become clunky and mechanical:
Religion? Not for us, thanks. Only
this hallowed democracy. Damn those
Muslim fundamentalists. Praise be
for beer and primitivism. We’ve revealed
the truth of everything. There is no God
but online porn and football. Never doubt
the omnipotence of the stock market
and cosmetic surgery.
(from ‘Our Democracy’)
Lines like these also signal another troubling aspect of a number of the poems: their didacticism can overwhelm them, weighing down the line to the point that the only thing distinguishing it from prose is the couplet into which it is squeezed. Indeed, after a poem like ‘The History of the Veil’ (replete with an epigraph from Foucault’s History of Sexuality) I find myself wondering if the poet hasn’t actually started writing an essay or a manifesto, but has forgotten to tell me:
Middle-class, democratic societies of the West confronted with
the dilemma of what to do with mysterious, inscrutable non-
Christian ethnics. Gas them? That was tried once, didn’t succeed
entirely. At any rate the West needs their oil more sincerely
than anti-racism activists could advocate tolerance, diversity,
etc. But fear of Islam – inter alia a pathological concern for
what women wear/shouldn’t wear – widespread in the West
as pursuit of cash, addiction to success, thirst for world
Such long, flat lines, and the awkward confusion of bland, multi-syllabic adjectives strung together with abstract nouns and syntactical interruptions, are sure signs that poems like this one are teetering on the very precipice into which all that poetry doesn’t name must fall. This is a shame, because there is little about this work which isn’t extremely important. There are many lines which work well, and Alizadeh is to be commended for writing at this most challenging intersection of poem and essay. It’s just that too often the content isn’t fulfilled by the form, or vice versa. The poet needed to ask the question, “What is a poem?” more frequently; then, perhaps some of these poems might have become essays, or parts of other, longer pieces of non-fiction.
My niggling concerns about this book are inflamed during the latter third of it. I have a strong feeling that Ashes in the Air is too long. Towards the end, the poet’s expanding self-mythology begins to assume too prominent a position; each poem is little more than an exhaust valve for various nodes of trauma or shock. From page 59 onwards, for example, poems begin with outbursts like: “I wanted to fight with you / against them”; “I don’t care about you”; “I’m sick of You”; “Let’s say my inferno began in the dark woods / of rejection”. The last of these comes from a poem entitled ‘My Divine Comedy’, which was written after John Kinsella. The link to Kinsella is another defining moment in the book, suggesting that the sheer quantity of poems about himself, and his willingness to write [endlessly?] about who he is and where he comes from, is a trait Alizadeh has learnt from the West Australian. If nothing else, Alizadeh certainly shares Kinsella’s astonishing prolificacy: only born in 1976, Ashes in the Air is already his sixth book (it’s enough to make me wonder at what I’ve been doing all these years). Yet the relationship between Alizadeh and Kinsella is deeper than this. Indeed, Alizadeh has worked closely with Kinsella on a number of projects, not least some wonderful translations of Persian poetry, part of which was featured in a recent issue of Southerly.
In an extremely insightful review of the issue, Sydney-based poet and critic Joel Scott raised a concern about “Kinsella’s front and centre self”, arguing that Kinsella’s long essay that accompanied the translations (‘Where I Sit in the Process: working with Ali Alizadeh to produce an anthology of Persian Poetry’) overshadowed the worlds of the poems themselves. For Scott, one of the great values of translation is that it pushes the writer’s self out of focus, and brings into the centre of the frame the Other (a culture, text, or writer) that is translated. Now, an obvious objection to the implication of these comments is that in Ashes in the Air Alizadeh is not translating poems, but writing them. Yet part of the mission of many of these poems is precisely a kind of translation – from other languages, or other locales. Alizadeh deserves attention because he radically disrupts the notion that a white/Anglo/English-speaking tradition is the basis of Australian poetry. In many ways, his poetry is all about attempts to produce Otherness. So, while the press release tells me that the concerns of Ashes in the Air are “international”, I am disappointed that so many of these concerns are blocked out by the overbearing presence of the poet’s own body – in all of its different guises and sizes.
An interesting example of this point is ‘Listening to Michael Jackson in Tehran’, which Alizadeh wrote after Azar Nafisi (Reading Lolita in Tehran, 2008). Like many in Ashes in the Air, this poem recalls the poet’s childhood in “war-stricken Tehran”. It focuses on a young boy’s excitement at the thought that his “illegal and sacrilegious / cassette-tape of Thriller” might “unsettle the boring, Islamic world” of his fellow classmates, thereby elevating in status his “chubby, unpopular / self”. All is to end in disappointment, however, because after surreptitiously asking a boy next to him on the school bus if he’d like to know about ‘Beat It’ or ‘Billie Jean’, the mention of Michael Jackson ignites a wildfire; soon “[t]he bus / vibrated with the singer’s name”. It turns out that everyone already knew about Jackson, including the ‘Thriller’ video and everything else that made him the world’s first mega-star. Disconsolate, the young Alizadeh feels “robbed” of his “planned stardom”, and would later throw out his copy of Thriller, which has become “the fetish of Great Satan’s / useless, ubiquitous popular culture”.
I suppose this poem is quaint enough to draw many a chuckle at poetry readings and the like, but I can’t help but find it extremely disappointing. Once again, the problem seems to be with the overbearing presence of Alizadeh’s [young] self. I appreciate the disappointment of watching a special, intimate relationship with Jackson – and concomitant hopes for social prestige – become lost in a stupor of adoration for a pop idol who – even on the other side of a “fierce chasm” from the USA – was almost omnipresent. However, what would have been more worthwhile, I think, would have been a poem exploring a more interesting question: why did the other kids like Michael Jackson so much? These other children are like little burls of energy in the poem’s environment, but the speaker is all but oblivious to them. Instead, the simpler path has been taken, and the complexities of the milieu are swept beneath the rubric of “ubiquitous popular culture”. Unfortunately, the overbearing presence of an anxious, insecure self prevents this poem from engaging in a real translation of listening to Jackson in 1980s Tehran.
Despite these concerns, I remain delighted. The unresolved tension, between a man who wants his poems to fly across the world and another man who can’t seem to look away from his own self for long enough to show us much of the world, is as interesting and memorable as it is unsatisfactory and tiresome. Perhaps it is precisely these obvious, persistent flaws that make the book so endearing. Besides, some of the greatest poets are some of the most confused; with so much raw language to offer, and with so many forms in which to offer it, Alizadeh might take longer than some of these dons to write a perfect book, but when he does it will ignite like a comet and shock us all to our bones. Ashes in the Air is the beginning of a profound trajectory.