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Towards the End: launch speech by Philip Mead

Towards the End by Ali Alizadeh was launched by Philip Mead, at the Paperback Bookshop in Melbourne on 20 February, 2020. Below is an edited version of Mead’s launch speech.

Welcome everyone. I’m delighted to be launching this latest collection of Ali Alizadeh’s poems, Towards the End, published by Giramondo. I’ve been following Ali’s writing now for a long time, ever since he sprung onto the scene in the late 90s as a new voice and a new sensibility. Ali Alizadeh: I’ve always thought of him as a double-A poet! Since then he’s become such an important and distinctive writer in Australia’s contemporary literary scene. He’s persisted with poetry, as we know, with two collections of his own work before this volume, and the collection of translations from Attar (2007), the great Sufi poet (of the late twelfth/early thirteenth centuries) – forerunner of Rumi and Hafiz. To give you some idea of the fascinating complexities that Ali traverses in his writing: I was thinking of the frankly political language of this latest collection, Towards the End, and his serious, scholarly knowledge of the allegorical, mystical language of Attar, medieval Persian poetry and the conventions of the ghazal. Attar lived at a time of great political turmoil and successive regimes and was possibly even killed in the Mongol invasion of Nishapur, where he lived, and yet his poetry is about the intense interior life and spiritual quest, about looking for transcendence in an ephemeral and frantic world. There was no Romantic psychology of the poet here, either; Attar didn’t even think of himself as a poet, he was most concerned with spiritual realities.

Then there’s Ali’s fictional writing: his stories about contemporary outsiders and asylum seekers, like Transactions(2013) and in a completely different direction and mode, his recent historical novel The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc, all in flashbacks from the cell in which the heroine is imprisoned at the end of her life, and a meta-reflection of what we can know of historical events and an historical figure like Jeanne. At the same time, it’s a narrative that imagines the actual historical figure aside from the myths. What else can Ali do with writing? Well, one of my favourites is his memoir, Iran, my grandfather. It begins with a brilliant paragraph that I think seems to sum up, in so many ways, a world of contemporary feeling and experience:

I have no home. I know this very well – have known it and lived with it for almost two decades – but in times of fear, in times of paranoia and persecution, nothing comforts like the fantasy of a familiar refuge. A zone decorated with signs of family and memory, a place where we may elude the enemy: native land, motherland (1).

This memoir offers multiple questions to anyone thinking about identity politics in the Badlands of contemporary Australia – questions with no simple answers – but it is also an absorbing history of twentieth-century Iran, focalised around the imagined life of Ali’s grandfather Salman, and shows Ali’s deep understanding of the ways in which individual human lives, and generations, are entangled in the contingencies of economic and political history. The poet Attar shows up again in this story.

At the level of critical discourse Ali has been one of the leaders in the field of radical poetics, an important and under-recognized sphere of intellectual and literary culture in Australia. In the issue of Southerlyabout ‘The Political Imagination, postcolonialism and diaspora’ that Ali edited with Ann Vickery (a few years back now), they provided a valuable set of perspectives on the other traditions in Australian poetry, where transformation, hybridity, the determiners of nation, identitarianism, the archipelagic, and the transnational are all in complex array. Ali understands what it means to come from different worlds.

It’s in his poetry, though, as this latest collection reminds us that Ali stands most vulnerably, most candidly, and most politically, as a writer. This is announced in a layered way in the opening poem of the book, ‘The Singer’ where Ali reflects on his young son’s singing of nursey rhymes. He is prompted to think of his own father: ‘I wasn’t nearly as loud/ a toddler, my voice vanished from/ the void of my father’s ear.’ For a poet to ask, as Ali does, ‘did I ever have a voice’? is a serious question, one with ominous reverberations. His father’s voice was heartbreaking and exclusionary: ‘I remember Dad crying/ out the lyrics of an old Persian dirge/ warbling from the speakers not long/ after moving to Australia, homesick/-ness haunting his larynx like a ghost’. So much for parenting, he thinks, in other words he stands between the diasporic howling of his father and the Playschool rhymes of his son, enacting ‘the presence of unsung words.’ This primal scene of Towards the Endis no coincidence: ‘Saga’, with its denotation of a long story of relations, perhaps with heroic events, is in fact a story of disappointment, at least on the poet’s part. The narrative of his family’s displacement and political history only points up the failed ideal of ‘revolution, [and] a universal family’.

These poems are unabashed and explicit in their depiction of the disappointed ideals of jobs like teaching rhetoric and composition, consumerist culture, schoolyard racism, the economics of the health care system, the absurdity of religion, the fate of refugees, and generally the dispiriting effects of living within capitalist societies. A poem like ‘I ♥︎(this) Life?’ – the irony is signalled pretty clearly in this title – sets out a mini-cogs [cost of goods] analysis of earning a wage, buying a cup of coffee and how economic structures keep the bosses in place. It’s a very funny poem, but the humour has a mordant edge, relying as it does on the fibres of hegemony the poet feels within himself. So what about the question of this kind of language and theme in poetry? Political poetry has a tough job of recognition and legitimacy in relation to neo-liberal humanism, the persistence of aesthetic ideology is pervasive. Ali explores such ancient questions in ‘The Point,’ a poem not just about truth and revolution and instrumental reason and exchange value – all words that occur – but about the idea of the poem itself, whether it can encompass such concepts or language. The frame of course, if we hadn’t guessed before reading the poem, is Marx’s XIth, and final, thesis on Feuerbach: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.’ Ali’s audacious conclusion is to paraphrase Marx, to assert that the point of poetry is to change the world. Well, a riposte to W.H. Auden and Lorca!

You might think this a random or unsubstantiated point to make. But it’s not. It’s part of a whole structure of feeling exemplified in this collection of poems, which is streaked throughout with bitterness and disappointment, and hurt, at the historical and economic realities of the world – the kind of feeling that makes you flail around for some way of changing it –  but which moves towards two major antitheses to such perceptions in the last two poems of the collection: ‘Hope?’ and ‘The Internationale.’ ‘Hope’ outlines four reasons for hope: 1) markets bust; 2) the irreversible divide between rich and poor; 3) crises in democracy; and 4) the collapse of ideological liberalism. He sees the human situation as ‘self-annihilatory’ and the only hope is to come together in solidarity, to resume history. ‘I think there’s hope’ the poems ends. Following this up in the final poem of the book, and even more audaciously, Ali offers an excellent new translation of the Internationale, a script for communal singing, of workers against the exploiters. This is an expression of the international ideal of humanity, in the face of the vanity of nations – something we certainly see all around us. This is not such a crazy thing for a poet to be doing, it’s a distinctive contribution to the rich heritage of protest and resistance in poetry and art, which has made a lot happen in people’s lives (think of John Cornford, Neruda, Jack Davis, Guernica, Goya). I was reminded of Jack Lindsay’s poem, ‘On Guard for Spain!’ (in Valentine Cunningham’s anthology, Spanish Civil War Verse) a poem for Mass Recitation: ‘On guard for the human future!/ On guard for the people of Spain!’ So the trajectory of this collection of poems is from disillusion with society and disaffection with the battleground of family life, to hope and the ideal of a collective humanity. From your readers, Ali, or at least this one, I can say ‘Solidarity Forever’.

Philip Mead was the inaugural Chair of Australian Literature at the Univerity of Western Australia. A poet and critic, his book Networked Language: History & Culture in Australian Poetry won the New South Wales Premier’s Prize for Literary Scholarship. His most recent collection of poetry, Zanzibar Light, was published by Vagabond in 2018.

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