We do judge books by covers and blurbs even though we are taught not to do so early in childhood. The blurb of Nada Faris’s new collection of poetry “Fountain of Youth” (Vine Leaves Press, 2016) introduces her as a poet from Kuwait and a person associated with Iowa University’s International Writing Program. My only introduction to Kuwait has been through the electronic music of Fatima Al Qadiri (in many ways a true contemporary to Faris). I had no clue what was in store.
I find poets and writers who emerge out of or are associated with writing programs in the West to be distant, with their concocted vocabularies and morphological structures. I rarely feel anything from their works. Much like the art-house cinemas of the world, the writers from university writing programs live in their own little cocoons. They neither display the concerns of the masses nor do they display an affinity with the Philistines on the street. Faris’s work traverses from high culture of Spinoza and Walter Benjamin to Eminem and Katrina Kaif, the everyday life that has no inkling of romanticism for the bygone era.
Faris, a Kuwaiti poet, brings with her work certain clichéd political expectations concerning pathos of war and migration. The expected themes are touched on without the expected motifs. Instead she paints a picture of a world in transition and contradiction through war, trade, consumption and morality in the everyday life of its people.
Faris’s work displays none of the regionalist aspiration that much of post-colonial academia cherishes as she situates her experiences, her place, within the network of this world. We expect this of an English poet of the post-colony and yet her words appear fresh when Faris articulates them.
In “The Death and Rebirth of Saddam Hussein” Saddam and Eminem share neighborhood;
Al-Jazeera in the background.
This time, we all pay attention
when my father cries, “Mat Saddam!”
But it’s just like every other time.
Wishful thinking on a couch.
March. The 75th Academy Awards.
My brother and I pretending to sleep
on makeshift beds on the floor.
[…] My computer in the bedroom.
Intermittent Internet. When
Souq Sharq was damaged,
I was still thinking of 8 Mile
and of Eminem’s Oscar.
“Arab Poetry of the Hereafter” touches on the contradictions that every post-colonial writer working with foreign languages feels or has at least thought of:
“Take me,” she said,
dabbing her lips with the curse of cognizance
—a second generation Anglophone writer,
the badge built with the labour of her forefathers
glinted with pride, poking holes
into her self-righteous visage.
“I don’t give a damn about your journey
of self-realisation, when your people
import my people as cheap labour,
and while we’re at it,
I would just like to add,
that you don’t have a history to write about.”
with the language of modernization
was thwarted in one fell swoop
on the night of a gaggling gathering
glinting with dew on temples and brows
of ideological disseminators of truth,
with eyeballs half-watching the backs of their heads,
and half closed.
In “My Uncle Traveled on a Train” the everyday contradiction of ethnic warfare is put ever so succinctly:
He traversed lands that were not his own,
in army uniform, dapper
though creased and crumpled,
his backpack full of energy bars and batteries. My uncle
was ever so polite,
tipping his beige bent hat to strangers,
smiling, he asked about their names and health
—strangers he would not hesitate to bomb
thousands of miles in the air, and they
mere insects crawling on the planet that gave my uncle
his accent, his mustard, his beard.
Beyond these contradictions, Faris’s work also displays a ferocity that is often missing from today’s literature of the gentry. Her work doesn’t just cover the anger or resentment against the political institutions or establishments, but also displays a keen distaste for the optimism (a sort of yuppism) that haunts much of the globalized urban spaces today.
In “Janus/Portunus” Faris doesn’t mince her words;
The selfish soul of man is found
at last in greedy genes disclosed
in cells and coined in labs.
But a fact is a whore
working for the rich and famous,
fearing the cabal of mercenaries,
ready and willing and able to teleport
at moment’s notice at the brothel’s door.
But what do you expect?
In “There is no Better” she hits on the global hysteria of “depression” that has hit all of the world replacing, melancholia and mourning:
Are you better?
There is no better. Only. There is.
The Middle East in the dominant imagination of the globe today lacks nuance and depth. The television images of war, refugees, bombs and destroyed buildings are generally what comes to mind. Faris, on the other hand, displays how deftly one could write about years lived around the ecology of war. Her words and phrases are simple, some almost rudimentary. That is precisely where the strength of her work lies.
Despite all the negativity of the collection, the book comes to a close with words of wisdom in a couplet, a form which is extremely popular from the Middle East to South Asia.
Where the first poem in the book ends with the lines—
the last poem ends with—
Know then thyself, presume not God to find.
The proper study of mankind is kind.
In the book Faris covers the cycle of pessimism, nihilism, cynicism, pragmatism (in the poem about Walter Benjamin, for example) and ends with the most minimal couplet wisdom could offer. The dominant cutesy aesthetic of today, “find beauty in small things and memories,” is overturned by Faris for good.
In “Permit Me” she asks;
May I begin our tale with
“Once beyond the end”?
Debarun Sarkar is an alumnus of English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad and Presidency University, Kolkata where he studied English and Sociology respectively. He currently lives in Calcutta and divides his time between writing and freelancing.