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Tocqueville (Green Rose Series) Paperback – April 5, 2010
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“Khaled Mattawa’s Tocqueville is novelistic in its reach and depth. Of course, from the onset, the title insinuates audacity and scrutiny of history. The poet uses a nuts-and-bolts language to render an earthy sonority that unfolds through a collage of lyrical inferences, a film noir of images. Tocqueville is a tour de force. The book’s experimental rhythm and movement is surprising, but one feels that it isn’t experimental for the sake of mere difference or style. In fact, the collection’s clarity is almost spiritual. Tocqueville names the names, walks the walk, and definitely talks the talk. Here’s a book of marvelous poems for our times; its textured complexity radiates and sings.” (Yusef Komunyakaa)
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Top Customer Reviews
I bought the book solely because I thought the selection of de Tocqueville as a title/topic was an ingenious one for a North African Arab-American to tackle since dT was both the consummate observer of American democracy and a supporter of and advisor to the French colonial takeover and administration of Algeria.
My disappointment stems from the fact that Mattawa's poetry interacts with dT hardly at all and like, IMHO, most contemporary poetry is so esoteric and rareified as to hold no interest for me
Tocqueville, the new collection from Libyan poet Khaled Mattawa, designates itself as the missive of a bold, cultural diplomat; tackling uniquely Western concepts and queries with a uniquely foreign-born mind-set and sensibility. Much like the figure his title pays homage to, he observes this new world as an outsider, bringing order to the strange and self-contradictory whole of Western culture. And, on the whole, it succeeds.
What begins as a delicate collection with the gentle, enchanting first poem, "Lyric", quickly become pointed and savage with the sharp "Ecclesiastes"; much of the book continues on in this pattern. "Ecclesiastes" is a particularly strong, moving indictment of our culture; riffing off of the series of biblical platitudes by pointing out the dark, capitalistic tricks that could exploit those who believe in them. An example: "The rule is you don't care if they find it/ The trick is that they feel they can." Mattawa is wildly inventive and subversive; pointing out cruel parallels and interesting anomalies that lurk around us all.
One of his more interesting constructions are his "Power Points," which incorporate various conventions of story-telling and illustration (ranging from film script layout to elaborate charts) that mathematicize and exfoliate moral dilemmas and wrong-doings. His diction is often astonishing. Mattawa has an eye for truly stunning, well-phrase imagery, which shines in "Power Point 1," as he speaks of "a catharsis that hurls us screaming unto the street, our faces coated with history."
While on the whole consistent in high caliber, challenging poetry, Mattawa very occasionally oversteps into trenches of pure, non-poetic rhetoric, which is jarring but doesn't over-power the potency of the work as a whole. Despite his politicized overtones, his sense of humor is a frequent highlight not to be overlooked; in his final Power Point, he spins a tale of adultery and death with a greek chorus of modern pop-culture icons passing judgment through their charted accomplishments and mis-deeds. It's brilliance lies in how it points out how the failings of Western culture in naming its supposed luminaries (celebrities) has muddled its sense of moral arbitration beyond coherence. By not explicitly naming the celebrities, it becomes a guessing game to decipher which is which by analyzing Mattawa's fiery barbs. In listing an implied Anna-Nicole Smith in the "hierarchy" set of his chart, he notes "she's trash, but you can't have her." Tocqueville serves as a colorful, moving introduction to the bold work of Khaled Mattawa.
Khaled Mattawa's Tocqueville
New Issues: Kalamazoo, MI, 2010. 72 pages. $15.00.
Khaled Mattawa's fourth collection of poetry, Tocqueville, answers to its title, bearing witness to consequences of US foreign and domestic policy. The endeavor is "enough to turn a reporter into a novelist, / and the novelist toward myth for rescue / and the poet running toward the white heat of his soul / fed on the fuel of indignation." Tocqueville journeys within and beyond American borders, its setting the years of the US war on Iraq--a world in which technological advancement and media sophistication have become atrocities of shock and awe. Mattawa's poems bring us a Chevron tanker named for Condoleezza Rice, Somalian war stories, Vietnamese sweatshops, child pornography, torture, suicide bombers, "Abel's / blood streaming endless from your veins."
Formally, the poems in Tocqueville range from lyric prose to PowerPoint presentations, documentary film scripts, and conversations with a shrink. Mattawa's lenses pan over, click through, devastating historical and political content, but seek out the individual: "The village women carry the moon on their heads. // Each carrying a piece. // Or each carrying her own moon." He joins a rigorously nuanced political vision with a lyrical mythos, a sense of "a world now, a world then." The final poem, "Before," insists, "Somewhere beyond faith and grace there is / the footprint of logic lost in the purest light," and the collection frequently finds the classical in the contemporary. Even in many of the poems' dense, wide-ranging experimentation--complete with matrices and graphics--Mattawa foregrounds the continuity between the present-day political world and the mythic.
The lyrical, imperfect language that connects these worlds also unites the book's many speakers, locations, and dictions, though Mattawa is skeptical of this function of poetry: "Who is talking now? Which `we' are you inserting yourself into now?" Mattawa maintains a distance from the figure of Tocqueville, whose failure in the case of Algeria looms on the horizon. Tocqueville was famously a foreign critic on American soil; the poet today cannot have the purity of foreignness but is implicated, not free to be a stranger to the objects of his knowledge. To Mattawa, even the "white heat of [the poet's] soul" is another danger, its indignation fueled by the "cum-light of self-love / a technique now perfected and taught / at military academies."
Mattawa's skepticism goes to the heart of the question of poetry's ethical value. "There are potential applications for this concept in the real world," "Power Point (I)" tells us, "but why take the dark turn, why mistake the swimmer's head-gear for that of the one-eyed mullah of Kandahar?" Throughout, Tocqueville considers what it may be to "take the dark turn," to shed light on any object of inquiry when the speaker knows that all acts of illumination cast shadows. In "Terrorist," the problems of critical vision become the body's blinding light:
. . . despite what I've
told myself, what I've grown to believe,
despite my bunkered heart and fortified
skin, my thick bile and phlegm, I am bled
white by an appalling battle.
For Mattawa, even "my silences / spill an ooze that fastens me" to the other. The result is a poetry in which politics are considered through both potent emotion and exacting investigation, a work haunting in its scope and, most of all, in its critical self-awareness that "lyric resolution / demands an arrival into what does not suffice." Tocqueville commences with a question: "Will answers be found / like seeds / planted among rows of song?" The answer that emerges has the enduring fragility of lyric itself: "Someone will resist and a new song will nest in our heads and a river will run between hands as they shake a doubtable peace."
Hilary Plum is codirector of Clockroot Books and an MFA cadidate in fiction at UMass Amherst. Recent prose and criticism have appeared in Diagram and the Quarterly Conversation.