Ali Alizadeh, Towards the End (Giramondo Poets 2020)
I’m a fan of Ali Alizadeh’s writing – poetry, criticism and fiction. (You can see the many blog posts where I’ve mentioned him at least briefly here.) One of the things I like and admire is his, well, grumpy refusal to conform to expectations. At one Sydney Writers’ Festival when an audience member asked, one immigrant person of colour to another, about the difficulty of writing when one is from a marginalised group, he memorably replied: ‘If someone came here from Mars and looked at us, they’d say, “You all look the same to me. Get over it.”’
The grumpiness is well to the fore in Towards the End, at least on first reading. The title doesn’t refer to any individual’s imminent death, but towards an end much bigger than that. The world is in terrible shape, and this poetry doesn’t hold out much hope for it to survive as we know it, or waste a lot of time dressing its despair and rage in pretty tropes and figures.
The book opens glumly enough with ‘The Singer’, in which the speaker, caught in time between his father ‘crying out the lyrics of an old Persian dirge’ and his son ‘singing Humpty Dumpty, a melody / he screams out in the absence / of my song’, doesn’t sing but writes as a way of enacting ‘the presence of unsung words’. This is followed by a number of similarly dejected poems – regretting the way his once-revolutionary grandparents had become banal and dull when he knew them (‘Saga’); expressing disillusionment with poetry (‘Destinal’ and ‘Merri Creek’) and academia (‘Fred’, ‘The Academy’ and ‘Fetish Commodity’). I don’t want to give the wrong impression: glum is not the same as lifeless of humourless. In ‘Fred’, for instance, a bureaucrat is speaking about ‘desirable outcomes’ etc when the speaker’s thoughts drift off to another bald man. If we’re expecting the remembered contrast to be something from the poet’s Iranian past – a contrast he has drawn in earlier poems – it’s a bit of a jolt instead to have an image from a disssolute youth in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley:
Fred, accountant by day, gothic masochist in spiky dog collar and that memorable leather underwear
The glumness takes on a broader scope with ‘Public Mourning’, where the speaker’s discontent with his academic employment (‘whoring my mind’) is juxtaposed with the news that a sheikh has drowned in a lake in Morocco (presumably Ahmed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in 2010). And from then on the book is mainly a multi-faceted conversation about what poetry can be in the age of late Capitalism, callous treatment of people seeking asylum, murderous family violence, commodification and worse of animals, consumerism, corporate activism and ‘the stinking, condemned / mausoleum of the American Dream’. Marx is quoted, and one poem (‘I ❤ (this) Life?’) reads as a quick rundown on parts of marxist economics. Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin have an argument (in ‘The Point’). Tony Abbott makes a brief appearance, in ‘Election Announced’, as ‘the Aussie theocrat / retributivist in speedos’ and ‘the odious Monk’.
Towards the end, there’s a move towards hope that somehow we will rise collectively against this dehumanising and destructive state of things, in the long poem (notice the question mark) ‘Hope?’. This is how that poem ends:
An event looms on the horizon ____of our very greatest ____expectation. Don't be afraid ________ comrade. The Revolution ________ never ended. Were ________ the governor of our prison ________ to huff, open ________ fire __ at us, would we ____________ not ____________ come together ____________ again? I think ____________ we would. I think ____________ we will ____________ resume history. ____________ I think there's hope
Then, as a final moment of what might be nostalgia or maybe a gloriously defiant assertion against the odds, a new translation of the great left-wing anthem, ‘The Internationale’, all 12 verses.
It turns out, on second and subsequent readings, the poetry doesn’t seem so grumpy after all. It’s a mind at work, fighting for clarity and against demeaning structures of feeling, sometimes witty, often enraged, argumentative or didactic, but alive and refusing easy resolutions.
I’m grateful to the Giramondo Publishing Company for my copy of Towards the End.