Q&A: Hija for Emerson’s Birthday

Hija is the Arabic term for a digressive satire. Where did you discover this genreand why did Emerson’s birthday elicit one?

I once spent a year in the Middle East, mostly in Baghdad, and my time there, all too short, seems to have had a disproportionate influence on me. In Baghdad, I lived beside the Tigris River on Boulevard Abu Nawas, named for the great ninth-century Arabic poet known among many other things for his irreverent satire, and he and his traditions—or what I could know of them by way of translation and commentary—provided me with ways into the culture. The history of hija apparently predates Islamic poetry, and its roots in the oral tradition are entangled with improvised curses pronounced in bardic duels and in ritualistic goads to combat. (I think that the Anglo Saxon and Middle English tradition of flyting is a comparable phenomenon, which probably has relatives in taunting verses in the Iliad and in the African American genre of the dozens.) When I realized that I was writing a meditation inspired by President Bush’s remark—made during a ceremony that happened to fall on Emerson’s birthday, not that he or other participants noted the occasion—the hija seemed a likely genre. (The nonsense of Bush’s remark, by the way, was a liberating element for me. It seemed to license some occasional nonsense of my own—and even got me talking to myself.) Matters of tone and extravagance aside, mind you, I don’t pretend that my satire has much in common with these other instances.

In listing names of some of the American soldiers who died in Iraq, you ask: “What can we tell from a name?” What might be some answers to this question?

As you imply, naming is crucial in this poem. When I was reading the obituaries on the day that the president’s comment was reported, I was struck (or so it seems now: the clippings lay in a file for years) by the difference between the specificity desired (the middle initial or name must be a formal imperative of the genre) and most readers’ incorrigible ignorance of the particulars of the lives lost. The life of this person, precisely this person has been ended. But who was he? (All the kia listed that day were men.) Except for one case, because of a brief accompanying “human interest” article that told us something of the soldier’s domestic circumstances, we have little more than a “name.” What can we “tell” (another recurrent word) from it? 

Nothing, of course, unless—well, what might the name Cherry “tell” us? Let’s think about it. What about its companion Bunch? All names have histories and complications and overtones and innumerable dimensions rich and ridiculous alike. (Yenser, as I have noted elsewhere, is Yiddish for “fornicator.”) Names radiate connections. In a poem, where all is latensified, the nuances of a name are irrepressible. (Verlaine’s Symbolist poetics demanded that he care about “rien que la nuance.” In contrast, as President Bush proudly told Senator Biden earlier in 2004, “Joe, I don’t do nuance.”) To name is at once to individuate and to connect. In its latter function, naming stands in opposition to termination, to erasure, to killing. 

Are we meant to compare Yeats’s use of the names in “Easter 1916” (“I write it out in a verse/MacDonagh and MacBride/And Connolly and Pearse.”) What are your general feelings about “political poems” and jeremiads? Are there other exemplars that come to mind for you?

Yeats’s elegy was always in my mind. “Was it needless death after all?” he asks. The answer to the comparable question raised by the Bush administration’s meretricious, self-serving, brutal summation that “we’re better off without the tyrant” is that it was not needless. The case is not so clear. And if we are better off without the tyrant, we must be better off a priori without those who made us better off, isn’t that so? Well, no, it’s not so. 

Yeats muses for the moment that all we as sympathetic survivors can do is “to murmur name upon name” of those who might or might not have decided that their lives were worth the politicians’ goals. I don’t know that he meant that claim. “Easter 1916” also deplores endless “sacrifice” because it “can make a stone of the heart.” It can convince us that we are right, that we should be unyielding, single-minded, willing to accept any loss that serves our ends. But then what separates us from any other “martyrs,” those “lunatics of one idea” who purportedly know only that to make an omelet one must break eggs? 

In any event, poems written against the causes of war rather than against one of a war’s antagonistic forces seem to me the durable instances of “political poetry.” Yeats also ventured that out of quarrels with others, we can make only rhetoric, while out of quarrels with ourselves, we might make poems. To the degree that my own poem attacks a narrow political position, it has to be ephemeral. 

You ask “What Tobit could now have to do with us.” What’s the answer? Is it significant at all, for the poem’s purposes, that the Book of Tobit is considered Apocryphal? How does Emer, a figure from Irish mythology, enter the mix?

The poem suggests that Tobit—turned up quite by accident because of his name’s rhyme with “obit”—is nonetheless pertinent here, for those looking for connections. (And I think the poem, in the face of all the disjunctions wrought by war, wants to discover connections anywhere, as though to imply the fundamentality of relationship, networks.) Legendary for his scrupulous attendance to warriors killed in action in a war in Mesopotamia, he might serve as a foil for the staff of our Arlington National Cemetery, whose long derelictions, alluded to in following stanzas, came to light in 2010.

Emerson’s last name means “son of Emer.” Especially because Emer was a superb seamstress, like Penelope, she seems to me to point us in the direction of—again—connection.

To make things even more complicated, the Emerson poem from which you quote (“Evil will bless, and ice will burn”) is called “Uriel.” Can you tell us more about this allusion?

I must have been thinking along these lines: Tobit, who enters the poem almost arbitrarily, has come from so far afield that maybe even Emerson (philosopher of nature’s eternal return and thinker of the paradoxical generation of opposites from each other, themes in “Uriel”), maybe even eccentric he, under the magical inspiration of his spiritual mother Emer, could not explain Tobit’s relevance to us. This is one of those speculative passages that took its cue from the whackiness of President Bush’s improvised accolade.

Where, besides in the letter “W,” do “Emerson and Bush dovetail?” And how ought we connect George Herbert Walker Bush with George Herbert, the religious poet?

There’s a paradox lurking here that I have not apprehended well. Emerson and Bush, contraries in many ways, meet in the middle, in their middle initial, whose appellation (“double u,” “double v”) doubles an abstract bird’s tail. Moreover, our verb “dovetail,” while literally conjuring one-half of a traditional antithesis or interlocking opposition, implies the whole of it—i.e., like the elements in the pertinent carpenter’s joint, “dove” and “hawk” are self-interfering concepts highly resistant to separation. War and peace: it’s hard to think them apart. But how can we think them together? Of his God, the ground of his existence, George Herbert (strange namesake of the first President Bush) writes in “The Flower” that “Thy word is all, if we could spell.” 

How do jazz and needlepoint, and gangs and tattoos, become knitted together with the poem’s evocation of political events?

Well, your term “knitted” answers for me. I wonder whether Herbert’s “word” might not be written in a script that resembles patterns we find in jazz scores, embroidery, tattoos, Arabic calligraphy...But I use a figure to explain a figure. 

The poem’s mention of the looting of “the earliest stringed instrument” bookends a part of the poem that asks questions about who it is that the war was organized to eliminate. Is music itself a part of what the poem finds to be denied or endangered? Is the argument that music would provide a counterpoint to the misarticulations of our political leadership?

That seems right to me. And then there is the effect that a crisply intricate detail like that of the lyre of Ur can have. It is one thing to repeat the cliche: the invasion that allegedly freed the Iraqi nation caused not only the deaths of thousands of innocents but also the destruction of a tenuous connection with one of the oldest human cultures. Perhaps it is another thing to specify a dismembered harp lovingly assembled from tiny, exotic parts and lovingly played to accompany a chanting voice 4,500 years ago. (I now see that I must have had somewhere in mind Pound’s use of “Sappho’s barbitos” in part III of “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.”)

Does Ezra Pound’s Confucianist worldview enter into your thinking here“What are the proper words?”e.g., that when the language falls into disorder and chaos, so does the world?

I suspect that Pound’s Confucianism is finally to the point. The poem quotes the coda to Stevens’s “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction,” an incomparable work that nonetheless somehow commits what I take to be a fatuous observation: “How gladly with proper words the soldier dies.” Pace Horace, soldier-poets from Archilochos to Rupert Brooke have scorned such pronouncements. 

The poem ends: “What can we mean by tell? Now that’s a simple question.” What answer to the question does the poem foretell?

I doubt that the question is any simpler than the original or those just preceding this final one. Could the “better off without” formula be applied to the human species in regard to the rest of the galaxy? If so, surely the verdict would be hard to decide. And of course in the absence of humanity, who or what could make the decision and how? Complex issues emerge immediately. I think the poem is written against moral simplification, against rhetorical questions that provoke pre-emptive responses and crude generalizations that “can make a stone of the heart.” 

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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