Political Poetry: An Epistolary Conversation
Two very different new books, one by Naomi Shihab Nye and one by Kent Johnson, turn epistolary toward remarkably similar and fierce political ends.
Honeybee (Greenwillow Press) by Naomi Shihab Nye
LETTERS MY PREZ IS NOT SENDING
Dear Rafik, Sorry about that soccer game
you won’t be attending since you now
Dear Fawziya, You know, I have a mom too
so I can imagine what you…
Dear Shadiya, Think about your father
versus democracy, I’ll bet you’d pick…
No, no, Sami, that’s not true
what you said at the rally,
that our country hates you,
we really support your move
that’s why you no longer have
a house or a family or a village…
Dear Hassan, If only you could see
the bigger picture…
Dear Mary, I’m surprised you have
what we would call a Christian name
since you yourself…
Dear Ribhia, Sorry about that heart attack,
I know it must have been rough to live
your entire life under occupation,
we’re sending a few more bombs over now
to fortify your oppressors,
but someday we hope for peace in the region,
sorry you won’t be there to see it…
Dear Suheir, Surely a voice is made to be raised,
don’t you see we are speaking
for your own interests…
Dear Sharif, Violence is wrong
unless we are using it,
why doesn’t that make sense…
Dear Nadia, I did not know about
your special drawer, you know I like
to keep a few things too that have meaning to me…
Dear Ramzi, You really need to stop crying now
and go on about your business…
Dear Daddo, I know 5 kids
must feel like a lot to lose in one swoop
but we can’t stop our efforts…
Dear Fatima, Of course I have feelings
for your own people, my college roommate
was from Lebanon…
Dear Mahmoud, I wish I had time
to answer your letter but you must understand
the mail has really been stacking up…
Homage to the Last Avant-Garde (Shearsman Editions) by Kent Johnson
BAGHDAD EXCEEDS ITS OBJECT
I want to be in the class of people who did….the thing that met the aesthetic of the moment.
--Douglas Feith, Under-Secretary of Defense, as quoted in The New Yorker.
Come off it, Tha’lab, you faker, you kadhib,
yes, very funny, but for goodness’ sake--
just put back those purple bowels in your tummy,
you’ll be late for work!
Make haste, Safia, you little scamp, you pig-tailed qasida,
put that fat flap of scalp back on your crown--
now’s not the hour for teenage pranks,
it’s time to go to school!
Ah, quit moaning Miss Al-Sayab, you muwashshara,
we know that fetus hanging from your bottom is a rubber trick--
we’re not stupid, you know, so cease being crass,
and get ye to market!
Cut the crap, Nizar, you iltizam,
pick that torso up and put it back on your dancing spine--
we know that old box and mirror trick,
now get thee to prayers!
Hey, Rashid, you al-nahda,
we know you love the special effects of Hollywood movies,
but it’s not safe to make yourself into a geyser of fire--
and anyway, you’re supposed to be accompanying the inspectors!
Say there, little Samih, you shirnur,
six-month-olds aren’t supposed to be able to fly--
so get down from those power lines and gather
your legs and head on the ground here, you naughty child!
Listen, Tawfiq, you tafila,
OK, so you’re a sorry-assed academic with a Ba’ath mustache,
but put your brains back into your head, you can’t fool us by calling in sick--
it’s time for class and your students are ablaze!
Yo bro, my main-man Bashad, you tardiyyat,
you’re as if dead and white as marble, but there’s not a scratch on your body--
quit fucking around, the mosque is rubble,
make the siren light flash and spin on your ambulance!
Greetings Ahmad, you badi-kamriyyat,
put your face back on and also that water pipe hose thing back into your belly--
yeah, boo hoo, so your kid died of dysentery…
Suck it up! The price is worth it!
Now pick up that basket of sweet fruits and gum!
Good morning, Mrs. al-Jurjani, you madin,
author of four essays on postmodern currents in American poetry,
what are you howling and wailing like that for, hitting your skull
against the flagstones like a mechanical hammer?
A horse is a horse, and if a horse is dead, a horse is dead--
More so, you are naked, which is unbecoming of a lady your age and standing.
Like Hamlet, your emotion is unconvincing, for it exceeds its object.
Therefore, we beseech thee: Show some gratitude, and put a plug in it.
Born in California’s Mojave Desert, poet Forrest Gander grew up in Virginia and attended the College of William & Mary, where he majored in geology. After earning an MA in literature from San Francisco State University, Gander moved to Mexico, then to Arkansas, where his poetry—informed by his knowledge of...