by Jared Joseph
Persistent Editions, June 2013
35 pages / $8 Buy from Persistent Editions
Hosni Mubarak is author Jared Joseph’s second chapbook of poetry, and Persistent Editions’ inaugural publication. Mubarak’s lyric-challenging poetic establishes Joseph and Persistent Editions as poet and press to be followed.
What strikes first about this collection is its cover: a photo of Mubarak from the shoulders up, his faced streaked in neon reds, yellows, and blues. We know straight off that we are in potentially provocative territory. When the critical reaction to Carolyn Forche’s The Colonel remains today as a reminder not to vacation in the suffering of others, it might seem that a book – written by an American – that takes the name of a deposed Egyptian president might be waiting for the same charges to be levied against it. Not so. What we have here is a different entity entirely.
Here, the emotional counterparts (see: apathy, detachment, disillusionment) to Western media-era remove from world events are not elided; instead they provide the bridges that Joseph uses to write into his encounters with “Mubarak”. Yet Joseph is able to do this without twisting the work to become pedantic – there is no claim to a better perspective, no call for empathy or action other than what might be suggested by its lack. Joseph moves in and out of autobiographical modes through the eyes of this imaginary Mubarak: these qualities are explored in Mubarak, and in the speaker inside Mubarak. This is not a convenient mirror in which to better see ourselves – this is the light across it, the shimmer of something just behind our shoulders, and the language is its play.
The voice of Joseph’s Mubarak is at once erudite and childlike: language not used exactly, but capably, as if itself exempt from a pressure to be dutiful – it phrases the world as it pleases. The speaker shifts fluidly, almost arrogantly, between lexicons: the scientist’s, the politician’s, a young man’s – shifting code and binding vocabularies together, and in the process enacting a wild sense of entitlement:
a tension reservoir of air, something requiring the first exhale-
ation, I don’t really understand natural laws. Anyways, just
one finger needed to fire empty the casing.
The language moves quickly. Ostensibly it asserts itself as revelatory, but in it we can see a person left unchallenged so long that their language has become unchecked: free to grow as the speaker grew – strange in its own opulent homes, and with a playfulness that calls sadly and only to itself:
see! I shouted, I’m ruined! Blind! for I’ve always had a fear
of blindness but curiously no one came. Chancellor! I cried,
curiously still in my position of humor, a little joke between me
& the servants, Chancellor! But no one came.
The speaker’s ego seems to have claimed the outside world so totally that objects and people have become vessels, vantage points that can be occupied and used to achieve a state of ecstatic self-observance. Mubarak imagines himself first as a veritable Cabana girl balancing fruit on the crown of (his) head, and then relocates himself inside his chess opponent, exclaiming what mirth/would have been mine to have his eyes. Surrounded by the forcibly deferential and discrete, Mubarak re-envisions their reactions to suit his needs for comfort, and for tolerable challenges to his authority.
What exists beyond the speaker’s authority, as in the case of the accuracy of memory, becomes a core concern of the work. But this accuracy appears born of a fear that even memory can be, and has been, forcibly altered. That memory appears to exist within the range of the speaker’s command represents a loss, reinforcing that his is a world in which no real other exists.
The speaker drives back into memory searching out its figures and discovers a Russian boy. Who, in his memory, looks now like a little hunchback but I know he was a boy. He struggles to remember the boy as a boy, but only sentences later the boy is gone and replaced: the little hunchback already/had a cigarette but he wanted another. Memory is not his subject. But it threatens to become one under his half-conscious manipulations, it is his personal rebel, a life he cannot control – however circumscribed by the reality that this place is only a trace, a shadow.
Mubarak is forever drawn to things which seem to display agency, that act beyond his control, but only those people or objects whose behaviour cannot be construed as disobedient: the child, the memory, the mirror:
Sometimes I look in
a little mirror. I make the mirror grow. It beholds
me. No! It treats me
Words themselves are treated engines, giving spontaneous birth to parts related by phoneme: the drum beat of alliteration pursued and pushed to a generative engine, spawning copies, allowing the language to shift courses based on phonic as opposed to semantic prerogatives: steps built into the air as the person walks and not before. As we see here with the chains of sounds binding lines that might otherwise collapse under their own length:
to the head that sets that table. To think we thought with the
heart when the brain once bigger than the universe beginning.
Here the act of naming is itself an act of control; antidotal to the fear of the unknown expressing itself in a new generation: the Candy yellow fags and all manner/of boots! The self-deification of Mubarak however slides between these poles of fear and congratulation, as if anything new is automatically an extension of the only power that can create. The speaker sits lonely and dysfunctional as the Little Prince’s King desperately attempting to readjust his commands in order to avoid discovering their limits. I order you sometimes to yawn and sometimes to –
Photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre recent project, The Ruins of Detroit, claimed to document an example of the “fall of empires” and, to this end, their exhibition was comprised of ruined Detroit theatres, schools, and factories. The problem with this, someone in Detroit might say (if asked), is that Detroit remains a living city. There are similarities in Joseph’s work. The collection opens in a sparking but familiar lyric mode, but over the course of the work we see this mode undergo a kind of collapse. As the speaker’s egotism, and the deep-set fears of loss of control and death begin to become more pronounced, the lyric itself begins to buckle – the syntax roils, the narrative becomes hallucinatory – driving itself further into memory, and remerging less able to deal with the collapse that faces its speaker.
The lyric, like Detroit, is alive in contemporary poetry. Joseph, in this work, demonstrates that he has the rare capability to simultaneously write in a mode and push that same mode to a kind of collapse. The sense we get is not of criticism, but of a poet engaged deeply in their own work and who refuses to choose a camp, take a chair, and turn it away from aesthetic divides in contemporary poetry.
Closing a recent poetry festival, poet Steve Roggenbuck set a love lyric to ambient music, jumped up and down yelling Actual Dead People! Actual Dead People! before sharing a list of Bieber tweets with the small crowd that had gathered there to hear him. Here, it seems, we have in microcosm some of the issues that have begun to receive criticism in contemporary poetry: apathy, disinterest, revelry in information-era fragmentary narratives, and an almost frantic avoidance of sincerity or moments of sincerity that derive their impact only by contrast to some variety of gestural irreverence.
Joseph, in Hosni, is neither a tourist in the strife of others or a work that attempts to assert relevance through irreverence or fight for emotional impact through contrasts in tone.
Instead Joseph zeroes in on many of the issues facing contemporary Western society and uses them as the lens through which to approach the work. What we see in it, then, are not attempts at criticizing or contacting Mubarak or Egyptian society itself, but potent reflections of problematic and disturbing relationships with the world beyond American borders. Hosni Mubarak is a terrific read. I dare you not to find yourself locked in one of its rooms.
Chad Campbell is a Canadian poet, living and studying in Iowa.