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Maged Zaher's out-to-lunch poem

January 17, 2013|By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • Maged Zaher's new collection of poetry is titled "Thank You for the Window Office."
Maged Zaher's new collection of poetry is titled "Thank You… (Ugly Duckling Presse )

There’s a handmade quality to Maged Zaher’s third volume of poetry, “Thank You for the Window Office” (Ugly Duckling: 74 pp., $15 paper), and not just because of the rough-hewn beauty of the book itself.

No, the work here — one long, impressionistic poem about … well, really, about everything — seems piped directly from the inside of the poet’s head as he lives and thinks his way through the moment, a moment defined by alienation, humor, politics and the indignities of a corporate culture that cares nothing for the soul.

“I am here to report back,” Zaher tells us. “The exploration of my subconscious was fruitful.” And: “The homeland is secure today except from my thoughts.”

If “Thank You for the Window Office” has an antecedent, it may be (as poet and critic Leonard Schwartz has suggested) Frank O’Hara, and especially his book “Lunch Poems,” with its mix of offhand observation and quiet longing, its desire to get beneath the surface of the world.

That’s a connection Zaher makes explicit, albeit with a twist: “I thought of Frank O’Hara," he writes, "walking New York streets / My lunch poems were composed over Chinese take out / While we decided whom to fire.”

Here, we see the book’s essential tensions: between soul and substance, inner and outer life. In that sense, its title is a metaphor — for all the things one has to do to get that window office, and then, to maintain one’s grip.

Lest this sound grim, Zaher’s writing is anything but, despite its serious concerns. Indeed, if O’Hara wrote lunch poems, then let’s call this an out-to-lunch poem, in which one thought, one observation, leads elliptically to the next and each line can be read almost as its own thought.

The writing is often striking (imagine, for instance, “Homer’s Twitter feed”) and almost always pointed; “Actually I am lying,” Zaher acknowledges, “I am always lying” — an admission that makes us all complicit: him for telling us, and us for listening in.

Complicity, of course, is at the heart of literature, complicity over what we’re reading and/or writing, complicity at our inability to change anything. Such an idea is woven into “Thank You for the Window Office,” which leaves nobody — not even its elusive narrator — off the hook.

“I have to wake up,” Zaher writes, “then do something difficult / Like letting go of five friends, then whispering / Did your faith help you today?”

Elsewhere, he returns to this notion of belief (in whatever, God or politics) as something of an empty solace: “Now — what to do with the thought that people lived / And died miserably? / And that all the religious and Marxist books / Can’t change anything about that?”

It’s not that Zaher is arguing for disengagement, just that, born in Cairo and now living in Seattle, he’s aware of sitting between worlds. His last book, “The Revolution Happened and You Didn’t Call Me,” was in some sense an expatriate’s response to the Arab Spring; as Stephen Collis noted on his blog Jacket2, “When a revolution happens in your hometown — and you are in exile — it’s not a matter of the personal being political, but the political becoming all too personal.”

And yet, I think, this allows Zaher to zero in on the contradictions, between the world as it is and the world as we want it, between how we are and how we see ourselves.

“It is useless to remind you of my flaws,” he reflects. “For example I am an outsider by choice / Which — as you know — makes me / Hopelessly middle class.”

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