One of the reasons poets write poems about poetry is that the philosophy of composition is inseparable from the way of life. Even if they wanted to, these things couldn’t be treated as separate species. So not only is any poem, as Brenda Hillman has written, “the story of the writing of itself,” but it is also the story of the writer writing it, even if it’s as far from memoir as can be.
At the heart of Hayan Charara’s strange and dazzling fourth collection—called These Trees, Those Leaves, This Flower, That Fruit, a title that uses deictic vagueness to argue for the mysterious luminosity of precision and specificity—lies a poem called “Fugue.” Sometimes the lines—drawn, sometimes with only slight modifications, from Philip Levine—look like prose, other times like bits excised from some other lyric poem. It weaves together Charara’s language and words by various others, and it moves from an argument about war and doublespeak to an argument about poetics—about how to write poems—back and forth between the two subjects. Often the style is plain but very compressed; lithe but impatient, beautifully abrupt.
And we come to lines like this: “So much of being a poet is looking other people in the eyes. Looking yourself in the eyes. Accepting vulnerability.” Followed a few lines later by Levine’s voice, echoing like a ghost through the medium of Charara: “A political poet doesn’t necessarily tell people / how to vote, how to think, or what specific attitudes / they should have, but deals with the political facts of our lives—” before getting very specific about what those are: “that we live at the pleasure of people with enormous power / and very little compassion, that there is very little justice …” These questions culminate on the next page with lines like this:
I don’t want to be close to the centers of literary power and be
influenced by them. It’s very dangerous. You can fool
yourself into thinking that because people come to your readings
or buy your books you’re really a terrific poet.
Charara was born in Dearborn, Michigan—“Henry Ford’s hometown,” he calls it in one poem—into a vibrant Arab American community nonetheless plagued by suspicion and stereotyping from white neighbors—in one poem recounting a moment of anti-Arab sentiment sweeping the city, “1979,” a dad runs over a man who flips him off. The man lived. The poet lived for a while in New York City, completing a master’s degree at NYU and selling Christmas trees in Central Park to supplement his graduate student stipend. These days he teaches and writes in Houston. Part of what he teaches in this book, and what his title urges, is the act of rendering exact details. It’s a war on abstraction that we fight, he seems to say, as much as a war on injustice or fascism. “Philosophers bore me,” says one of the voices in “Fugue,” before recounting the story of a philosopher who rented his house and let seven trees die and had the blasé temerity to act surprised by his landlord’s negative reaction to this fact: “‘I didn’t think you were / the kind of man who would care about something like that.’ That was / the voice of the philosopher, ‘something like that’—a living thing.” But the question of how to be a poet and how to write poems? For Charara they are always as personal as they are existential: one poem in the book ends with the poet’s father putting a gun to the poet’s head, trying to get him to give up poetry and stick with med school. (The same man who ran over the pedestrian who flipped him the bird.)
And the stakes are higher, of course, when you are bold enough—in these times, especially—to offer didactic candor in poetry: a reader might always ask, does the very poetry I’m reading meet its own standards? In this case the answer is a marvelous yes. “Fugue” is only one display of what the poet is up to. “All These Questions You Ask”—layers of specificity, disparate facts sewn together so that they make an open-ended song—is as good a place as any in this book to see the power in Charara’s vertiginous leaping, gorgeous and wild, associative but coherent:
I know traps. I caught a pigeon
when I was a boy in the age
of Kodachrome. I posed with a rifle
for a black and white photograph.
I thought I looked like a young
Paul Newman. You were thinking
Omar Sharif, weren’t you? In Syria,
Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Egypt, and Libya,
men with smooth hands
stamped my passport, served me
mint tea, rolled cigarettes, recited
poetry, and joked about their wives,
their presidents, their Gods.
In the name of God, I have cursed a thousand times
the name of God. Once,
I paid for a prostitute. It was Amsterdam,
I was young, she taught me
not to be ashamed…
You can almost see the mind leaping from lilypad to lilypad, each transition both an outgrowth of the previous sentence and yet also deliciously surprising. And what the prostitute teaches the young man sends me back to the book’s first poem, a kind of lyrical mini-statement, four lines long, another mode he employs with stunning skill:
Young, I thought anger and shame
would in their own time
go away. God,
I was so beautiful then.
JESSE NATHAN: How do your poems emerge? How do they find their forms? At what point in the process, and with how much forethought or planning? I imagine the answer is very different depending on the poem.
HAYAN CHARARA: Early on—twenty-five, thirty years ago—I gave very little thought to form. I was reading poets who did things that knocked my head off and I wanted my poems to do the same, but I didn’t bother making sense of how or why. One word sums up my poetic thinking as a young poet: imitation. Two words get at it more accurately: thoughtless imitation.
Bit by bit, my emulation took more definitive shape. I picked up on the way they made sentences, how they ordered and separated the words in those sentences, into chunks, into lines, and I took note of the subjects they treated in poems—that is, what they deemed worthy of poetic attention. My early education, then, echoes a story I’d heard about Hunter S. Thompson, who supposedly copied, word for word, some of Faulkner’s stories and all of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, just to experience what it was like to write a “great” piece of literature.
I bring this up in part to highlight something that remains the same over the last thirty or so years: whatever choices I make, I don’t call it a day until I’m as certain as I can be that the poem is doing some version of knocking the reader’s head off, however that manifests—breaking their heart, stopping them in their tracks, compelling them to rethink or reexamine something. I do focus on all the things that collectively fall under form’s domain: syntax, line endings, enjambment, stanza breaks, poetic structures, turns, and so on. Usually, though, first and foremost I have in mind the poem’s impact—what it may leave behind, the impression it may make on a mind, in a body.
Let me talk about one example in more detail. Take my poem “Mean.” It’s a sequence of poems—though, at first, I wasn’t trying to write a sequence. I was just writing these short poems, and the idea of grouping them came about after I had written them, separately, over a long period of time. I did, however, write each poem, it turns out, with the notion of “meanness” in mind, in advance, in at least a couple of ways.
First, for better or worse, when it comes to the mean things I say, do, or think, especially about other people, the meanness sticks with me, lives with me—as guilt or shame—for a lot longer than any act of kindness ever has. I imagine this is typical for many people. As would be, I imagine, the fact that I don’t really care to expose the embarrassing, guilty, or shameful things I’ve said, thought, or done. Yet again, for better or worse, meanness—mine or someone else’s—strikes me as infinitely more fascinating than kindness. I suspect the same goes for other people. If I told you, “I did something really nice today and I also fucked up big time, but I only have time to tell you about one,” which would you choose to hear? Anyhow, the poem emerged because I began noticing and paying attention to acts of meanness I’d performed in my life.
Second: for a while, and certainly while I wrote the poems that make up “Mean,” I’d been thinking about poetry—there’s so much of it these days—that tries to indicate the poet’s moral character, explicitly or implicitly. Poems that announce, “I’m a good person.” Poems that disclose what’s wrong with the world, or the country, or people, and then proclaim about the various ills plaguing humanity, as if to say, “I’m on the right side of history.”
Poets of late seem to strain under the pressure to come off as “good” people a lot more so than fiction writers. I remember reading about the controversy over Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, and the most amazing complaints lodged against the novel, I thought, came from those who assumed that the voice, intentions, and malice of the narrator were identical to those of the author. That’s an outrageous assumption to make about any novel, any work of fiction. Fortunately, it’s not commonplace. Not so with poetry, though. More often than not, if not almost always, we take for granted that the poet and speaker are interchangeable—that the voice and mind of each are one and the same. This must be one of the explanations behind why so many poems seem to be written under the obligation of goodness and rightness—the anxiety of being thought of as bad, as a morally or ethically corrupt person, guiding the subject, the tone, the arguments, etc. of a poem.
I resent this impulse. I resent its gravitational pull, particularly on me. Others can write about whatever pleases them—I don’t care. But I want to write against the impulse to put on display my goodness and rightness. Mind you, I think I am a decent human being. I’m not perfect—not even close—but I’m not a bad person, either. Insofar as my poems go, that’s neither here nor there. My poems don’t care how good, decent, or righteous I am. Readers may care, but if you are a reader like me—if you read my poems the way I read the poems of others—then you don’t care whether I’m a saint or sinner.
If you do care, that’s fine. You can keep reading my work, but you don’t have to, and you can think what you will of them or me. If you do read on, though, what I hope you end up seeing in either the speaker or the poet is a human being, with admirable traits, perhaps, but also with faults—someone you can believe to be “real.” And to be “real” necessitates a voice that relates the personal in such a way as to open itself up to embarrassment, guilt, even shame.