I always judge a book by its cover. Perhaps I am not alone in this cavalier disregard of an old adage. Of course, I go in search of particular authors and specific presses, too, but without pre-meditation, browsing a library or a bookstore shelf, a cover is the arm that tugs my sleeve, the hand that reaches for my pocket.
Last autumn, while leafing through Poets & Writers magazine, the book that beckoned to me from a page of New Titles was Maged Zaher’s the consequences of my body. I didn’t know the poet, and I didn’t realize the publisher was Nightboat Books. (Full disclosure: I’ve yet to meet a book from this press over which I haven’t swooned.) The cover is a soft yellow, the color of the halo a reading lamp makes over a white page in a darkened room. No pictures, no graphics, and the poet’s name printed in small, humble typeface. The title, while lower-case, dominates the top half of the page. Two nouns: consequences and body. Where does the enticement come from in the pairing of these words?
Recently, I told my students the best titles are sucker-punches. They aim for the gut. They go visceral. This one doesn’t, yet its grasp is tight, insistent. It reminds me of a question a contestant would offer on Jeopardy! “What are the consequences of my body, Alex?” And I want to read the book to know those consequences—for this speaker’s body and for mine.
So I ordered the book, and when it arrived, I catalogued spontaneously the many things I loved before I even began to read.
- No table of contents—so the book must be experienced without qualification or caveat.
- Five numbered sections—which strikes a Shakespearean chord, the play in five acts.
- Only three titled poems. These comprise the second section and the last letters of the alphabet: “X,” “Y,” and “Z.” I have always admired a middle that is strong enough to contain an ending and continue on.
- Abundant white space surrounding the poems, such that each poem, slightly varied in size and shape, becomes an isthmus. Then, upon reading, I discover how the poems link together like precise, narrow isthmi in a vast lyric sea. (I discover also how Zaher’s sensuous language invites me to use phrases like “precise, narrow isthmi” and “vast lyric sea.”)
- And finally, the Rule of Three: first, last, and fulcrum.
With poetry students, I sometimes invoke a practice I developed on my own some years ago. Write down the first line of the book, the last line, and the fulcrum. Consider the ways these lines speak to each other already, echo and inform each other. Write in response to them. Return to the lines after reading the book. Hear more in them. Never forget that poems in the same collection are like citizens of the same country—different but united (we hope). Read again with the poems’ tender, fibrous connections in mind.
First line: “Failing is an act of love”
Last line: “Our cells and counting fingers”
Fulcrum: “The gap between our bodies and our texts”
Reading the consequences of my body is akin to taking a long, meandering stroll with a new, mysterious friend, and all the while, you are walking together beneath the umbrella of these lines. Zaher’s speaker draws the reader (conversant, companion) into a state of flânerie, with all its attendant observations (“look there!”), epiphanies (“I just realized…”), tangents (“oh!”), and flashbacks (“that reminds me of the time…”). You, the reader, become a fellow flâneur. You are listening to your new friend, but your mind is also drifting. That white space again: the path that is wide enough to accommodate your own observations, epiphanies, tangents, and flashbacks.
Early in the journey, Zaher’s flâneur remarks: “The path we have to take/ i.e. the structure of things/ Goes through books and semen.” You think how books are bodies, too; how words, like semen, are thicker and stickier than they might at first appear. You think also how often you think of books and how seldom of semen.
Zaher’s flâneur mentions casually, as if it were obvious: “Poems die in old buildings/ After short struggles against ergonomics.” You wonder if you have been writing your own poems in the right kind of chair.
Also: “We love whatever is beneath the fog.” You strain to see if this is true.
Later, he sings: “I am grateful/ For the poetics of walking the streets.” And you are grateful to be walking with him through the country of this book.
Around page 29 on this map, your companion begins to speak faster, more urgently, taking up the space his testimony demands:
A revolution is a strange thing to live through—we like it to
follow the arc of a fairy tale but it doesn’t—it moves fast and
challenges us—it probably brings out the best (one million
people self organizing in Tahrir square) and the worst (gang rape
also near Tahrir square) in us […] I didn’t risk my life in the Egyptian
revolution—yet somehow my worst moment of personal defeat
culminated upon seeing Cairo itself defeated—Cairo—a city
that I never truly lived in—I just walked its downtown streets an
infinite amount of times and these same downtown store lights
were/are to fuel my poetry journey until now…
Still later, he will whisper into the seashell of your waiting ear: “In airports we get to raise our hands while a glass door takes a half turn around us, and tells eagerly awaiting people the state of our innocence.”
Such honesty you find in Zaher’s flâneur: “as a man in a postmodern world—I am confused about how much to pursue you and how much space to give you.” You are a lesbian who has wondered the same thing. He confides in you what he has said to the one he admires: “—I like you a lot—I like your mind especially, and I like how you look and I love your poetry.” You affirm his message.
Soon, you realize there is no desire too ordinary or surprising for this flâneur to reveal: “I want to be lost in Seattle dimness/ Turning slowly into a nature poet/ Writing about leaves changing colors/ And ugly highways.” You were born and raised in Seattle and remember now—little halo of light flickering inside your mind—how you once felt the same way but did not put your feeling into words.
Zaher’s flâneur has a rich imagination, a way of layering the literal and metaphorical so his companion stays suspended in pleasing image-limbo: “Tonight I’ll hitchhike/ Through many door knobs” and “Sit here with me/ To discuss the employability of clouds” and “The dead hate their morning commute/ (To heaven or hell)/ They hold mirrors and invite us/ To sign for them.”
Zaher’s flâneur is also profoundly aware of his vocation as poet: “In these poems/ I am afraid of telling you my fears (lest they happen)/ So instead I am saying thank you for death God/ Thank you also for the few moments of hope/ And for sleep after okay orgasms.” You think, like stray balloons, you have released into the cosmos similar prayers.
Sometimes this flâneur makes you laugh: “The PDF format is romantic” and “Desire is expensive but we are stuck there” and “At least I know now that death will work out.”
Once, in a particularly confessional moment, he even made you guffaw: “I spent my second year in engineering school jerking off. Pretty/typical career start for a Romantic Poet.”
Other times, this flâneur makes such a generous and insightful offering that you would like to print it on a scroll, cork it inside a bottle, and toss his message into the open sea for others to encounter: “we long for others” and “we gain one more day because of storytelling” and that most essential question for anyone who has ever survived when others haven’t: “Can you remember their names?”
There are moments when this voice captures the present zeitgeist perfectly, speaks the truth that most needs speaking but breaks your heart to hear: “Out in the streets they are insulting immigrants who forgot to/do u-turns, they are insulting immigrants with bad coughs, they/ are insulting immigrants who need kisses, they are insulting/ immigrants.”
Near the end of your wanderings together, Zaher’s flâneur explains: “Each landscape has its own rules, this stop sign is our/ last refuge.” You think how from a distance, a stop sign always resembles some red, forbidden fruit. The world tells us to move faster. Can we stop? Should we? This flâneur insists “Love needs time.”
Perhaps our stops are always meant as a pause—brief caesura of contemplation, spacious gesture of patience—while we let pass those who have been waiting longer.
And now you return to where you first began, but under the valence of darkness. Everything looks different than it did at the outset: “This is the time of night/ Where instead of seeing the city/ The city sees me.”
You nod at the flâneur, your guide through these pages, which are also intersections and subway stops and airport terminals and even a “clean suburb of Facebook posts.” Which are also crumbs of bread to find your way back to something you thought you had lost.
I have read the consequences of my body several times through, carried it around the house and outside in my bare hands and to work in my satchel and across the country on a plane, which seemed the most poetic thing I could do. Even now, as I type these words, I can feel the book in my other room, giving off heat, smoldering like the soft yellow fire it is.