Shortly after the middle of Maged Zaher’s latest book, If Reality Doesn’t Work Out, the poet’s tersely parceled verses break into essayistic prose. “Embedded is the knowledge that I lost fluency in Arabic and didn’t acquire it in English,” this interlude concludes. “So I operate despite the notion of the poet as a master of language—I operate specifically because I am not a master of any language.” Rather than mastering language, Zaher suggests, poets “deal with their own deaths, they slowly chew on it and nurture it to produce poems, they have very little to do with the masses.” This nurturing, of course, can happen only in language, despite the impossibility, or inadequacy, of ultimate fluency. Or, as Zaher puts it, articulating the extent of our options: “Communication fails here / Death or death.” In his book, intent regard for death, continual awareness that “I wrote all this as I was dying,” leads to tenderness that is both intimate and, despite what Zaher says, mindful of the masses. The former quality often emerges through the “erotic component” of sadness: “I am tired / And I am begging to lick you / It would be nice / If there was time for love,” Zaher writes. Elsewhere, he interrupts a meditation on traumatic grief with a present-tense “this” that corresponds to the bouquet of the poem itself: “But this is where I bought you flowers / To take a break from the consequences of despair.” The latter kind of intimacy, the poems’ bearing on collective experience, is often similarly affecting. “And let us go on a walk,” Zaher writes. “And mourn each step we take.” One does not walk through such a scene, through the “small hell there is to walk,” alone: “Gentleness walked these streets / And burdened us,” says one of the poems that evokes the damage produced by beauty. In the prose sections, and elsewhere (“Cairo is a careful nightmare”), it’s clear that these reflections are concerned both with personal dissolution and with the effacements of travel and politics, in which “each action is threatened—while it is performed—to be the last of its kind.” Given the “trauma mornings impose on us,” one poem concludes, “playing half-dead is not good enough”: the poems in If Reality Doesn’t Work Out play at more than half-dead, in the end suggesting that hope, which is “dire,” needs “war skills / Acquired over years of poems.” I’m grateful for the war skills, and the flowers, offered in Zaher’s book.
-- Zach Savich