Madrid, Mardud, Madrid al-Katib: these are some of the poet-speakers in Anthony Madrid’s collection of ghazals, I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say. The ghazal, which derives from ancient Arabic verse, is formed of couplets that may rhyme and carry the same meter (units of stressed and unstressed syllables in a poem), with the last couplet traditionally containing the poet’s own name. It is in these last couplets and through the use of the ghazal form itself, that Madrid’s poems become most elucidated. And even then, not much so. For all the excess, exuberance, and playful obscenity of Madrid’s language that are enticing to the ear, its content remains for the most part frustratingly impenetrable.
There are themes, to be sure. Madrid’s interest in traditional eastern cultures, Hinduism and Buddhism, traditional western cultures, including that of the chivalric court, medieval and space-age fantasy, beauty, lust, girl-boy relations, teacher-pupil relations are woven throughout the 580 total couplets. But just what he is “trying to say” is much harder to appreciate. The erratic topics Madrid tackles verge on the absurd, though one suspects there might be some logic to it.
The poems would certainly be lost without their ghazal form, diligent couplet coming after couplet. The concluding couplets of each poem serve as relief, meta jabs at the poet, poems, and reader himself, as if to say it’s o-kay that you don’t understand a smidge of what this poem is saying. About half way through the collection, the end of the poem “Girls Who Are Unfaithful and at the Same Time Relentlessly Honest” reads:
If I am impenetrable in this and my other verses,
It is only because you can’t penetrate | a wall that is not there.
I am the poet MARDUD; I had no childhood. Whoever wants
To get at my meaning will have to turn her back on her childhood.
The first of these couplets rejects so-called paranoid reading, or close reading, in which meaning is gleaned from what is not there (what is hidden). The latter couplet renounces inherited knowledge/conventions, asking the reader to do the same in order to access the work, which in this way suggests itself to be a radical new kind of poetry. Of course, it’s fictive poet Mardud and not the actual Madrid who likely believes this. After all, Madrid adheres throughout this body of work to the traditional ghazal form.
If there is an alternative solution, Madrid never seems to arrive at it. While here and there, fragmentary meaning emerges across a line or two, the whole poems remain opaque in content. It’s slightly disappointing that Madrid does not seem to expect the reader to “get at” any meaning. He is a lover of language, sound, and form, no doubt. And there’s the feeling he wants you to just let go and go for the ride. What I find problematic is that after the ride is over, the experience itself does not seem to have been enough, to be worth revisiting again.
This brings up one of the main concerns in the political root (if not agenda) of most all experimental art: the shattering of the hierarchical/class structure that is perpetuated by traditional art – i.e. no more “master” over “apprentice” relations, no more “masterpiece” and genius artist to idolize; the sort of democratization of art that approaches the very destruction of art – in so far as art becomes ordinary, no longer singled out and elevated to the status of capital-A Art. This is the ideal.
But modern history has shown that whether willingly or unwillingly, the experimentalists failed to eradicate Art. Much of their own work have long assumed elevated, even canonical status in academia and fashionable circles, where it counts for them. And the public anyway never warmed to the idea. We seem to want another ageless name, a Shakespeare, a Tolstoy, a Picasso.
If Madrid is seemingly content with producing a body of work that is merely one experience among the infinite many, with no real push for staying power, then the most interesting aspect of the collection may be those last couplets in which he inscribes his own name, following the ghazal tradition. The over-sharing of personal life and the preoccupation with fame are nothing new to poetry and prose, especially in recent years. But what makes Madrid stand out are his imagined fictive selves occupying a wacko world with its own windy, elusive mythology, filled with its own teachings, idioms, surreal and just-plain-mundane situations. He says things like “in my culture” and “in my village” with both wisdom and ignorance. More than anything else, it is a pluralistic world, culturally and temporally. To navigate it, he is full of bravado, insolence, and like the poet Hafez mentioned in the collection “speaks with loving, perverted sweetness.” He’s frivolous and borderline offensive, but his sheer revelry in sound and language saves the collection from merely coming across as arrogant. The collection is a kaleidoscopic explosion, real vivid and colorful, but its greatest strength in its style also makes for its greatest weakness.
I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say by Anthony Madrid, Canarium Books, 2012.
When I tried to track down John Beer’s 2010 debut The Waste Land and Other Poems, I was disappointed by the independent (and only) bookstore in town. When I turned to the collection’s small press publisher Canarium Books, my order was delayed. My allegiance to “small” and “independent” was proving naive and unreasonable. Then Canarium Books very generously resent not only Beer’s book, but also threw in two of its recently published titles, this via 2-day express mail all the way from Ann Arbor, Michigan! This is part 1 of reviews. Small press on!