Poetry as a Form of Madness—Review of a Friendship

15 July, 2022
A poem from Maged Zaher’s The Shad­ow that Does­n’t Leave the Shirt.


The Shad­ow that Doesn’t Leave the Shirt, poems by Maged Zaher
SplitLev­el Texts 2022
ISBN 9780999570111


Youssef Rakha


For near­ly two years now, get­ting togeth­er with Maged Zaher at one par­tic­u­lar down­town Cairo cafe has been a semi-reg­u­lar ritual.

It takes place in the out­door seat­ing area, dur­ing the day. Maged always arrives with plas­tic bags full of books, bought from the famous down­town stalls. On one of the two smart­phones he car­ries, he usu­al­ly also has some new poems secret­ed. Some­times he reads them to me.

Avail­able from SplitLev­el Texts.

Once, inspired by some­thing I said, he typed out a whole new micro poem as if he were tex­ting while we sipped our drinks: espres­so for me, a teapot for him, sparkling water for both of us. Poet­ry as a nat­ur­al exten­sion of friend­ship, just as it should be.

But poet­ry is far from our only sub­ject. The con­ver­sa­tion is always extem­pore and wide-rang­ing. It is so relaxed I some­times won­der why it isn’t just pleas­ant. Because get­ting togeth­er with Maged is some­thing else. It has the soul-stir­ring effect you might expect of ther­a­py, but only if ther­a­py were a two-way, cross-cul­tur­al con­fes­sion, with book­ish ref­er­ences and polit­i­cal com­men­tary. What is it about our meet­ings that makes them that way?

The last time we met, Maged gave me the first of his sev­en books of poet­ry to appear since he relo­cat­ed per­ma­nent­ly from Seat­tle, The Shad­ow that Doesn’t Leave the Shirt (SplitLev­el Texts, 2022). He said it was a qual­i­ta­tive leap in the tra­jec­to­ry of his writ­ing. And, even though it over­laps with ear­li­er work, and its con­tents have no direct rela­tion with any­thing we‘ve talked about, the book feels like an aes­thet­ic crys­tal­liza­tion of the expe­ri­ence. It has the same soul-stir­ring effect, with­out the inter­per­son­al imme­di­a­cy but in a high­er concentration.

Some­thing about the way he can be so aston­ish­ing­ly explic­it with­out ruin­ing his art strikes me right away: “Sex and language/Two bad ways/To fath­om our thrown­ness here/Some escaped those two paths though:/Monks and porn stars.”

But Maged‘s writ­ing is already famil­iar. It shares a lot with the Ara­bic work of the group of poets known as the Nineties Gen­er­a­tion, with whom both he and I are asso­ci­at­ed. It is writ­ten in the first per­son. It makes no dis­tinc­tion between the author and the speak­er, or indeed the sub­ject. And it com­bines a kind of emo­tion­al exhi­bi­tion­ism with intel­lec­tu­al won­der. Still, being in Eng­lish and rid­dled with West­ern-inflect­ed glob­al ref­er­ences — Schiele, Cavafy, Arendt, Ovid — Maged‘s work is its own phenomenon.

On the first page, fol­low­ing a ded­i­ca­tion, the poet explains that, togeth­er with his meds, these poems helped him through “a major men­tal ill­ness” that first hit in 2019. In the work itself he describes a “sense of exclu­sion from the plan­et” that “comes after mad­ness recedes.” He speaks of tak­ing lithi­um, attend­ing “strange gath­er­ings” where peo­ple dis­cuss “painful fan­tasies,” and wait­ing “for the med­i­cine to undo the pas­sage of time.” Towards the end of the book, he writes:

I look at these equations 
That describe build­ings’ behavior 
Ah, I used to solve these equa­tions in my twenties 
Now I can’t I came to the US twen­ty-five years ago 
Because I was good at solv­ing such equations 
Maybe it is time to go back

The book speaks more to those 25 years than their dra­mat­ic dénoue­ment. It does men­tion an arrest, a men­tal hos­pi­tal, send­ing “dick pic­tures to every­body.” But it doesn‘t dwell on any of that. Once he was well enough, it seems Maged came back to where he was born and raised. A wiz kid, he had start­ed an engi­neer­ing career with­out giv­ing thought to his deep­er needs. He arrived in the US only as a grad­u­ate stu­dent, and per­haps as a kind of refugee from the restric­tive, oppres­sive soci­ety in which he grew up. “Escape from Cairo while liv­ing in it,” he writes, “is the craft of its inhab­i­tants.” But now his stay in the land of san­i­ty had run its course.

Dur­ing his time in the Unit­ed States, Maged became a soft­ware engi­neer, a scion of the cor­po­rate sec­tor, “deep in the bel­ly of the beast”: “You are Jonah/And you devour the beloved.” This clear­ly ate away at him. But he man­aged to hold onto a lit­er­ary prac­tice: “this awful busi­ness of poet­ry,” as he calls it, “Where I rearrange my masks/To peek­a­boo myself.”

In the after­life, they will replace lit­er­a­ture with mathematics.

As you read The Shad­ow you will some­times notice the syn­tax break­ing down, evi­dence of a mind strain­ing “to be in two places at once.” Maged has con­tin­ued to engage deeply with Ara­bic but he only writes in Eng­lish — a lan­guage he did not learn prop­er­ly until he was an adult.

Maged Zaher is the author of The Con­se­quences of My Body (Night­boat Books, 2016), If Real­i­ty Does­n’t Work Out (SplitLev­el Texts, 2014), Thank You for The Win­dow Office (Ugly Duck­ling Presse, 2012), The Rev­o­lu­tion Hap­pened and You Did­n’t Call Me (Tin­fish Press, 2012), and Por­trait of the Poet as an Engi­neer (Pressed Wafer, 2009). His trans­la­tions of con­tem­po­rary Egypt­ian poet­ry have appeared in Jack­et Mag­a­zine, Den­ver Quar­ter­ly and Ban­i­pal. He has per­formed his work at Sub­text, Bum­ber­shoot, the Koote­nay School of Writ­ing, St. Marks Project, Ever­green State Col­lege, and Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty in Cairo, among oth­er places. Maged is the recip­i­ent of the 2013 Genius Award in Lit­er­a­ture from the Seat­tle week­ly The Stranger. Pho­to cour­tesy Youssef Rakha.

He has also kept up his respect for the per­fec­tion and clar­i­ty of num­bers, com­pared to the inad­e­qua­cy and messi­ness of words. At the end of the book, he prays that on leav­ing his body his soul “becomes a math­e­mat­i­cal object.” “In the after­life,” he says, “they will replace lit­er­a­ture with mathematics.”

This and writ­ing in Eng­lish while learn­ing it made him a mas­ter of the one-lin­er. “Let us assume the inno­cence of dic­tio­nar­ies,” for exam­ple. Or: “When you pack your bags you lose some poems.” But it is not clear how much any of this influ­enced his approach to form.

Maged‘s pieces are almost always unti­tled, nei­ther stand­alone poems nor sequences of a long poem. With rare excep­tions, they live in the space between those two things. That way, he can explore his inter­ests in depth with­out com­mit­ting to any­thing too dog­mat­i­cal­ly solid.

More than in per­son — but that too — you can tell Maged has spent a huge amount of time, to quote Leonard Cohen, “meet­ing Christ and read­ing Marx.” A yearn­ing for com­mu­nist equi­ty and Chris­t­ian love form a kind of canopy for his thoughts and obser­va­tions. But rather than deny­ing or repu­di­at­ing them, it actu­al­ly spot­lights desire and the body. Poet­ry as friend­ship turns into prac­ti­cal phi­los­o­phy, kin­da. Then you remem­ber that poet­ry itself, how­ev­er sane the poet, is often a form of madness.

I fin­ished Maged‘s book in the course of one oth­er­wise indo­lent day over the Eid break, but I haven‘t stopped return­ing to the poems in the midst of all kinds of busy­ness since. They‘ve cer­tain­ly altered my view of a recent­ly acquired true friend. But they have made me all the more eager to keep up the ritual.



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