Sunday, May 3, 2020

Jérôme Melançon : Port of Being, by Shazia Hafiz Ramji

Invisible Publishing, 2018

The title Port of Being lends itself to over-interpretation. The difference between the capitalizations strikes me. It’s lacking on the cover and front pages, which suggest an intimate entry into a state, a way of being, in contrast to the arresting imposition of the spine in all capitals. Nothing in common between that capital port, the indecision it induces, and the mystically philosophical suggestion of the accolades on the back page that capitalize according to convention. A capitalized Being that is all-encompassing – nothing to do with the verb-like simplicity of the lowercase being. Being, being, BEING is demanding in this book.

I will not say collection because I wasn’t able, am still not able, to read the poems individually. They call to each other, draw on each other. From rich suggestions of day-to-day experiences they expand toward states, both personal and geopolitical. Shazia Hafiz Ramji writes with measure and subtlety to let us feel, run our hands across the simplicity of these experiences. Anchored as they are in events, her poems are full of emotion, concern, and attachment to a deeper truth about what makes up humanity.

In the middle of the book there are ships. “Flags of convenience” denoting an attachment to a port that offers lower taxes and looser laws. The ships are not a metaphor. They work like flags - they are not insignias, but indicators, semaphores. They point toward movement, respond to a desire for movement. The book interrogates fluidity - hence the themes of the sea, but also of this factitious attachment to what allows us to give up responsibility. There is fluidity without continuity in the “Flags of Convenience” section - only patterns where fragments on the page seem to float like debris on the sea (perhaps better yet, in “Spatula” Ramji speaks of “space debris”). Let me approximate the layout from “Bahamas” (41):

     on fire in the North Sea                                twenty dead bodies

       in two dead ends                                                        insured

     for twice its value                                                       sabotage

Fluidity is necessary because of power, of surveillance. This is political poetry without a thesis or an argument (“Heat,” p. 28):

Birth from our own skin

Concerns over devaluation

Body that hangs and holds

Mushroom halos of work

Dark faces glow in oil

At the back of the room hands wait

To be held in court

To speak a warm fabric of lips

Interpersonal relationships weigh as much as wars, the violence and the distanciation it creates as a response cohabit with a longing for proximity. There are cameras, social media posts, people being followed, voyeurism. There is incarceration, loneliness, bombing, vanishing, death. There are no guiltless, pure victims. This interchangeability of positions feels more unbearable than the violence itself. The book might be an attempt to come to terms with this human condition. The speaker, the narrator, the recorder, but also Ramji thus place themselves in the same position of surveillance, drawing us into the scenes they observe. The world and the writer interject themselves into the poems with surprisingly little violence, sliding into the openings and closings of poems to allow them to breathe, to give them space, a wider spatiality than words have by themselves. The experiment with form disappears to simply give poems.

It’s easy to come to these conclusions about surveillance when reading the note at the end of the book or searching quickly for interviews and reviews. The beauty of that note is that it comes after the fact, to point to the original intention that carries the book, by which point Ramji has already carried this intention to her past, her relations, interwoven it with desires. The note confirms what has been written, brings nothing the poems didn’t already give; it establishes a direct connection between her not only as author and us not only as readers. Throughout the book Ramji offers presents through her choice of voices - the book is full of voices, recordings, quotations. Although the poems already make the intention clear, the note remains necessary - not so much as explanation than as closure, like the last words of a conversation that allow two people to take leave, to close an exchange, to return to themselves.

There is more to fluidity in this book than its themes. The writing plays with fluidity and knows rest. Full stops in the section “Spooky Actors at a Distance” make each line an invitation to drift into free association and meditation. A conversational tone runs in the “Port of Being” section, where couplet-based poems are set against poems whose line breaks melt - bordering on prose. Both forms give the daily life they shape a disjointed feel.

The conversation goes beyond the tone – literal conversations, not overheard but sought out, are part of the poems in the opening section, “Container.” In these ten poems we are placed in the city. Ramji writes in the city, we can feel it around her as around us; she writes the city in the poem, into the poem, making it not palpable but audible, heard. The city in this section is an auditory phenomenon, where voices surround everything and become part of every experience. Voices of strangers, relayed in later sections by voices of those to whom the speaker can’t get close. In “People just changed” (p. 12, and again the layout is approximate) the juxtaposition of voices shows the menace that emerges from the fluidity of thought from one conversation to the next:

People just changed. I just remember the sirens went on.

I don’t know how to count what’s left             prisoners of conscience

Turned organ transplants        then transplantations  

                                            across a vast tract of folds in clothes

Later on, also, whispers in the back of our head, voices that follow us, that inhabit us - that is how power shapes us, how we continue to obey even when surveillance isn’t at play, when power isn’t being exercised (“Nearness,” 51):

We are not angry. We have come a long way.

I hear a whisper in the guise of your boss.

We chatter in the back of your head, but we are not your boss.

You have been thrown into the fabric and it is why you sleep.

This last line could stand for the energy behind the book, the active passivity, the strain and trouble of being.

Jérôme Melançon writes and teaches and writes and lives in Regina, SK. He is the author of two books of poetry, De perdre tes pas (2011) and Quelques pas quelque part (2016) with Éditions des Plaines, one book of philosophy, La politique dans l’adversité (Metispresses, 2018), and has a bilingual chapbook forthcoming with above/ground press, Coup.

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