Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Poem: Mohja Kahf

Mohja Kahf (Center for Near Eastern Studies, UCLA)
A colleague, John B., mentioned today that I was posting much more, and it's true, though there are always 2-3 more things I'd like to post about than I manage to post here. A few weeks back, another colleague, Fran B., told me about Fred Wilson's show at Pace Galleries, and I went. It was really amazing, one of the most enjoyable art exhibits I've attended in a while. And Fred Wilson and his partner, artist Whitfield Lovell were there, in the gallery! So I want to blog about that. And I said I'd post a review of Red Tails--what was that, a year ago?--and I've wanted to write about Steve McQueen's Shame...and on and on.  Oh well. One of these days soon.

Today, it's a poem, by Mohja Kahf (1967-), whose wonderful little collection E-mails from Scheherezad (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2003) I came across a few years ago. I don't get out that much, but I think it's a smart and provocative gathering of poems, and I rarely see it or her mentioned anywhere, so I thought I'd feature one of the poems, since that's one of the things I can do with this blog. (Can I just say that I wish English had diminutives like Spanish and Portuguese, because it's my natural instinct to use them frequently and affectionately when talking about things like, well, this blog.)

Who is Mohja Kahf? She was born in Damascus, Syria, and now is an associate professor of comparative literature at the University of Arkansas. She also is a pioneer in the field of Muslim American literature. The poem below gives a sense of some of the subjects Kahf's poetry addresses, though many of the poems, which range in length and form, directly address the experiences of Arab immigrants and Arab and Muslim Americans, especially women, in the US, and many are as seriously fiercesome in their tone as this one is wittily fiercesome. It's truly about poetry and poetics, about form and statement, about poetic effects and aims, about how any poem by this poet will initially be read but what she's--it, the poem is--really trying to do. Do read it. I think she, and it, succeed.


So you think I play with the multiculture card
and sign up for affirmative action verse,
slide into print with poetry that's worse?
So you think I get excused from being good

by throwing in Third-World saffron and some veils?
Now is the summer of minority discontent
They have no Idea of Order in the West--
But I do not insist on difference. Difference pales 

beside the horrors facing our race
--the human one: hunger, HIV, genocide,
the unconscionable global marketplace
Where is the salve? We write. We recognize

--we must--each other in millennial glow
or we will die from what we do not know

That's all these smoke-and-mirror poems do
I came across the world to write for you


Copyright © Mohja Kahf, "Affirmative Action Blues," from E-mails from Scheherezad, Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2003. All rights reserved.

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