Sunday,17 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1365, (19 - 25 October 2017)
Sunday,17 February, 2019
Issue 1365, (19 - 25 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Poetic yearning for world culture

William Melaney, Bildungsroman. Cairo: Sefsafa Publishing House, 2017, pp.70 - Reviewed by Ferial J. Ghazoul 

Poetic yearning for world culture
Poetic yearning for world culture

In this slim, handsomely produced volume of poetry by William Melaney — professor of English and comparative literature at the American University in Cairo — we encounter world culture in a poetic mode. The cover of the divan by the poet author himself is entitled Intersecting Worlds. It captures, with its cubist and geometric figures and chiaroscuro contrasts of light and shadows, a modern world that goes beyond a specific continent or region, and calls on a world-citizen reader. Melaney, a long-term resident in Cairo with kin relations to China and Chinese culture, and an avid reader of Arabic literature and world classics, is indeed writing about his own universe of intersecting worlds in this collection. The very first stanza in the opening poem celebrates “a different language”:

“Seeing the burnt grass in August outside 

the squat building that stood in darkness, 

he felt the image slip away into a poem 

written in a different language.”

The entire collection revolves around the image not by itself as visual presence but in its intertwining with sound, with the music of the poem. Having internalised the avant-garde movements of the 20th century, Melaney expresses a specificity that is all his own though naturally it has affinities to poetic movements of our time: Russian Acmeism, Continental Imagism, and American vanguard poetry from Black Mountain Poets to New York School of Poets to Black Arts Movement. 

The title Bildungsroman which indicates a novel of formation may seem like a strange choice for this collection divided into four sections: The Elements of Morning; High Noon in the Country; Parables of Writing; and Emblems of Memory. As readers we approach Bildungsroman as an entry into the private world of the author expecting confessions à la Jean-Jacques Rousseau or a coming of age narrative such as James Joyce’s, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. However, on reading these poems, we realise that Bildungsroman as we commonly understand it has been revisited. It is not a narrative any more but a set of poems with rhyme scheme and rhythm that invites not only reading them silently on the page but reading them aloud. These poems are fragments that beg for interpretation, dispensing with a chronological narrative order. The poems present us with bits and pieces of the poet’s mind and trajectory and leave it to us to work out the jigsaw puzzle in order to formulate the portrait of the poet. These distilled images condense moments of anxiety and of communion, traces of gestures or incidents, dispersed in a beautiful post-modern medley. In this heterogeneity of intertextual references, we come across Pythagoras, Bacon, Hobbes, Melville, Ibsen, Rodin, Degas, Flaubert, Kafka, Taha Hussein, Picasso, Hafez the Persian poet, Sinan the Ottoman architect, etc. Likewise, the topography of this poetic landscape takes us from Shiraz in Iran to New Hampshire in the US, from the Sahara in Africa to Norway in Scandinavia. 

Unlike E M Forster who represented in A Passage to India the conflict between East and West in the British Raj, the tensions of bringing two cultures next to each other, Melaney looks for a passage to a harmonious World at large. His poem entitled “Triumph of a World” opens with an epigraph from the symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé, “du fond d’un naufrage”:

“Beneath the mist 

of a tranquil shoreline 

where the ruddy 

debris of shipwreck 

clutters the pathway 

of African birds, 

I ponder the earnest 

passage to a world.”    

In this poem we find more affinity to Melaney’s compatriot, Walt Whitman, in his poem, “A Passage to India”, celebrating the opening of the Suez Canal and looking forward through the passage to closer ties with the world, literally and metaphorically. Whitman looks forward to cultural exchanges and worldliness: “The earth to be spann’d, connected by network, / The races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage, / The oceans to be cross’d, the distant brought near / The lands to be welded together.” While Whitman announces, Melaney ponders.

The Self of the poetic persona recalls other Selves and their trajectories. In the poem entitled “Taha Hussein’s Tale”, Melaney presents a biography of the man who wrote about his own childhood in what has become a canonical work of Arab modern autobiography, Al-Ayam (The Days): 

“An early illness blocked the final ray 

that lit the yard, but woke an inner sense 

for recitation: verses that were dense 

in meaning were so comforting to say,-- ”

These lines of the poem sum up how an absent sense (seeing) can be substituted by another (hearing); it is a poem that can be invoked in Disability Studies, a new branch in literary and cultural criticism.

Music and imagery tend to dominate the poems of Melaney as if they mirror each other — one recalling the other. In his poem “Bronze Recital” as well as “A Small Concerto” the musical is not simply juxtaposed to the painterly, but joined to it. “Bronze Recital” opens:

“She stood behind the long piano.

Her dress came out of late Degas.

In “A Small Concerto,” Matisse is recalled in what starts like a haiku poem and goes on to translate the scene into visual and painterly imagery:

“Clouds by swirl of night 

hid passion: the moon 

slid off and broke, 

shattered like a mirror 

whose fragments fell 

over the house 

with grey shutters. 

But an old tree rose 

above him; music hid 

in the shingles: a dark 

piano sent out answers. 

Nearing a blue church, 

he thought of Matisse: 

stained-glass evenings 

meant paler skies.”

But Melaney is not only a poet of the arts; he is a poet of nature. His diction is rich with what is associated with the pastoral: He ends his opening poem entitled “Grassland Memorial” with:

“Recalling those words, he felt the grass live —

but only as the promise of pale flowers.”

The poetic diction of Melaney attests to his observation of nature and his pastoral longings. “Birds hammering”, “blast of cold wind”, “pebble garden”, “clouds gathered over frozen trees”, “a blackbird twisted around the corner”, “the sun throws yellow light upon the quiet water”, among other expressions show us the poet is not all culture but also nature. To explain the presence of unadorned Nature perhaps can be sought in what he himself articulates in one of his poems entitled “Lacking Images: A Pastoral”: 

“We try to hold some image in mind 

when having sought a pastoral for solace

Finally, in concluding, we touch on Melaney’s ars poetica, the core of his poetics, which is crystallized in verse lines in the finale of one of his poems, “Two Trees”: 

only sublime if the 

sublime can be a song, 

only written if the 

writing can be lived.”

I understand this to signify that beauty resides in poetry and poetry can only be a lived experience.s

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