Moez Surani’s poetry deserves to be read as often as possible. As Jacob McArthur Mooney says, he has the cosmopolitanism of Cohen’s early verse. I’d go as far to say that he’s a more worldly Michel Garneau, the famous Québécois writer responsible for translating Cohen.
With a mind ‘boomeranging between tenses’, Surani also has moods that boomerang between literary voices. In the poem “Astrophel & Stella”, Surani’s character delineates a dramatic irony that he thought his lover had left him, via tense change, from past to present, and calmed to find her still there, develops the calm apathy of David W. McFadden:
Through the rain I left
clothes over the floor and climbed onto your bed.
In the night, my sweeping arm discovered you.
Your clothes shed too. Turning again in the morning,
you were gone so I lay among pillows, alone, shifting them around, thinking,
while your hands administered the morning’s milky tea.
Your apartment is so long I hear nothing.
No sound of teaspoon on mug as you swirl.
This table I am at now outside of your bedroom is a loan from
the man you were with before me.
Sitting here each morning
it hasn’t bothered me.
This is a glimpse at the book’s enduring spirit.
Reading Surani is the fastest way to culture yourself. The minimalist’s combination of romantic musings and sightseeing is fresh. His travels are so far-roaming and summarized in such tight lines that he is providing a wholly intimate and pocketable globe of wonders. Even the shortest poems are conversation worthy, such as “Barcelona Harbour”: ‘So many / boats!”
I left my mark
on your city wall.
Paris doesn’t have a city wall, however, it had several city walls in its time. Their prior presence shaped the concentrically grown city. Les Grands Boulevards, for instance, are constructed where Charles V and Louis XIII had murs d’enceinte, surrounding walls. The French word is more poetic, metaphorically transforming the walls into the belly of a pregnant woman. The walls make a perfect metaphor for Surani’s work: spectrally protecting and altering an entire feature with words as few as ruins, and yet, pregnant with detail.
The poem is also innuendo, beginning with the present progressive phrase, and concluding with the image of vandalizing a lover as if vandalizing a city wall. This metaphor is one way Surani is able to fuse the geographic and the erotic in his poetry. Devices like this make an extremely beguiling book.
It’s his belief that “an interesting poem justifies itself.” What he defines as an interesting poem comes from the opposite definition: “Uninteresting poems, the ones that don’t have power or allure, these are the ones where the process and intent get questioned.” The poem isn’t a grandiose aphorism, even after being dissected. As he says in another poem, speaking for himself and his acquaintances, “we voice no epiphany. It isn’t our style.” The intent I may not understand for the poem’s size, but there is an epitomization of the artist’s ability with his themes in this poem.
Surani’s eye sees through a poetic loupe, blind to all but the original, the idiosyncratic, the sometimes humanly absurd aspects of a certain setting. As he said in a CBC interview about his new book, ”When I began writing about other places, places I was outside of and that I could enter and leave, I wanted to avoid generalizations or images that could be mistaken for emblems. That would be a boring and naive way to write. So, I tried avoiding this by getting rid of the space between what was incidental to the poem and what was significant. I hope the two come together so closely in this book that the significant things get imbued with that feeling of being accidental and passing.”
The key word is ‘incidental’. This adjective describes many of the images in his poetry. In the Open Book interview quoted above, it is this word he uses to describe love, and so, the word connecting the geographical to the romantic: ”These poems are open to the peculiarities and strangeness of the world and don’t have that heavy, metaphysical weight. For me, over these last few years, the world seems too absurd for that. And that’s how love seems to happen to people I know. An openness, then your life changes course. Most people, after it happens, there’s that going back over the incidental things. What impression was made. What was talked about. The recounting of the coincidences and near misses.”
Now that I’ve fallen in love with Surani, I, too, am going back over the incidentals in his technique.
The series of poems titled Cairo opens with a beautiful epigraph from Borges’ “Unworthy”, which Surani uses in translation; the original being: “La imagen que tenemos de la ciudad siempre es algo anacrónica.” The English has “slightly out of date” where the Spanish has the more applicable “algo anacrónica”, ‘somewhat anachronistic’. It reminds me of “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”. So, like an anachronistic translation, Surani writes his poetry on Cairo, a Cairo that could be timeless, unchanging despite his observation:
In the region south of the Papyrus, the fish
are so large that the fishermen loiter
and buy produce.
In the late evening, the circus performers descend
to the riverbanks and haul the heavy nets
from the water.
Through the Cairo nights, while the unemployed Muslims
pebble the streets, the circus performers perambulate
ashamed of their zakhat.
The quotidian is beautiful and that’s a shame. Throughout Cairo, Surani sustains a critical voice, though an understanding voice, acknowledging the poverty of the region. Because of the zakhat (زكاة), the Muslim’s voluntarily, though morally obliged charity, the poor are sometimes swept under the rug, for bankers and real estate developers are receiving the majority of the money to build mosques that don’t directly benefit those “pebbling the streets”. A profound metaphor, the poor being walked on to access the new buildings.
There is in the Arabian word an etymological root (ز ك و) that implies purity, plentifulness, and even a sense of having been put in a comfortable state. So when the fishermen buy produce, they are buying what ‘thrived’, a meaning tied in with the same word for the Muslim alms. And the city being painted in one state, as if it were the comfortable state implied by the root, so as to stay still for the artist, the root therefore is painted with irony by the artist.
The poor are not benefiting, there is no purity, no innocence in the zakhat. The fish are plenty and loitering consists of spending, whilst the purifying alms refrain to purify either the donors or the needy. This is the source of their perambulating shame, a wholly original expression for a mostly unheard of (to Canadian readers) socio-political situation.
This is one of the more linguistically curious of the Cairo poems, whereas many of the others impart a humourous tone, though just as deeply construed as the serious themes. It’s statements in poems like viii that are the tourist’s generalization of an entire culture, rendering the comments enjoyably ironic in the tourist’s essential naïvety:
In translating Arabic literature, what is lost
are the gesticulations.
The romanization cannot handle it.
One must remember that he who is narrating is
swinging his arms and raising them again in such a fever
and bringing them down onto the table
with complete disregard, for example, for my glass of tea.
With his vocabulary’s inherent originality, Surani’s poetry is more natural, more independent than the domesticated breeds of verse standing beside his; it’s a trained and wild creature.
With political tones in addition to his more easily accessible observations and lusts, Surani has created a wonderfully ubiquitous overlay of interesting themes for his book of curious images.