Composed over the last decade, My Tranquil War and Other Poems tackles head-on the response of the poet in a time of great political turmoil. What is the poet’s special responsibility? When terror becomes a general condition of dread, internalized to the last degree, even beauty and truth assume grotesque masks. The poet surveys the breakage of culture, occurring both retrospectively and in the present, and is left speechless—and potentially harmless. No one is exempt from the brutality, there are no excuses. The danger for poetry in such times is that it can become slave to technique and self-worship, in love with its own grandiosity. Thus these poems, written in a remarkable variety of forms—from traditional sonnets to experiments in found poetry—constantly rub up against self-limitation, and in that effort alone, the desire to discover a voice appropriate for the times, turn what could have been relentless elegy into an often transcendent sphere of holiness and refuge. There are, after all, beauty and truth, in the expected places; to plunge after them, one only needs all the arsenal of past culture, although the baggage may well be disposable and contingent. The poet's fate, it turns out, is a central determinant, a surefire clue to the future, as empire relentlessly falls apart, past illusions shatter, dreams fail to suffice, and a new humanity emerges, almost against its will. The fiery apocalypse of the soul, negated at its core, at a time when the public and the private merge like inseparable warring twins, is what My Tranquil War and Other Poems tries to capture, in poetry carefully treading the fault lines of sacredness, when nothing is labeled as such.
When I first plunged into Anis Shivani's My Tranquil War, I had the impression two of my most admired dead poet friends were one-upping each other in the afterlife—Tom Disch with his straight-faced drop-dead virtuoso satire of literary and political pretension and Aga Shahid Ali with his eloquent, global, polyglot formal legerdemain—both of them knowing more about history and about literature than ninety-nine percent of their readers. But Shivani's poems are no phantoms, they are vibrant, new, knowledgeable, daring, and welcome.
My Tranquil War and Other Poems charts precisely how literature begets politics and empire becomes pariah via colony. Surrounded by canonical figures old and new, poet-provocateur Anis Shivani has written a book where best and worst are marked by their complicity. He has described the world where we all—uneasily, ultimately—live. This is a book of fierce intelligence. Read it and weep.
Formally inventive, confrontational, and erudite, Anis Shivani's My Tranquil War calls upon us to rethink our view of a war-torn world in which the ages-encompassing conversation of Literature and Culture is both bulwark and catalyst. Shivani writes about our hypocrisies and braveries with ventriloquistic precision, his gestures sweeping in history, tradition, and geography. "I have to pay my accounts," he writes at one point. "I thrive on excess. // There is that lampless house. / The path unlit, and the pirate's / sign swaying in the wind." This is a provocative and skillful collection, one I will return to with pleasure.
There is multiculturalism and there is interculturalism, and the unexpected sights they promote are stanchions of this book. Shivani studs his work with unexpected views of older eidolons: Whitman, Pound, Cheever. A book of surprises.
Anis Shivani evidently inhabits a world in which every moment of time in the past, present, and a humorously but lethally prophesied future, occurs simultaneously and is animated by a wit sometimes subtle, sometimes savagely indignant. Its two faces join forces and somehow manage to speak in unison of what they actually see and think (thereby breaking the first law of correct adult behavior: never say what you actually think, not if you like eating and having a place to live). I sense everywhere an undercurrent of compassion and identification, a poignant humanity and sense of responsibility underneath the torrential voice of his book.
This is daring poetry, critical, a history of art and war in the modern age, it's "man read[ing] man to swallow him whole." Anis Shivani tempts you to call him by a name you think you already know, as his poetry shifts you from Robinson Crusoe to Robert Creeley, Dean Young to Virginia Woolf, Stalin to Fellini. There is a multitude of voices here, a history of a voice perhaps, documentary and fiction, writing his own language which is also ours.
In his poems of reportage, Anis Shivani watches the horrors of history play out ghoulishly like sporting events. But mainly his writing seeks sanctuary by looking poetry and its makers (and a stray president to boot) squarely in the face. Pound, Whitman, Virginia Woolf, even George Bush. Though his Whitman is big and wide I ultimately think of Anis Shivani as a detail man, a miniaturist even, at heart. In his "To Robert Creeley" he nails it best when a creaking sign at night does awesome tribute to the man.
Anis Shivani careens among the idols and obelisks of twentieth-century culture like a maniacal bumper-car driver intent on smashing art and politics both into submission. There is hardly a stanza in My Tranquil War and Other Poems that does not take aim at an iconic filmmaker, painter, politician, novelist, or fellow poet, and hardly a poem that misses its mark. If "knowledge is a builder’s harmony," then Shivani has constructed a monumental edifice in verse—part Taj Mahal, part World Trade Center—to memorialize our times.
Anis Shivani's My Tranquil War and Other Poems is a complex, ambitious, and formally inventive collection. These apersonal poems, often political, always erudite, are sharply interrogative of the literary or political figures and events they address. The war here is one of consciousness, of mind, as the poet takes on the compendium of Western culture. There's a unique sense of the poetic vocation at work in these poems. I can't think of anyone else who could have written "Elegy for the Bill of Rights," a powerful sonnet that evokes Jefferson, Nietzsche, the academic world of Areopagitica, to end vividly with "That mummy melted in winter is us."
I admire the poems in My Tranquil War. These are wonderfully intelligent, allusive, interesting poems in an astonishing variety of forms. Shivani ranges freely through history and cultures, always alert to the salient moment, the sharp insight, the provocative point of departure. Here is poetry deeply involved in the writing that has gone before it, even the painting (as in the beautiful poem on Thomas Eakins). The poet moves in and out of other texts. His own voice, however, remains firm, distinct, wise, ironic, meditative. These are poems to read and savor.
If Robinson Jeffers had cable television and twenty-four-hour news, this might be the sort of poetry he’d write. Anis Shivani writes from the stance of poet as correspondent, attuned to history, politics, philosophy, literary chronicles, and aesthetics. My Tranquil War is alert to both the inspiriting and darker consequences of culture on every continent and in a vast range of traditions. I admire this book’s deep concern with how warfare, brutality, and mass crime corrode the imagination and strangle humanity. My Tranquil War makes the case, again and again, that it is the responsibility of poetry to confront state madness and human violence with intelligence and acuity.