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Review of Ali Zarrin's Desert
Alien Books, 1996
ISBN # 0-96221190-1-0
Price: $7.00

Dean Brink

Ali Zarrin's Desert presents a post-postmodern engagement with modernist issues of the place of the subject in a 1990s society, state and family life. He often engages the "modern" by paraphrasing and rethinking T.S. Eliot, whose The Waste Land Zarrin's Desert is writing against. The absence of a "The" before "Desert" is the first indication to the reader that this dry, empty, social, spiritual, or philosophical crisis is not one to be resolved in the transcendent hymns of an
Orientalist mysticism, as Eliot's "Shantih" refrain suggests.   Instead, in attempting to celebrate life in America, in the closing lines Zarrin writes,

But life is here with me
in the deserts of Western Colorado
where Arapahoes, rabbits, foxes, and pheasants lived
and now Highlands Ranchers make up the fastest growing
suburb in America.

We are left with an economic observation that also suggests the environmental tensions of the day as the animals he lists used to live where the suburban development is booming. What makes this and many passages so exceptional is the combination of a sympathetic, optimistic voice with an
amazingly shrewd capacity for locating (creating) historical conjunctures of daily life and mythological investments which are characteristic of American life and society. He finds and defines points of engagement in what could have been, what was, and what one hopes for when coming to America as an
immigrant. There is a tension that can only be described as heroic at times, considering the endurance that must have been required to maintain such loving acceptance of the capitalist processes of exploitation that stand out in class-conscious America. The tension born of suggesting the overriding consumerism juxtaposed with say, environmental conflicts between developers and activists, avoids becoming a form of American nationalism that would seem ready to overlook real problems. If anything, it is an anti-nationalism that interfaces well with a dynamic, multiculturalist American ideology. The lines, "life is with me ... where Arapahoes ... lived," suggests a phantom animism that coexists with the "fastest growing suburb / in America"
which is not entirely ironic: Zarrin is
not negating such economic issues but situating them as facts of life in Denver. He writes:

I turn my mind into a blank
and escape the weight of the furniture
and the apartment
for which I must work and make payments.
Forget the bed, the desk, the computer
and return to the blank,
the state of the blank
before the loss,
the abandonment, the expectation
the rules, the goals, the state of compulsive adoration
being, belonging, becoming.

Here Zarrin ties together the economy which creates pressures and demands, whereby he "must work and make payments," and the "authenticity" of something lost: "before the loss...."   The losses are not cured by realizing a necessity to supplicate to a higher order, as in Eliot, but lead the poet to realize the inescapability of the alienating effects of the way people relate to each other in a capitalist environment, so that the desiring to be, belong and become includes reliving the process of coming into the society to and for which he speaks. Desert's driving  aspiration is toward an encouragement of an American
consciousness that seeks not exclusion, distinction-making, and one-up-manship, but a giving and receiving of good will in the form of memories: 

Return to the people who ate from your plate
and from whose plate you ate,
to the adobe houses and the pottery jugs/that keep your water cool.  
Remember all traveling is a form of retrieving something
from the past/or saving something for the future.

Moreover, the praise of these relations suggests their absence, similar to the phantom animals under suburban lawns. But the "good intentions" outlast the material gifts that transcend the estranged relations that develop in a society where economic accumulation renders each other debits or credits.
From the first line of the poem the voice of the poet summons the reader to join him on a nostalgic venture to his past, to a time when dreams defined direction. He begins with, "Come back / to 1838 Pine St., Boulder, Colorado, / the yard overgrown," immediately calling on a personalized relationship between the poet and audience, a bilateral understanding, not a dictation of the muses, nor a monologic lyricism, but an engagement with 'others' as a conscious aspect
of the reading of the poem. The effect is a dispensation (but not of an airy sort associated with bourgeois subjectivity) of a sustained, processual responsibility bound up in the relation of linguistic voicings, social practices (issues made of "pollution and deforestation"), and questions of social bodies
national,
ethnic, familial, economic. The poet invites the reader not only to join him in reflecting on values in an advanced capitalist society in which being "alienated" is inevitably the norm. He seeks out the reader's active participation, dealienated, halted continuities of reified subject practices which fold and enclose all the above issues (of language, social norms, and consciousness of social associations).   Again, in comparison to Eliot who writes

And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat,
and snicker,
And in short,
I was afraid.
("The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

Zarrin emphasizes possibilities of recurrence and continuity between one's own past and the lives of others in the present.   Zarrin finds his high school self himself at the school he once attended:

Why worry about returning
or its hope
for I have returned already to my youth and found him
sitting in Boulder High's auditorium....

A common thread through Desert is the action of being nostalgic and expressing this nostalgia both involved in a relation with a third element, that of quoted speech with itself has made an issue of nostalgia and "tradition." Being nostalgic and expressing nostalgia may be analyzed in association with the distinction of utterance and enunciation. What Zarrin has done is situate his own voice and the speech of others in similar relative importance within his poem, so that, Eliot's
voice included, is at times indistinguishable from his own.   Such an approach does not necessarily suggest that Zarrin has followed Eliot's famous ideas of "tradition" being altered ever so slightly in the poet's interpretive reenactment of it, so that the poet's collates the voices of "tradition" and reflects his
age in the process. Although we can say Zarrin does all this, the relation of "tradition" to "history" is distinctly of his own making. While Eliot is famous for juxtaposing a variety of voices so as to submerge his voice in acts of ventriloquism, Zarrin has not abandoned his own voice while engaging others.
This aspect is related to modern and postmodern issues of logocentrism and the rhetorical positioning of lyrical voices.  Whereas Eliot's work is an attempt to recuperate a moral orientation, maintain poetry as a medium capable of resolving ontological issues, Zarrin's work does not permit this
assumption (nor the prioritizing of philosophical discourses in general), and Desert can in this sense be read as an attempt to deal with issues of meaning, voice and one's relations with others in one's community (local or "America"). Without  wielding the divisive abstractions Eliot does, Zarrin assumes a
postmodern, deflated value in language, so that arrays of words no longer can be permitted or expected to congeal into adumbrations of systematic, controlling metaphysics.  In Desert the very relation of the poet's "mind," "subject" or "voice" (utterances) is situated within a pathos that is not so overwhelming as to be metaphysical in the way Eliot's poems are. The distance between the utterances, placed on the table like photos in the process of being arranged and
dated in an album, and their consummation as enunciations consolidated within the form of a poem, attempts to effect a transcendence into a less philosophical "poetic" discourse
a poetry holding to non-alienating mediations of relations with others, other's desires and dreams, as well as his own. It is an
approach to poetry that resembles Bahktin's ideal of the novel as a dialogic and democratic form of art, though Bahktin marks poetry as a hopelessly monologic genre. Zarrin's work shows how poetry need not be self-centered
even when writing autobiographically. The discourse Zarrin would seem to be
promoting is one closer to Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams than to those interested in a social body predicated on race and traditions, such as Eliot and Pound
though by expropriating elements of Eliot as well as Pound Zarrin demonstrates a postmodern version of a modernist interest in resisting the alienating effects of capitalism, and the nightmares of modernism that adhere to ultra-rational visions of history and that collapse tradition, race, religion into a
dialectic sublation and containment of controlled and exclusive totalities. His social vision is found in an appreciation of linguistic as well as sensuous details that reorient us and offer new ideas of what is significant in the everyday
rather than attempting to present a transcendent vision. Like Williams and especially Whitman, Zarrin, relishes diversity and the legendary visions of participating in a society predicated on being a melting pot, for he lived the legend from
the time he came from Iran to America as a teenager. Desert is a culmination of a series of experiences. It celebrates living the "legend" of being an immigrant in America and the role of poetry and language itself as a lifeline rendering meaning to his dreams in the past and present.

Not returning to the point of hatred
which is no return, but arriving where you first arrived:
the glimmering city with its darkness
taut and brisk, glistening with cobalt, stars, and electrons
streaming the cosmos of the city
Denver.

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