Editor’s Note: This is part of our “Books that Stay With Us” call, which invites reviewers to write about older books which have left a lasting impression, influenced their own work deeply, or speak to themes which reverberate across time.
Tocqueville by Khaled Mattawa
Kalamazoo, Michigan: New Issues Poetry & Prose, 1st Edition, 2010 (Reprinted in 2019 with a foreword by Phillip Metres)
80 pages, $16.00
Books that Stay With Us: Review by Sara Elkamel
Note: This review includes potentially disturbing language, including graphic references to violence.
The year is 2010. New York City. End of October, probably chilly outside. Dressed in a dark grey suit jacket and black sweater, Libyan-American poet and translator Khaled Mattawa prefaces a reading of “Tocqueville”, the title poem of his fourth collection, with a warning: “I know there is wisdom and lyricism coming behind me, so I will engage you in some panic.” A slight, mischievous smile materializes as he says this, but his expression turns bold and solemn when he announces the poem’s title. “Tocqueville.” As he reads an excerpt from this 26-page piece, his earnest animation, pauses, and tonal shifts echo those of an actor, fully in character. Readings often tenderly expose the intimacy that lies between a poet and their words, but in this case, what we see is closer to agitation.
In the poem, Mattawa reimagines a classical text by French diplomat, political scientist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville, titled Democracy in America (1835). Dipping in and out of verse, the poem weaves together a set of seemingly unrelated storylines and characters. Running through the text are notions of displacement, violence and torture, political and economic unrest, all in addition to romance. Following an eight-minute reading of “Tocqueville” (which only gets him through a fifth of it), he stops himself. “And it goes on,” he says. “You can get the panic yourself. There’s more if you wish.” Indeed, it was a passage he did not read that struck me with undeniable panic.
They found me in the house with my baby child. They’d already killed my wife in the field. They told me to place the child in the mortar we used to mash cassava. Then they handed me the club and told me to bludgeon my child, or they would kill me. And I did as they said. Afterwards, they cut off both my arms and let me go.
I find this except from “Tocqueville” to be one of the most haunting—because it is detailing an act, or rather several acts, of brutality, yes, but perhaps more so because of how this information is relayed to us. Laid out so plainly, it lets the burden of response fall entirely on the reader. It is one of the many sections of the poem written in verse—a single chunk of text that is not allowed to exhale on the page via line breaks. It is as if the story is arriving in a single breath, without a filter, forcing you to look. “To look away, to close our ears—these are crimes Mattawa will not have us commit,” Philip Metres writes in his forward to the 2019 reprint of “Tocqueville” .
But while Mattawa’s work often shines a light on agony and injustice, the image we see is not always sharp, and often steers away from the confines of a neat frame. Mattawa’s “Tocqueville” sprawls over many pages, and is broken into sections that are left unnumbered—there is no conceit of order or chronology here; the piece moves yes—a certain, and somehow pleasurable, motion sickness reading it attests to that—but we are seldom given a roadmap or timeline to guide us. As Fady Joudah’s Ploughshares review attests, the poem functions like “a screenplay that metamorphoses into a democratic account, a lyric slide show that disrupts conventional time.” This subversion of time and place—and by extension, narrative—is one of the key ways in which panic impresses itself upon Mattawa’s poems: A panic of not knowing.
Reading “Tocqueville”, one is reminded of the work of Syrian poet Adonis, whose work Khaled Mattawa has extensively translated into English from the original Arabic. One of the most prominent poets of the Arab world, Adonis is known for layering his texts and challenging linearity. “Collage is a useful term to describe his work,” Mattawa recently told Image Journal. “Working in sections allows him to defy temporality, to let the past impinge on the present.” Given the centrality of translation to his practice, it is not difficult to imagine just how much the poets he translates have influenced Mattawa’s own work. The destabilization of any certainty about the present moment, commonly attributed to Adonis, can be seen clearly in the poem “Tocqueville”, and elsewhere in the collection.
In the penultimate line of “Later, Later”, from the same collections, the speaker announces that “All of this happened later”, confusing the already-meandering narrative that had just been laid out for us. Where are we to situate the action? Where, in time and place, is the speaker? Scattered across the poem are all three tenses. In order of appearance; future: “Someone will resist, and words will scatter like the beads of a rosary suddenly breaking.” Present: “Time ticks on the wall, on your wrist bones.” Past: “A long time ago a story waited for its evil twin.”
I find this unabashed unreliability of the speaker to be rather panic-inducing. Often, the question is not simply where the speaker is (in time and space), but also who he is, which adds yet another layer of mistrust. In “Tocqueville”, a few pages after the speaker has relayed the horrific episode of being forced to murder his child, we see the “I” passively receiving this story as a piece of news on the radio.
In the car, she’d received a phone call just as the story of the pounded child began on the radio. And when I heard the father tell how he killed his child, I cried out in disbelief. She turned to me, and later asked what made me cry out, and I wanted to say that it was the story on the radio, but instead said, “it’s something I forgot to do.” That’s what I told her. Of course, I want to protect her, I don’t know if there’s anything else I can do, or I feel I can do, or even if what I feel for her will allow me to do anything else but that. If nothing else, I’ll protect her, I keep telling myself.
Is that a good feeling, your desire to protect here?
You think you can build on it.
It’s all I got now.
Again, the dialogue that appears here is anonymous—the speaker is unknown to us, (and, actually, unknown also to himself; in the section immediately preceding this one, a speaker asks: “Who is talking now? Which “we” are you inserting yourself into now?”) and so is the person he’s conversing with. The poem interweaves so many characters that personhood is almost entirely erased—and perhaps that is the point.
Finding personal narratives that compel the reader to care is a journalistic endeavor; while Mattawa’s work bears the mark of journalism, it also emphatically challenges the practice. To write “Tocqueville”, Mattawa paraphrased stories of Somali citizens and a musician-refugee from Sierra Leone that had been reported on the BBC and Public Radio International, respectively. Of course, their stories are diluted in his text; they are not named, and their photographs are not provided as they would be on a news platform. They merely enter into Mattawa’s world of horror. Because their identities are obscured, the reader knows just enough to panic, but not enough to become invested in their individual stories.
“Mattawa abides with the horror of the world, but never makes it the only truth of the world of his poems,” Philip Metres writes. And I agree. Despite the proliferation of panic in his work, also recurring is a surprising and refreshing humor—the audience at his 2010 reading of “Tocqueville” giggled as he read a particularly amusing passage:
My shrink called at the time of the appointment. He didn’t want to be technical, but said you canceled in less than 24 hours. I didn’t want to be technical either, but I told him that I cancelled within 23 and a half hours. Still, I don’t blame him. If time is not money, what is it? And in that hour he was supposed to make money, what was he going to do with himself? In the small office, I could hear other patients talking with the therapists next door. Many times I tried to overhear what the other people were saying. I’d put down my head as if I’m thinking about what I’m trying to say, but I was just listening to what was being said next door…
We all know intimately the physical need for laughter in the heart of difficult times. Mattawa caters skillfully to that need, giving his readers a respite from the panic, or at least, offering an alternative way to deal with the panic his poems otherwise induce. As Fady Joudah writes, humor here “blunts the blade, intensifies paradox, yet makes the embrace clearer, genuine. Hilarity prevents the morbid from becoming moribund.”
And humor is not the only way in which his language ushers in a little tenderness. A couple of minutes into his reading of “Tocqueville”, Mattawa’s performance suddenly shifts; it softens, slows down. He reads:
Sometimes I want to call what I see
through the keyhole “a flower.”
Then I see the clock racing,
the digits tumbling over themselves.
Then I turn to her face
and ask a question of love.
Surrounded on every side by such harsh and animated prose, this short, broken section asserts Mattawa’s tendency to veer off into profound lyric moments that are wholly seductive. It is these tender flashes that perhaps charm me most about his work. As well as a confident instigator of panic, he, like us, is desperate to see beauty, constantly struggles with the slipperiness of time, and is moved by a desire to ask question after question of love.
Almost a decade after its initial publication, I find “Tocqueville” unsettlingly resonant; I find that like Mattawa, poets are increasingly engaging with injustice, violence, and panic, yet their search for gestures of beauty and humor is steadfast. As a poet myself, I find in Mattawa’s “Tocqueville” an inspiring recipe for writing about terror while leaning on poetry’s room for lyricism, unruliness, and the ubiquity of panic.
Sara Elkamel is a poet and arts journalist living between Cairo and NYC. Her poems have appeared in The Common, MQR, Four Way Review, The Adroit Journal, Best New Poets, Best of the Net, among other publications. She is the author of “Field of No Justice” (African Poetry Book Fund & Akashic Books, 2021).
- Khaled Mattawa: Academy of American Poets Awards Ceremony Reading. (2014, November 18). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTfLYKVaTuw.
- Mattawa, K., & Metres, P. (2019). Tocqueville. Kalamazoo, MI: New Issues Poetry & Prose / Western Michigan University.
- Joudah, F. Review: Tocqueville. Retrieved from https://www.pshares.org/issues/winter-2010-11/review-tocqueville.
- Adonis. Retrieved from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/adonis.
- Mitchell, M. K. Khaled Mattawa Interview. Retrieved from https://imagejournal.org/article/khaled-mattawa-interview/.
- Africa | Life in Somalia: Mahamut’s story. (2004, November 25). Retrieved from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/4040889.stm.
- Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars. Retrieved from https://www.pri.org/stories/2010-05-05/sierra-leone-refugee-all-stars.