Bastardi Puri

by Walid Bitar
96 pages,
ISBN: 0889842671

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Small Beacons
by Patrick Warner

Playful, disingenuous, bitter, comic, ironic, and randy for ambiguity, the poems of Walid Bitar's third collection, Bastardi Puri, present us with a not altogether unfamiliar postmodern window on the world. He has a gift for opening lines: "The hours promenade without a pedigree" or "The places we've never been to are only moods". His poems are often very funny: "Was it you strolling on that funeral pyre? / I thought you said you'd take it lying down", or "The cagey holy boy following me/ is poker-faced when asked his name". Not surprisingly, humour is one of the subjects he addresses:

Our sense of humour occupied the other five,
which put up only a token resistance
like yokels who don't know how to dance
surrendering to polkas in a smoky dive

Typically, Bitar's approach in the poems is to make a statement and then quickly undermine it. This can often happen over a single line: "And so I became eternity's pied- a-terre", or "I write clearly to exorcise clarity". This can happen repeatedly, even in a short piece. Here, in full, is his poem entitled "Instead of a Riddle":

I know that arguments entertain
but I have no proofs to support my needs
to see through glass when it is stained,
pretend it's a mirror when it is clear,

to listen closely for nothing being said,
then blank out at the full blown thesis.
Can't make out disciples. What I have instead
is a big ego in too many pieces.

The millions of breaths that I have committed
are all, in my mind, a play in one act
that I should at least consider a riddle,
but I can't think of a question to ask.

Such an approach will inevitably lead the reader to ask if Bitar is serious about the questions he asks. Is he just a postmodern prankster, or is he, in his relentless parodying, actually taking a stand against something?
Bitar's jokiness¨his tirelessness in pulling the rug out from under the reader's feet, his unwillingness to come to anything more than provisional conclusions¨brings to mind the Irish poet Paul Muldoon. Like Muldoon, Bitar loves to mix and match from so-called high and low cultures. Bitar's poems include references to Tarzan, the goddess Diana, Fata Morgana, baksheesh, Ctesiphon, 007, and Gazpacho, to name a few. He also likes unusual couplings¨sport and religion, for instance. Like Muldoon, he relies on traditional forms: there are a number of loosely rhymed sonnets and an irregular sestina, though his favourite form, by far, is the quatrain, rhymed and unrhymed.
Much has been written about Muldoon as a political poet. Bitar, as the biographical information at the back of the book points out, was born in Lebanon and moved to Canada at the age of eight, thus giving him a foot both in the West and in the Middle- East:
One day I may immigrate to the West;
that way I can take part in its conquest
of what I used to be, perhaps still am.
A worst-case scenario. I'll become self-possessed.

Espionage, surveillance, propaganda, and paranoia are recurrent motifs in his poems. I found it tempting to read the work as an expression of what must be an atmosphere of unease, if not fear, for many Middle-Eastern and Near-Eastern immigrants currently living in North America, particularly those living in the U.S.A. Bitar's game of smoke and mirrors, however, and his refusal to let the reader settle for too long into any one judgement work against this kind of interpretation. It's to his credit that he declines to have readers interpret all of the poems as commentary on current political realities between East and West¨he might easily have done so by presenting the poems in a slightly different order.
That he chose not to leaves the door open for other interpretations (and there may be as many interpretations as there are readers). It is possible that a sense of alienation, paranoia, and obsessiveness about surveillance are routine psychological experiences for an immigrant, especially one who emigrated before his sense of "home" was fixed. Immigrants live with a growing realization that to assimilate is to let go of one's deepest identity. Bitar addresses this reality in one of the more moving poems in the collection, "Guerrilla", in which he bridles somewhat his tendency to parody and makes something like an unambiguous statement. What emerges is a memorable poem, one that stands out in a collection where many of the poems are subordinate to the fragmented whole:
I was born in a city that would soon be destroyed.
I immigrated to the centre of the world.
After the long trip, I fell asleep.
I dreamed that he who wakes up steals

whatever he remembers of the state he snaps
out of, although he isn't branches,
it isn't a tree, and there is no reason
to feel guilty about changing¨let seasons

bring back or kill life. I'm indifferent.
Comparisons to hit men or good Samaritans
will not break my allegiance to snow
which accumulates, but never grows.

If only I too could fall this way,
cover the ground instead of get buried
in it and then¨the end justifies the means¨
melt into the population, disappear.

It is not inconceivable that Bitar's "No" is a spiritual "No", that he is trying to express a metaphysical reality in secular terms. Puri, as in the title, Bastardi Puri, is not only a kind of Indian bread; it is also a famous holy city in India, site of the annual festival of Lord Jagannath. Perhaps, I thought, Bitar is a mystic in disguise. Surely, lines like "It was right to turn ourselves into equal signs, / and chase the two sides of equations away" would have the meditating deity displayed on the front cover of the book shaking with laughter.
And surely the poem "Fasting" (again a parody of the spiritual life) states, at least in the negative form, a need for a spiritual connection:
a personality's attempt to escape
from the prison it not only deserves
but labours in as a warden to serve
a desperate need to gaze and be gazed

at, feel powerful, powerless, split
right down the middle, an all too precise
line we know doesn't clearly exist
like end of water, beginning of ice.

Of course, elsewhere, Bitar works double-overtime to undo this statement, as in these
lines from the poem "Sports":
I work in privacy, and for that reason
they stuck a camera up my neighbour's asshole.

All day he's bent over mooning my soul.

A number of times, I felt ground down by Bitar's endless deflections. Two things kept me reading even as I tired of the author's cleverness: the relentlessness and intensity of the voice, and the sense of something tragic, something lost that undercuts the whole collection. Bitar is not a postmodernist of the Ashbery mould. He is not content to play endlessly with language's seemingly endless meanings. One senses in Bitar's constructions, and in their particular parodies, a moral concern. While Ashbery's work can fill this reader's mind with delight and charge it with a sense of possibility, Bitar's work filled me only with a thirst for meaning, for a moral order. Bitar, it would seem, is not happy to exploit the possibilities of meaninglessness; language for him is not an end in itself. In this way, his sensibility is more modernist than postmodern.
Toward the end of Bastardi Puri, the poems acquire a sharper focus and a greater authority. In the poems "Vaudeville", "Calm Storm", "Trance: a Declassified Document", and "The Disposition of Antiquities", Bitar unleashes his formidable imagination and verbal skill on a range of subjects that include war, plunder, and the role of language in misinformation and propaganda. In these poems, he addresses more directly the current political situation between East and West. These currents coalesce in a powerful poem called "Open Sesame", written in the voice of a torturer. Technically, the success of these last poems derives from a reining in of possible interpretation and a more discriminating parody, as the writer responds to crisis and perhaps a growing realization that there may be more at stake than the writer's pose. The triumph of these end-of-the-book poems shows Bitar to be that rare thing: a poet who has found a way to respond to a current political situation in a way that is¨to borrow from Don Paterson's assessment of Harold Pinter's poems on the Iraq war¨more than just a "big sweary outburst". These poems send a backward ripple through the book that perhaps dignifies some of the earlier poems a little more than they deserve, while deservedly lighting up others¨"Guerrilla", "Prodigal Sons", "An Apparatchik", "A Chain Collision", and "Abstraction"¨ like small beacons.

Patrick Warner second book of poems, There, there, has just been published by Signal Editions.

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