Anis Shivani’s sixth collection of poems, Confessions (Červená Barva Press, 2022) contains over one hundred seven-line poems that read like half-sonnets. They are written from a first-person perspective; they are lyrical, and they include an endless array of images and references (political and literary). These poems are written in a similar vein to the poems in Shivani’s previous collection Logography: A Poetry Omnibus, except here, the speaker is recounting the fantastical events of his life. The title, Confessions, is applied a little humorously here; the speaker talks from a very open-ended perspective, but never really confesses anything. Many of the poems in the collection either lead off with a question or contain a question as a way to break up the lyrical flow of the work, also helping the reader to stay rooted within the speaker’s creative descriptions of past experiences. The poems, although incredibly lyrical, are conversational, and maintain a challenging edge to them. The reader might feel a bit engulfed in the speaker’s world through these poems, and that is intentional. All of Shivani’s poems are structured that way: they are meant to both entertain and challenge the reader, and these poems do just that.
The opening poem sets the standard for the other poems, as well as the pace and the tone. It is filled with images and references that let the reader know that the journey they take along with the speaker is going to be an interesting one. Here it is in its entirety:
Religion is a plantation economy
burning big-eyed corpses in a cricket stadium,
burning Orwell’s hidden texts in plain sight of the rats.
Rats have been big in my spiritual autobiography,
which begins here, with an ego as large as the “x”
in the xylophone, as tiny as the bead-eyed danio
which you have for breakfast.
Shivani does have a stream-of-consciousness style of writing; the lines and the content within the lines do spill out in unexpected and unpredictable ways, but the poems are also consciously-wrought. The first line is one whole sentence that looks like this: “Religion is a plantation economy / burning big-eyed corpses in a cricket stadium, / burning Orwell’s hidden texts in plain sight of the rats.” Those lines, that one sentence, is carrying a lot: “Religion,” “plantation economy,” “big-eyed corpses” who are burning, “cricket stadium,” “Orwell’s hidden texts,” which are also burning, and “rats.” Rather than analyze the line, it might be more productive to understand this type of writing as an aesthetic. For Shivani, anything goes, and that’s what makes him exciting as a poet. He can group together a variety of complex images and references and make them work effortlessly.
The poem on page 33 contains similar heavy images/references, but it also includes a question at the end, which is also a feature of characteristic of Shivani’s work: he asks a lot of questions. Here it is in its entirety:
I have been hiding from tamper-proof Trotskyism,
one authoritarian pursing me to the entrance
to the chaste tree, another bribing me with
discarnate gospel music. On the radio, in the
Lone Star State, I sound like replacement therapy,
the spirit moves me to act like a treehopper.
What does a poet laureate do?
Again, the images and references are all arranged in the body of the poem, collage-fashion: “Trotskyism,” “authoritarian,” “chaste tree,” “gospel music,” “radio,” “Lone Star State,” “treehopper.” It is endlessly fascinating to think about how all of these things work together, or against each other, creating multilayered tension. But the most compelling part of the poem is the question that comes after this poetic collage: “What does a poet laureate do?” Like most of Shivani’s questions, they aren’t meant to be answered, but pondered, and this question feels especially interesting given the nature of the poetry. Because the speaker is immersed in his own beautifully chaotic version of reality, he wouldn’t know what a poet laureate does, who in the context of this poem, takes on the image of a well-put-together literary figure that can be easily packaged and digested to the literary public, and the public at large. The speaker is not poet laureate material, and shouldn’t be. He is meant to be anarchic and free-spirited and complicated.
The poem on page 81, which is toward the end of the collection, shows how good Shivani is at enacting lyrical movement within poetry. This is incredibly important for his work, given the fact that Shivani primarily operates on saturation: images and references that build and build until the reader is wonderfully consumed. The endless images/references never feel oppressive or daunting because Shivani’s poems are active. Here is the poem:
When I was born they were dreaming of interstellar
travel, or at least flying cars and personal helicopters,
robots that would stand beck and call, and sex merely
a question of percentiles and reiki laws. It wasn’t long
ago that I would pass salvage yards in the triage
cities of this country and envision the flow of light
between ethical dahlias and their daimons.
In this poem, the images/concepts are less important than motion and location: “interstellar / travel,” “flying cars and personal helicopters,” “robots,” “salvage yards,” and “triage / cities.” On a literal level, these elements of the poem are grounding because they create a scene, but also help to stimulate motion as the reader is guided from place to place. From a literary perspective, Shivani’s poems employ lots of turns, which is what makes them so active. In this poem, he goes from futuristic images, to sex and reiki, to dystopian cities, to a meditative state of mind: “envision the flow of light / between ethical dahlias and their daimons.” There are four major shifts in this seven-line poem; most modern poems might contain one or two shifts. Each of Shivani’s poems contain multiple turns which helps all the images/references flow organically. As a result, the reader is constantly being stimulated to keep reading, even if they feel overwhelmed in the speaker’s world. This is one of the biggest strengths of Shivani’s work: the poems are challenging and stimulating simultaneously.
Anis Shivani’s Confessions would make a great starting point for those who have never read him before. The poems take the shape of a familiar poetic form (half-sonnets) so that readers are able to get bite-sized doses of what Shivani does on a more extensive level in other collections. Confessions is an incredibly compressed lyrical journey on a global and multidimensional level. Literally anything goes with Shivani, and this is what makes him so great to read; he is open-ended and complex, a conscientious poet who writes in the moment, and is not afraid to challenge readers with his astute lyrical, conversational, and imagistic/referential talents. It is essential that Shivani continue to evolve his poetic abilities even further. His poems are refreshing to read, and much needed in the current moment where poetry in general feels too consciously-wrought, too form-based, and too slick.
December 12, 2022