Anis Shivani’s fifth poetry collection, Logography, is an impressive achievement in voice, style, and technique. This is Shivani’s best poetic work to date; the poems are sharp, transcendent, and brilliantly conceived. The book is split into three sections: Confessions II, Lyric/Resistance, and The Art of Love and are linked by a lyrical voice that is distinctly Shivani’s: dry, intelligent, witty, and passionate. In these poems, Shivani continues to meditate on politics, history, literature, and selfhood in skillful and creative ways. Logography is a detailed mosaic of images, terms, thoughts, proclamations, ideas, and emotions that coexist in cosmic harmony. Shivani’s voice is at its utmost strongest in this collection, reinforcing the power and potency of the poems, asking poignant lyrical questions: “War baby, who are the wolves you know / best?” and “What is courage in both hands?”
Confessions II consists of 100 10-line poems that introduce and establish the lyrical voice. This is where Shivani’s smart, referential, modernist poetic style leads the reader into an imaginative world drenched with pure image and language. Here is poem 15 in its entirety:
The bridge passage was cathartic in an
understated way. Embowered in fab-
ulism, draped in gingham curtains of oaths,
I failed to be a modernist. Or at least
a rectilinear one, a supremacist
of small candlelight. It is not up to
us to lower our voices against the
brawny cracker-barrel mouth of fascism.
Ghostly is the moth, ghostly is the town,
the harvest moon can be seen jumping off.
In this poem, the absolute precision of image and language intermingle to create space and movement within the poem. Compression has always been a strength of Shivani’s work, and here, the lyrical voice encourages flexibility so that the poem also feels open and expansive. With this poem, there are a lot of moving parts—image, language, allusion, metaphor, statement, and rhythm—all functioning together harmonically. Words like “fabulism,” “modernist,” “supremacist,” and “fascism” coexist with images like “bridge passage,” “gingham curtains,” “candlelight,” “moth,” “town,” and “harvest moon.” Added layers of meaning come from playful metaphors: “gingham curtains of oaths,” “supremacist / of small candlelight,” and “brawny cracker-barrel mouth of fascism.” The statement: “I failed to be a modernist,” adds wonderful ironic tension; the ending features a musical couplet that enacts rhythm, repetition, action, and haunting beauty.
Lyric/Resistance continues the lyrical style with a series of untitled, unnumbered poems that are short and musical, embodying a variety of structures that enact voice and tone to great effect. Here is the first stanza of the poem on page 133:
My mother is gutty.
She is a trumpet to fasten on to
securely, she tells me
I’m her last-born child,
I will have the last word,
I will be the dead on Judgement Day,
I will lose the title to Li Po’s light,
I will mime Rome and its stenciled copies,
I will mind the fire for finger-waggers.
Like many of Shivani’s poems, this one is highly complex, but here, the poem is stripped down and gives space to a different voice: the mother—which impacts tone in compelling ways. Two metaphors are used to describe her: “gutty” and “trumpet.” The sounds of the words themselves in their low and high tones give the mother depth, along with their metaphorical meanings. The mother makes a series of prophetic statements through the speaker’s voice, bringing in metaphor, reference, and image: “last-born child,” “last word,” “Judgment Day,” “Li Po’s light,” “Rome,” “stenciled copies,” “fire” and “finger-waggers.” Here, the tone combines a nice blend of confidence and humility. This poem is also noteworthy for its beautiful rhythmic structure and the way it creates a new kind of lyrical space for Shivani’s poetic style to manifest itself. In the second and final stanza, the speaker says: “I listen to her trumpet, / …I go out into the world, / the tunnel of light dressing me…” Here, the tone shifts, exhibiting personal strength; the speaker feels empowered to move forward.
The Art of Love features 70 numbered poems each consisting of two couplet pairs. However, the middle of the series is interrupted by a handful of long-lined, untitled, unnumbered poems. They are lyrical and anarchistic in structure and serve as a wonderful counterpoint to the short couplets. The poem on page 253 brings in an interesting assortment of statements: “We decide to go to the movies,” “The novel shows minimal concern for narrative / movement,” “I’ll never open up / about you,” “Burning herb,” “we share similar musical tastes.” The true center of the poem occurs at the end with a paragraph-long sentence that gushes with emotion and image:
Narcissus, I love you like the genus daffodil, you are an important
center of Japanese buddhism, your company has narrowed down the candidates for
the job to two, you are swami and friends, you are the man-eater of malgudi, you are
the painter of signs, you breathe abdication through your nostrils, you are a state of
stupor and a bomb containing napalm and a baby’s diaper and a stolen apple blossom.
The poem opens up and takes off with all the language elements Shivani is gifted at grouping together. What is also significant is that the poem is addressed to Narcissus at the end so that all the statements that occurred before, which were concise and contained, take on new meaning. With the insertion of Narcissus, the poem becomes wild, romantic, and almost sensual as it brings together a wonderful arrangement of eclectic images, references, and phrases: “genus daffodil,” “Japanese buddhism,” “swami,” “man-eater of malgudi,” “painter of signs,” “abdication,” “bomb,” “napalm,” “baby’s diaper,” and “stolen apple blossom.”
Logography is a truly successful poetry collection because it takes all the strengths of Shivani’s earlier work: compression, language, and historical/political/literary references and focuses them through a sharpened lyrical voice that is both heightened and distinct. Anis Shivani is a brilliant modern poet who is not afraid to take risks; his work is both expansive and radical in the sense that everything is fair game: language-play, metaphor, allusion, politics, and emotion. Logography represents a high-point in terms of his poetic abilities; these poems, in all of their visionary and conceptual beauty, provide a new sense of openness and possibility that Shivani can build on and develop as he continues to grow and excel as a poet. When reading these poems, it very much feels like “the leviathan is ear-splittingly close” and “the monks / have plenty to eat.” It will be interesting to see where he goes from here.
September 30, 2019