Anis Shivani’s fourth collection of poems, The Moon Blooms in Occupied Hours, contains grit and muscle. The work is heavily influenced by modernist verse—it is highly political, historical, referential, and prophetic. The best poems in this collection are true heavyweights that challenge mainstream contemporary verse. The book is split into two sections: Anchorites and Sodomites and it is clear from this contrast (asceticism and hedonism) that these poems ask much of the reader in terms of how they should be read rhetorically and aesthetically.
One of Shivani’s best poetic assets is the way in which he uses tone. It is wonderfully dry, thick with complex diction, and full of personality. In these poems, tone builds through saturation. It takes a few poems to get the full flavor of the speaker’s voice that excels in biting dark humor: “I want to construct polite mosques / over mounds of exemplary sins” and clever surrealism: “to love like tigers in garages / floating like boxes of the future / zookeepers are locked shut.” In the poem “Greenland” tone is tightly constructed with the help of long, rhythmic lines that sing down the page:
I was a postman in last night’s dream
handling mail for corporate thieves in limousines
and my back gave in to hitler’s melody
and my back gave in to stalin’s melody
and my back gave in
This passage is one of the more lyrical moments in the collection, but true to the overall voice of the work, merging the ideologies of tyranny, empire, and capitalism and chipping away at it with irony. These lines have more breath in them compared to other poems in the collection and are masterful in terms of depth and simplicity. The poem ends with a similar kind of rhythmic music that showcases the speaker’s sharp tonal wit:
like the ear under water
like the sparrow shedding feathers
like the moon’s reflection in the last drying drops
at the horse’s trough
on a handpicked summer night
Tone works well in these lines because it is a fusion of cutting sarcasm and gentleness, especially at the end with the play between “the moon’s reflection in the last drying drops / at the horse’s trough” and “handpicked summer night.” The success here is the combination of image, diction, and rhythm which converges into a unique blend of voice that confronts and soothes.
The strongest use of tone happens in “To the Twenty-First Century” with the opening line: “I am battle-hardened, I will warn you,” which sets the reader up for a series of prophesies drenched with political, historical, and literary references:
I will be at the last-minute wedding of Hitler and Eva Braun,
the poisoning of Stalin, the assassination of Trotsky,
appraising each act for its performative power.
As Foucault would have it, there are no more ill-natured tyrants,
only discourse constituted of blasphemous whiffs of suggestion.
Several lines down the speaker proclaims: “Hermann Broch will die of heartbreak, for sure, and so will Musil, / and perhaps Isherwood, and their funerals will not be televised.” Tone is crucial for this poem because it is driven by an individualistic voice that pushes against oppression (from physical violence to the violence of language). And it is also fantastically defiant:
I am looking forward to new meanings of exile and punishment.
I am going to shelter women from strange dark nations
who run from shadows, but have brutally strong shoulders.
The speaker of the poem also refers to oppressed groups who struggle to survive against the pressures of empire, such as “sad young artists huddled around the radio of war” and immigrants “determined to raise tigers for kids.” References help push the voice along and hold a tight grip on the reader until the very last lines: “I cannot wait to clutch this new century to my bosom, / for I am tested and ready and warned, saving my best for last.”
The referential nature of Shivani’s work is a challenging aspect to the reading experience of The Moon Blooms in Occupied Hours. Historical terms and diction are the two most important devices that drive the poems. For example, “Ideology” is a compressed poem saturated with references:
A cudgel to wind a cord,
the Spanish Inquisition’s garrulity,
young ruffians of the class
who rob them. Picadors are not
allowed to kill the bulls,
mounted men pursue the tall
and grave-faced keeper
of Herod: the second great
prerogative of the brave town,
whose names and flirtations
are so many fortresses.
This poem requires multiple close-readings because the language is fine-tuned and complicated. One thing is clear: “Spanish Inquisition,” “Picadors,” and “Herod” all point to the brutalities of empire, but there are also “young ruffians” and “mounted men,” and a series of words that catch the eye: “cudgel,” “bulls,” “prerogative,” “flirtations” and “fortresses.” The poem becomes a loaded puzzle, a mixture of references, images, and abstractions that evokes sensuous disorder. The structure of “Ideology” depends on language for its poetic power as it represents debauchery as a saturation of history, power, empire, violence and defiance. It is also worth noting that this is the opening poem for the second part of the book, “Sodomites.” This poem sets the tone for the rest of the book where “ideology” is presented as pure, unadulterated chaos.
Readers should be aware that these poems operate under the assumption that there is a common understanding about how language and the history of empire function in contemporary society. Shivani is an advanced poet who asks a lot of readers—which is not an unreasonable expectation. He produces work that is of the highest standards of literary excellence in terms of history, language, and poetic aesthetics. His poems are loaded with multiple meanings and the tone tends to be razor sharp: “You see that fence wound / like a noose around my land? You see / how the dogs know to stay away?” This book is also highly imaginative, combining poetic firepower with surrealistic magic that offers readers “a free telescope / wedged between floating libraries / a home made of whispers.”
Originally published in Pleiades, Winter 2019