SEPTEMBER 10, 2017
“WE WERE TRAPPED in a town called Liberty.” The first line of André Naffis-Sahely’s poem “In the Catskills” goes some way toward indicating the tone of his debut collection: wry and cornered, a dispatch from the end of something — perhaps the world, or at least civility. There is something of the travel writer in Naffis-Sahely, not only in terms of the miles he’s stacked up, but also in terms of his tone. Often low in register and conversational, “at home everywhere / and nowhere,” he imparts what he’s witnessed and discovered, interlacing snippets of documentary evidence, custom, local curiosity. What makes him an outlier in the rag-tag crew of professional trampers is that, for him, there is no stable, historical home to set out from. These poems are as much about rootlessness, “homelooseness,” as anything. But these are not poems of lament. Naffis-Sahely’s voice is spry and incisive, and his eye never misses the odd, telling detail of each sticky, corrupted — and always temporary — base camp.
Like the writing of Michael Hofmann — a poetic forebear and dedicatee (“The Translator”) — some of Naffis-Sahely’s best poems are born of alienation and confusion, of an attempt to make sense of some new set of — usually lowered — circumstances. The Promised Land takes us to the United States, India, Italy, and, most importantly, to Abu Dhabi, where Naffis-Sahely spent much of his adolescence, a city where “anything over twenty years old / is a historical landmark or gone — mostly gone.” The other abiding touchstone for these poems, aside from Hofmann’s acerbic “yellow of unlove” translated to brighter, hotter climes, are Robert Lowell’s incarceration poems from Life Studies; the first section of The Promised Land has a jailhouse air to it, at times overtly: “Everyone kept to their own, just like in prison.” There is a constant rewriting of the rules of engagement, a sense of peril, no opportunity to belong or set down roots. The narrator and his family are forced into an elaborate, high-stakes game of Jenga, “nervously trying to remove as many blocks as you can without the entire edifice collapsing on you,” as they endure “Passover at King Herod’s.”
And that’s not the only construction game being played. In “Wanted Man,” the narrator’s father learns “how men can be made to fit together like jigsaw pieces // when forty share a room designed for eight.” His luck run out, he finds himself in prison; when he regains his freedom, it is accompanied by a new sense of stoicism — he “finally understood the appeal of Johnny Cash.” Life in the Emirates, we learn, operates under Roman rules. The incomers, shipped or flown in to make the sprawling edifices which allow the King’s sons to “play whose is biggest with bricks” arrive into serfdom and will leave as they came: “Only two out of ten people die in Abu Dhabi; the rest simply fail to have their visas renewed.” In the face of such cruel uncertainty, the only option left to the speaker is to notice the environment, the exploitation and folly — to remark “this happened,” even as it is removed, replaced, rewritten.
The opening poem, “Disposable Cities,” sets the mood of the first section, evoking the betrayal and Chinese whispers of the efflorescing pockets of inhumanity that sprout from oil or gold rush, yet this isn’t a book of self-pitying mopery. There is agency, ownership, and certainly no victimhood. The speaker won’t allow himself to deny personal responsibility, won’t foist the blame entirely on the Olympian moneymen. One of the book’s finest poems, “Home After Five Years,” ends: “Come, come, that’s / enough now: remember you chose to live in the fire.” These lines might as easily be addressed to all residents of disposable cities like Abu Dhabi, or to the rest of us, who think ourselves settled and secure. Naffis-Sahely’s real concerns are far broader than Abu Dhabi; the Emirati cataclysm and its cathedrals to venality are the occasion rather than the subject of these poems. In fact, these micro-narratives are as political and philosophical, as angry and appalled, as the work of Robinson Jeffers, whose brand of inhumanism is felt most strongly when the speaker, having left the Emirates for what may be the final time, washes up in the sodden Neversink, USA: “It was hard // to think of anything human around us as serious.”
The speaker makes his journey to the States just before Trump slouched toward the White House. What he finds isn’t freedom or opportunity, but apocalypse: “‘There’s hatred, envy and greed afoot in our world,’ / wrote an Old Saxon poet, ‘and this is where you must live: // among thieves and killers.’” This allusion to a truism from “In the Shadow of Monadnock” could stand as the moral of the book as a whole. The speaker is trapped in this new landscape. Horror film tropes light up a distinctly Lowellian survey of a town, and civilization, in almost touchingly oblivious decline: “the last ribbons of paint / peel away from the shingles; / there are five bedrooms inside, // but only one is kept warm. No TV / or radio either; the news upsets Walter.” Johnny Cash may have been name-checked earlier, but it’s Kris Kristofferson’s “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” that hangs over this section. “Liberty, son,” we learn in “In the Catskills,” “is where the past comes to die.”
Our hero is an outlaw who’s out of safehouses or escape routes. In fact, he’s no hero at all. He may be on the side of the downtrodden, of men whose lives are “as cheap as the cloth on their backs,” but he is capable of cruelty, spite, and violence. “It’s cold here; / I hate my life; sometimes I also hate my wife,” he says in a poem concerned with the breakdown of all forms of tenderness. Elsewhere his hand is a “bruised spider,” from having beaten his brother senseless over his failure to “lift / his gaze from the screen.” And yet, despite the “smell of rot” without and within, the speaker is defiant, and even approaches redemptive acceptance: “I inhale the crisp / New England air and exhale a panegyric.” For all the traveling in it, The Promised Land is finally about what happens when one runs out of road or air or land and has to face up to the creatures and environment pressing against the window: “I see a deer / press its nose against my window; the trees begin to shake / and soothe me with their music, light slips past the blinds: / even hell is often bright enough to keep some hope alive.”
“If I close my eyes,” the speaker says, “the whole world feels like home.” But this is no comfort. Naffis-Sahely’s cosmopolitanism is neither idealized nor fetishized. The modern world, in his telling, becomes something akin to the train journey in “Through the Rockies” — an assemblage of self-medicating oddballs trying their best to get through the night in low, divisive times. All we can do is shore up whatever loyalties remain and fight to protect memories as their backdrops are reduced to rubble or left to fall into dereliction. It will be fascinating to see how Naffis-Sahely’s voice develops in subsequent years, how it adapts itself to settlement. There is no question that this homage to the citizens of disposable cities, hurt and bitter though it is, holds a wealth of promise.