Hugs Penyeach: “I Saw a Man Hugging a Fridge: Twelve Poems by Youssef Rakha in Robin Moger’s Translation”

Youssef Rakha, Egyptian writer and editor of the international online publication The Sultan’s Seal (aka Cosmopolitan Hotel Cairo), recently posted to his site twelve of his own original poems, translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger. That posting draws significance for several reasons: both writer and translator are professionals published elsewhere in traditional forms – literary, commercial or journalistic; the poems are estimable; as literary online culture continues to evolve, with some longtime bloggers dropping out following more traditional successes or frustrated by the perceived over saturation of unpaid venues, Rakha continues to appear determined to develop even further his site, creating unprecedented opportunities for diverse writers and readers.

As I consider a discussion of Rakha’s twelve poems, I’m reminded of Kirill Medvedev, the Russian poet whose concerns regarding ownership of communication and open access to literature and language led him to renounce his copyright, and in addition to his other work, he began to self-publish his poetry on Facebook. At the same time, Medvedev seemed interested in writing that would not alienate a common reader, as so much poetry often does, even if inadvertently. Reading poetry can seem like studying a foreign language, as indeed it is.

Rakha’s poems behave, it might seem redundant to say, poetically. That is, they move by metaphor and juxtaposition of images, narration sometimes ambiguous, with many unexpected turns. What is their subject? Rakha has always made expeditious use of tags. At the bottom of the “Twelve Poems” post, for example, we find 70 tags, alphabetically ordered, but we don’t find fridge or hug.

We should assume the speaker or narrator of a piece is not necessarily the author. Authors create characters, in both fiction and poetry, and narrators, including those in the first person, are characters. Even the narrator of a so called memoir, perhaps particularly so, is a character created by the author. Louis Menand recently spoke to this issue in a New Yorker article. I’m not sure he clarified or muddied the waters. That business about the “narrative pact,” for example: I prefer Trilling’s argument that everything is an argument – and that probably includes memoirs, essays, poems, novels, ads and commercials, junk mail, the evening news, anything on an op-ed page, and notes left on the fridge from your partner. The old, venerable encyclopedias? Full of arguments. The new Wiki? Likewise. But Menand’s closing point, that no occasion for writing should prevent us from reading, is right on. But what of the culpability of readers who in their creative reading find something the author had not intended? But isn’t one of the purposes of poetry to create and sustain or nurture the possibilities of unintended consequences?

The setting of the poem where we find the man hugging a fridge seems domestic. His wife is there, swinging from the chandeliers, but this doesn’t seem to be a party. The local world is drowning in rain. We might recall Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” “Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?”  The man’s legs are submerged. Is he hugging the fridge for its buoyancy potential, a life preserver? The poem is titled “Listen Ashraf,” and Ashraf Fayadh, a poet initially sentenced to be beheaded in Saudi Arabia, is named in the first line. His sentence was subsequently reduced to an eight year prison sentence with 800 lashes. His crime, it seems, wasn’t so much poetry, or being a poet, but of writing the wrong kind of poems. We hug our abodes, our houses, our wives and fridges, our lifestyles, as the waters continue to rise. We hug to say hello, goodbye. We hug the things we love. We hug a fridge or a clothes washer when we want to move it to another location. We hug to hold on. “Listen Ashraf” is the last of the twelve poems.

The first poem of the twelve is titled “First Song of Autumn,” and speaks of joy: “I am the clarinet’s mouth.” This poem is lyrical, cylindrical, like the flight of birds.

In “The Angel of Death Gives Counsel to a Bereaved Parent,” we find one of those poems whose narrator or speaker appears as a character invented by the author of the poem. The poem appears to be the angel’s apology, a rebuttal to the argument that he has no feelings. But he must harbor his hugs to get the job done. And he gives back, not an answer, and certainly not even a hint of a meaning to his work, but a hug of surety.

The twelve poems speak in both the first and second persons. The speaker addresses someone close but at the same time far away, questioning, observing, remembering. There are sparks of sadness and of sarcasm, of hope drowned in irony, of anger:

“Sleep and hug, like the downy pillow, the certainty
That you’re the genius, alone in a society of retards.”

Readers might wonder what it is they hug, to get them through the night or day of a poem, across the invisible wall of a border.

One of the twelve poems, “Stallion,” is a prose poem. Not that a piece written in prose is any easier to grab hold of. It only appears to be one of the more accessible poems here. Written “For Ahmed Yamani,” it moves as a dream of water over oil. Another prose poem, titled “Love (Marriage),” seems an aphoristic apology, though we may not be exactly sure for what. It is not the sentiment often found on greeting cards.

On second and third reading, the poems open more easily. The reading is not difficult; that is because the writer has done most of the work. But there is work required of the reader, too. The settings and references may be unfamiliar, the problems, though universal, hardly equitably distributed. Characteristic of the poetry is the packing together of history, personal observation, everyday events (visiting a cafe, for example), a kind of diarist epistolary form. The movements feel free, without restraint, not hamstrung. 


Remembrance of Things Past: or, The Card Catalog – ACCESS CLOSED!

What better way to close Open Access week than with a post on the card catalog? The Library of Congress’s In Custodia Legis (the blog of the law librarians of congress) has posted a photo of a notice users still find at the entrance to the card catalog, and librarian Christine Sellers explains: “When you walk into the Reading Room of the Law Library of Congress, you might notice something you haven’t seen in a while. A card catalog that is still in use, though no new cards have been added since December 1980.”

Open Access is necessary – efficient, effective, fair. But more, the virtual world, its backlit windows, are like Whitman’s “…Houses and rooms [are] full of perfumes, the shelves [are[ crowded with perfumes, I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it, The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.” Though we can not smell it, the virtual world still attracts us, like a sterile flower.

We miss not just the card catalog, its thumb-worn cards housed in red oak, carefully annotated by the librarian’s perfect pencil, but we miss too the smell of the open stacks, the aisles and shelves of books like Ferlinghetti’s Backroads to Far Places. But that’s not all we remember and miss. We miss the mimeograph machine, helping teacher turn the drum, watching the press emerge, holding the freshly inked papers to our face, smelling the wet ink. We miss the feel and smell of the pages of books, the large windows full of available light, and when the sun slanted through the library windows on warm summer evenings, the lighted air in the high-ceilinged library, like Ezra Pound’s, from Canto XCIII: “…The light there almost solid.”

Opening the Patient in Open Access Week; or, the Great Research Hoax

At first glance, The Atlantic’s “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science,” by David H. Freedman (November, 2010), about the inaccuracies, contradictions, reversals, and errors in medical and pharmaceutical research, looks like something out of the National Enquirer: can this hoax be, to this extent, true? Alas, Dr. John Ioannidis’s 2005 article, published in JAMA, goes unchallenged – its conclusion: “Contradiction…[is] not unusual in highly cited research of clinical interventions and their outcomes.” What this means is that 90% of your doctor’s advice about what you should or should not be doing health-wise is probably based on faulty or biased research. The timing of The Atlantic article, arriving in mailboxes in the middle of the international Open Access week, couldn’t be better. “Though scientists and science journalists are constantly talking up the value of the peer-review process, researchers admit among themselves that biased, erroneous, and even blatantly fraudulent studies easily slip through it,” reports Freedman.

Sponsored by SPARC, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, Open Access week seeks to raise awareness of Open Access initiatives worldwide. It’s possible that the Open Access movement will alleviate many of the pressures on researchers that have led to the problematic results described in The Atlantic article, primarily, as Freedman quotes Ioannidis, because “at every step in the process there is room to distort results, a way to make a stronger claim or to select what is going to be concluded.” But why? Why would researchers not want to discover what’s really going on? Because, Ioannidis says, “There is an intellectual conflict of interest that pressures researchers to find whatever it is that is most likely to get them funded.” It’s that conflict of interest that Open Access has the potential to cure.

Our friends the physicists have been both dipping into the infinite cookie jar of funding and publishing open access style for some time. It was at the FQXi Community site that we first became aware of Garrett Lisi’s paper “An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything.” But if Ioannidis is right, and as the number of papers on string theory might suggest, most research probably reduces to simply that most everything is wrong. But, no worries, for Ioannidis concludes, at the end of Freedman’s piece in The Atlantic, that “Science is a noble endeavor, but it’s also a low-yield endeavor. I’m not sure that more than a very small percentage of medical research is ever likely to lead to major improvements in clinical outcomes and quality of life. We should be very comfortable with that fact.” Buckminster Fuller was very comfortable with that fact. Fuller thought it was necessary to pay for all the researchers on the bet that one of them would come up with a viable idea to pay for all the others and then some.

If science is a low-yield endeavor, what’s poetry? Still, Open Access holds the potential for improving the quality and honesty of research, publication, access, and discussion of scholarly papers in the sciences and the humanities. The irony of course is the cost associated with behind the pay wall journals coupled with the findings of Ioannidis. And why would the problem be any different in the Humanities? But will Open Access remedy the research problems discussed by Ioannidis? It’s possible, since the peer review process changes – with more eyes on the product, and the strength of closed and biased editorial voices of certain periodicals and coteries of peers is quieted down. What should we be reading? Open Access has the potential to open the walled cherry orchard to everyone with an appetite, for is 90% of our poetry critics’ advice about what we should be reading also based on faulty and biased research? Ioannidis and his meta-researchers have uncovered a hoax, one that’s been a long time in the making and continues to sicken the patient.