Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Marco Polo by Ali Alizadeh

Marco Polo

Maybe it’s the natural
extension of immigration.  Maybe

it’s the awesome travel
bugs, making my wife’s feet

uncommonly itchy.   I’m not
surprised, at any rate, to hear

the paediatrician’s nickname
for our son. ‘Marco Polo’ suits

his - in utero - trajectory
along the Silk Road, from

Kublai Khan’s Forbidden City
to the snow-covered stones of a caravanserai

in central Turkey.  Not to mention
the Australian interregnum

where ultrasound scans
revealed his sex.  But our Marco

probably won’t pen a Travels
as he won’t know the other

of unending expedition, say,
cherished waterways of Venice, in short

a concrete home.  Are we monstrous
parents?  Why have we conceived

and delivered a life into the world
in transition?  If held to account

by a solicitous young man
with my eyes (and my wife’s better

eyebrows) one day, accused
of depriving him of his deserved

comforts of sedentary genesis
(motherland, mother tongue

two ebullient grandmothers, etc)
I can only offer an image: removing

picture frames, tribal ornaments
from the hooks; clearing the drawers

of wrinkled notepads with withered ideas
and perforated socks; tearing

the hooks off the walls.  And then
the bright outline of the picture frames

vacated on the otherwise drab
dust-darkened surface of the wall.  It’s this

record of the passage of time
the contrast between the original

preserved shade and colour
and the rest (ditto our lives) dog-eared

by mould, sunlight, scratches
of nature and accidents.  It’s this

visible discrepancy between
what we were and what we’ve become,

the possibility to uncover
and see it.  The nomads treasure

wisdom; the reality of aging
towards death.  You see, Marco

- I’ll tell him - if we can see
death looming, like a dark island

on the navigator’s horizon
then we won’t be shocked when

time’s run out.  This means
a life without our primal fear.  That’s why

we travel.

© Ali Alizadeh
from Ashes in the Air (University of Queensland Press)
Reproduced with permission

Editor: Kathleen Jones (UK)

Ali Alizadeh was born in Tehran in 1976 and migrated to Australia in 1991.  He graduated with Honours in Creative Arts from Griffith University, Gold Coast and holds a PhD in Professional Writing from Deakin University, Melbourne.  He has taught at universities in Australia, China, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, and has also worked as street performer, hair-wrapper, and delivery driver.  He is a writer of poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, drama and literary criticism and this is his sixth book.  He lives with his wife and son.

I love this poem - the elongated shape, like a journey, and the progression of thought.  Instability, repression and conflict have brought a flow of refugees from the Middle East across the globe, and it shows no sign of slowing down as the area becomes increasingly turbulent.  A sense of belonging is very strong in human beings - knowing where and who you come from helps us to know who we are. Giving birth to a child in a foreign country, realising that the child is never going to know their grandmothers, or the everyday details of the lives their parents have left, is a strange experience.

In the poem Ali Alizadeh confronts the questions he feels his son may one day ask.  Why?  Why did you leave and deprive me of my cultural heritage?  In return the poet presents the child with the images of hurried departure - seizing possessions, tearing even the hooks from the walls.  Hooks attach us to places, to material things.  The emigrant must leave them all behind.  But then he tells his son that it is death, the primal fear, ‘looming, like a dark island’ that is the real reason for the transit across the globe to live in a foreign country. ‘This means/a life without our primal fear.  That’s why/we travel.’

'Marco Polo' comes from the collection Ashes in the Air, published by Queensland University Press.  The collection covers a wide range of subject matter - much of it hard-hitting and political; cultural contrasts, the History of the Veil, Sky Burial (for John Kinsella), and personal poems that recall an ‘archaeology of suffering’ as well as the ecstatic joy of new landscapes and relationships - love ...

‘we flew from the profane towards a paradise
and earthly constellations, stirred by something
like the love that moves the sun and the other stars’. [My Divine Comedy]

Emigrants and refugees are nomads, often by force rather than by choice - a life of 'unending expedition'.  The loss of the Motherland creates a hunger, an empty gap between 'what we were and what we've become'.  But being a nomad also presents opportunities and a richness of experience.  As Ali writes in the poem, 'The nomads treasure wisdom'.

But that wisdom is hard-won.  In Ali Alizadeh's poem 'The Suspect' he describes what it feels like to be 'the other'.  In Iran

'I was an "apostate", principal's term for
the boy who failed Koran Studies and wrote

an essay on Leonardo da Vinci.'

But in the west, he is someone who makes other people nervous, '. . .   shackled to a passport

etched with Born in Tehran.  There I was
suspected of perfidy to the Faith, an Infidel

-wannabe.  Over here I am suspected
of terror.'

There is a bleakness about the conclusion, that someone with a Middle Eastern passport, and an interest in Western ideas and literature, can find themselves between 'the Islamic Republic's

Evin Prison, pliers pinching their finger
-nails;  or sleep-deprived and hooded indefinitely

in the dark solitaries of Guantanamo Bay.' 

'Ashes in the Air' is a brilliant, unique, collection.

Kathleen Jones is a poet, novelist and biographer, living between Italy and England.  She spent almost a decade living in the Middle East, where she began to be interested in its literary traditions, and to realise what it's like to be nomadic. Her latest collection 'Not Saying Goodbye at Gate 21', published by Templar is about belonging and departure.  She blogs at A Writer’s Life and her website can be found at www.kathleenjones.co.uk

Please take a look at all the contributions in the sidebar and read what the other Tuesday Poets are posting. 

If you liked this post, you might like the memoir, by Marjane Satrapi, called 'Persepolis'


Kitty Chrystal said...

i love love this poem! It really is like a journey, it snatches you up and takes you away

Janis said...

Oh, this is a great poem. Thanks for introducing me to this poet.

Michelle Elvy said...

Ah, this touches my heart and speaks to me in more ways than one. We grapple with similar issues, choosing to raise our children in a more or less migratory manner, sailing across oceans and never staying too long in one place(NZ takes the record!). We left North America not by force by an internal force when our first daughter was born, knowing there was someplace else for our family to grow and thrive, even if we didn't know where, exactly. Our second was born underway, in Mexico. And all these moments, insecurities, questions, realisations, observations, feelings, revelations, conflicts and dreams in this poem are all things that exist in my daily life, too. Themes of belonging and not belonging, of permanence and flashes of lives we may have lived, elsewhere.

And oh how I love the way this poet has captured so much, and yes even on the page, so elongated and spread out like this -- an extended journey of the soul. This is marvellous. I will come back to this one over and over...

Thank you, Kathleen. Your discussion also offers so much food for thought. It's one of those posts that makes me think, I want to know this poet. Lovely, lovely, lovely.

Tim Jones said...

A fine poem - and a fine essay to accompany it. The quote from Dante that you include in your quote from Ali Alizadeh's "My Divine Comedy" makes me think of Dante's great description of exile, so apposite to "Marco Polo":

You shall be forced to leave behind those things
you love most dearly, and this is the first
arrow the bow of your exile will shoot.

And you will know how salty is the taste
of others' bread, how hard the road that takes
you up and down the stairs of others' homes.

(Paradiso XVII, Mark Musa translation)

Kathleen Jones said...

Thank you all for your comments - I'm so glad that you approve of my choice for this week. Michelle - I connect with so much of what you say - I think this poem's significance is the way it has a universal meaning in today's world where so many of us have to be mobile in order to survive. Tim - thank you for the Dante quote - I had forgotten this - it's a long time since I read the whole of the Paradiso. The verses are very moving in this translation.

Unknown said...

Can sense the very vivacity in the very poetry itself. Beautiful.

Ben Hur said...

I had an beautifully illustrated children's book about Marco Polo and his travels when I was a child. I always loved all that exotic travel stuff. Lovely poem. Thanks for posting.

Kathleen Jones said...

Glad you've all enjoyed it and that I've shared a poet so many of you want to get to know.

Helen McKinlay said...

Have to admit that I too was a young reader of Marco Polo but this journey is much more gritty, full of concern about parental responsibilities, and belonging to a safe place
'comforts of sedentary genesis
(motherland, mother tongue
two ebullient grandmothers, etc)
I can only offer an image:'
full of questions that we can all ask ourselves. Thank you.

Helen McKinlay said...

Have to admit that I too was a young reader of Marco Polo but this journey is much more gritty, full of concern about parental responsibilities, and belonging to a safe place
'comforts of sedentary genesis
(motherland, mother tongue
two ebullient grandmothers, etc)
I can only offer an image:'
full of questions that we can all ask ourselves. Thank you.

Helen Lowe said...

"Love" this poem, with its beautiful couplets and layer on layer of "it's about."