A friend of mine once had a brilliant premise for an animated satire called The Super Thinkers. It went something like this: Aleister Crowley, who’d spent the past century holed up in a secret lair on Pikes Peak, travels through time and gathers up the remains of the world’s greatest thinkers in little powder packets. On each episode, he reconstitutes one of the “great” thinkers of history (Marx, Nietszche, Kierkegaard, et. al.) and sets them loose on the world to cure the ills of neoliberalism, only to be derailed by their own vices as well as the apathy, ennui, and spectacle of 21st-century life.
Poet Maged Zaher would be right at home in The Super Thinkers’ writers’ room. In fact, his recent collection, Opting Out: Early, New & Collected Poems 2000-2015, has enough great lines to supply dialog for several seasons. In poem “4” from his 2007 collection farout library software, for example, Karl Marx has become “a raver,” while Engels:
is indulging in opiates, watching reality tv
and appearing on Oprah:
“look great diva, me and my buddy
M can be the next marketing sensation
look, how cute Das Kapital’s Russian cover is
we will make it a movie soon.”
Mao Zedong, Plato, Rimbaud, St. Augustine, and many others also show up as foils in these poems, most of which ultimately emphasize the absurdity of love in the time of late-capitalism. Here’s poem “18” from his 2011 collection, Thanks for the Office Window, in its entirety:
Love in the frozen vegetable aisle
Lap-dance security forces
Why do you care about the well being of the enemy?
I am wondering—how could anyone trust anyone
Writing a collection of Star Wars poems?
She was the go-go dancer from hell
He was a poet fond of clichés
Eventually an infinite amount of sadness
Accumulated in the IT department:
Heigdegger Hegel Wittgenstein Kant
Spinoza Kierkegaard Nietzsche
Benjamin Adorno Marx Situationist International
Foucault Habermas Derrida Zizek
Deleuze and Guattari
Edward Said Fred Jameson Terry Eagleton
No amount of thinking or thinkers, the poet implies, can outthink “the infinite amount of sadness” that hangs behind all western (male) thought, which fails, inevitably, fails at the feet of love, however imperfect. Such romanticism is infinitely charming.
The darting, casually fragmented texture of these poems feels at times like Apollinaire’s cubist approach to the appropriation of overheard conversation. But the more you read, the more it’s clear that Zaher is borrowing lines from conversations he’s having in his own head. The darkly comic turns he takes serve to reconcile the many voices he carries: he’s an American of Egyptian origin; he’s a software engineer by trade and a poet by avocation; he writes in English (his second language) and often about losing his native Arabic; he’s a Coptic Christian originally from a Muslim-majority country; and he’s a middle-class Marxist! Zaher’s honesty with himself regarding these apparent contradictions and his unwillingness to take himself too seriously keep the poems fresh even when the stakes seem highest.
In several of the book’s later sections, Zaher takes the reader back to Cairo with him during the period of deep political uncertainty and transition after Hosni Mubarak’s resignation in 2011. But not even the Muslim Brotherhood’s ominous rise seems to spoil his sense that history itself is ultimately a running joke. Here are two short poems rom Cairo Poems: Mid July — End of September 2011:
In a city under deconstruction, where ghosts come and go, throwing stones at Michelangelo. There is longing in the streets, because why not? – Love is mostly a misunderstood exercise: hanging out with quality nihilists, everyone is catching-up with everyone: bad constitutions drag you down.
Biting into a prolonged nostalgia
There are well-meaning CIA operatives around
And they mostly train kind assassins
Oh love, oh careless love.
The joy he finds in these dark historical moments give Zaher’s poems a timelessness that he doesn’t seem to seek. At times, they read like a diary detailing a revolution in broken haikus. For example, In Second Cairo Trip, Etc… Feb.—2012, Zaher writes:
In a city under heavy rebranding
There are bearded men
Walking to McDonald’s
(The one next to the armored vehicle)
Even in poems like this, in which the author seems to do little more than report what he sees, you feel the way his bi-cultural vision gives him an unsentimental clarity that crosses back and forth between his worlds to arrive at the truth: McDonald’s.
Ultimately, Maged Zaher’s poems are serious about poetry and what it can reveal, even when it jests. One could easily crack open this 400-page book almost anywhere and find the kind of insight that only a cosmopolitan comic poet with a philosopher’s (computer) chip on his shoulder can see. He writes, for instance:
“Fuck the Police” is a love song
To no one in particular
But a future that will never come.
The world is fucked
Yet you are alive
And I might be too.
Lyrics to live by from a super thinker who knows he can only love the slow-motion apocalypse that is, and always will be our world.
Opting Out: Early, New & Collected Poems, 2000-2015 (2018) by Maged Zaher is published by Chatwin Books and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.