I, like a lot of beating-hearted teenagers, first fell in love with Anis Mojgani over Shake the Dust. I wanted to “brush my shoulders off,” peel the wane of fluff from my legs and arms, let the old skin flake and shed so I could come back a chameleon, and “walk into it.” I was a teenager then, or maybe I was in college. Maybe I was a college teenager.
I needed someone to tell me that life wasn’t all lollipops and raindrops, but instead give me the real struggle of it. It didn’t happen throughout my high school literature circuit so I began looking to poems somewhere between not getting out of bed for Pre-Calc and changing my major from religious studies to creative writing. Somewhere on the in-between, probably lying in bed because I did that for most of my freshman year, I confused a perfect world with my world. I thought when you made silly faces at boys in class, it wouldn’t lead to cheating on your back-home boyfriend. I thought that people didn’t backstab each other, that they loved one another truly when they said, “this is a commitment.” I believed my friends partook in recreational drug-use, but none of that back-shed-lab stuff. I believed in the majority good, the hearts of the people I met and the friendly faces that passed me on the all-brick campus where I had my first writing lesson: No one wants to hear about the good stuff, and no one wants to be entertained by something perfect.
“This is bullshit.” I remember distinctly when Allison said this to my fiction workshop.
Why can’t we write about happiness. Why does shit always have to be dark or go dark. How does darkness just come, just show up on a doorstep and expect to be let in because what else can you possibly do when half the world is bearded in it. There are forests of it, holes of it, religious movements dedicated to it, gangs of starships who have gone to its side and yet we expect to somehow fight it off and let the good triumph. Always, always over evil. What we forget is this binary. This halfness of the world. When we’ve had winter, we know spring is coming. When we have light, we know the moon will skim the sky like a mini-skirt and leave us in the dark. I wish there was a color for it, I wish I could say “leave us in the black” but that’s not even right. It’s like a steeped gray. It comes. Everytime.
That’s what Anis Mojgani knows about the world. When I saw his book of poetry, Songs from Under the River, years of poetry collected, up on NetGalley, my breath caught. I may have spit up something I was drinking. Here’s what I had been waiting for. This selection of poetry, ending of course in one of my favorite slam poems ever, Shake the Dust. Those who are not familiar, need to immediately watch the video. It’s a poem that makes you want to pray, even if you’ve never believed in anything greater than yourself. Then, you pray for yourself, you pray by yourself, you pray with yourself. You fold your hands together like a little drummer boy and you lean your head towards your feet and you become humble to the words coming out of this man’s swollen mouth. So full of words, it’s buoyant.
I thought Shake the Dust was his best. I thought he gave it as a gift to the teenage world. With all these hormones, all this carrying-on, all this switchback, where’s the poem for us. It’s here in these words of half-God, half-growing pains. That’s not it though, Shake the Dust isn’t all he whispered into the darkness. There’s so much more to Anis Mojgani as seen in Songs from Under the River. It made me want to eat my ipad it was so delicious on my tongue. I would read it into the ferns on my porch where a Robin has warmed eggs in the hanging pot of it.
Songs from Under the River is a fascinating collection of new-age poetry, slam-poetry and rambling. I think sometimes it’s easy to consider rambling, poetry, especially if it’s someone you respect as a poet, but it’s just not. You can’t ramble your way through a poem. Poetry is a thing that needs specific words. That’s why I believe that once you reach poet status, you have reached the highest level of writing. It’s just too hard to get perfect. Your word choice has to be impeccable and even after you publish that 12-line, succinct, beautiful little capsule, you’ll find that one word that’s off. A poem is one of the hardest things to get right.
I think Anis Mojgani has some definite winners in his collection with lines like:
Know this: my heart was too big or my body so I let it go. And most days, this world has thinned me to the point where I am just another cloud forgetting another flock of swans — having shaved off so many of my corners that I have flet at home only in the shape of a ball, bending myself so far backwards that the song of my mother believed I was returning home. But believe me when I tell you my soul somehow still squeezes into narrow spaces. – Closer
Cussing doesn’t come from a lack of vocabulary–I know all the other words. None of them speak the same language that my fucking heart does. – On the day his son was born the astronomer screamed out his window
(5) I was never a broken man/but I too know how to pick the pieces/ up. Some days the pieces are all teeth/ pulled from the mouths of children. Some days they are simply books/ searching for a shelf. (6) I have carved shelves out of my heart/ to try and bring an order to things. All/ it did was make space.
(10) Some ladies’ legs are shaped like/ confessionals/ and some confessionals are built like/ the bows of burning boats. Speaking/ through both my body caught fire like/ everything else. – 17 books
All the flowers have the same name. They all grow in the direction of her mother’s house. – Love is Not a Science
Sometimes he does fall into the category of unedited. Sometimes you want something to be a poem so badly, and yet it’s just not there yet. I think his poems didn’t make sense because they weren’t edited correctly. It’s a myth that poetry isn’t supposed to make sense. Poetry should make sense in the deepest recesses of your soul, even if it’s so specifically your story and your experience, it should matter to the world. That’s why poetry works, it takes the most true happening of one person and makes it general, worldly, international. My favorite poetryism is from Joe Millar. Joe says when you go to the poetry store, you don’t look for these inflated academic words like however, rudimentary, reveal, assessed, constructed, objective, but words like hairbrush, vein, dogwood bud, wet, chalk. There are other words the poetry bookstore doesn’t sell: love, hate, mad, angry, sentimental, because in poetry you’re supposed to make us feel those words. It’s the great fictionism: show don’t tell, but in even tighter detail.
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t inspired by this book and I would be lying if I said every poem in it is perfect. There is some unbreakable writing in this book, lines that I want to etch into a tree. (Line from Anis: “but the initials carved that break the trunk open the tree flaunting its body”).
There were moments when I almost cried because something he wrote on the page was so beautiful that it hurt and helped at the same time. However, some things could be parred down, some poems could be taken from the mind and then worked into real things that live on the page, instead of a reader just being confused at what Anis thinks about during his writing hours. It’s an honest collection of poems and it’s for the individual with secrets; both filled with anger and just quiet little ones that we haven’t found a way to give up yet, or speak up.
Sometimes, as writers, we look at something and say, yes, this makes perfect sense. This is exactly how you would describe a…fist fight, or a break-up, or a wedding. And then, when the reader gets to the page, it’s just a swan’s feather, or the gully of the Grand Canyon, or just something that makes no sense to anyone else. It’s frustrating and is really just a call-out for better editing and more early morning writing sessions. I’m not knocking Mojgani by any means because he is impeccable and he made a writing career from a college dorm room.
I encourage everyone to live a moment in the church of themselves, that small sanctuary we keep just below our rib cage and just above our stomach and read this poetry collection. Spend time in the river water, don’t just dip your toes in, touch the bottom with your flattened palm.
Here is my new favorite slam poem of the moment: