Poems for a City Under Deconstruction

This engagement with Maged Zaher’s The Revolution Happened and You Didn’t Call Me appeared in the print edition of the Egypt Independent:

Maged Zaher’s latest collection of poems, “The Revolution Happened and You Didn’t Call Me,” is a slim, postcard-shaped volume of very short poems. The collection follows Zaher’s travels between Cairo and Seattle between July 2011 and February 2012.

On each page, stanzas are framed by a pair of faintly dotted diagonal lines, as though the sheets could be gently torn out and sent in the mail.

The collection — Zaher’s third — opens with a two-line poem from Seattle. Here, the poet is leaving home in the summer of 2011 and returning to Cairo, the city of his birth. Zaher’s Cairo is both “a city under deconstruction” and, later, a city “under heavy rebranding.” Things are changing here, although we are not entirely sure how, why or to what end.

But where the city is headed is not one of the volume’s core concerns. Instead, it is more interested in the meaning of each individual moment. Many creative works have taken “the revolution” or ensuing social upheavals as their fodder. Most become quickly outdated: after a month or two, the views expressed within seem to be from another era, or even another planet.

Zaher’s poems escape this by juxtaposing the moment not against its imagined place in a linear history, but against itself.

The poems are exceptionally short, most not more than four or five lines. This brevity was, Zaher says, required by the moment.

“I was always interested in the short form,” Zaher says via email. “One of the poets I admire a lot is the Japanese haiku-ist Hosai Osaki. That said, I didn’t expect to write short poems myself. But at the moment I started doing so, I almost had to, since I was very tired, in the sense [that] I had energy only to write short poems. So in a way, it all happened by chance.”

He found the style worked well for him.

“Later I found that I enjoyed the short form a lot — it worked well in capturing one thing and one thing only, and it gave me a chance to make movement between poems instead of between lines.”

Indeed, it is the space between the poems that does a lot of the collection’s work. Each poem is spare and untitled. The intense, minimalist focus gives the collection a gallery-like feel: It is as though we are walking through the poems, taking a moment to smell and taste each one — and to recall our own similar experiences — before we move on. There are a lot of pauses here and many leaps of faith, as though every Cairo moment requires turning the page into some new unknown. Keep reading, and don’t miss a new poem by Zaher