I was promised there would be pizza.
I was promised clean lodgings,
a view of the fenced desert
and its magisterial clouds,
seeded and cold.
According to the charter,
are only to be executed
against the frescoed
backdrop of their choosing.
Let’s be technical. The realist
biryani is from Iran. The realest
literature fluoresces with hand-to-mouth
honesty and weapons smuggled into the hills.
Look it up. It’s not irony that compels me
as much as it is the avoidance
of pain, the soft re-calibration
of pressure, one roaring portrait,
one silver telephone call at a time.
What we mean here is processing
power, from the most basic point
of view: one tree uprooted,
the way cartography requires the burning
of houses, geometric mechanisms of self-interest,
a spider web of currencies
threading together with unreplicable elegance
a network of training centers and rendition
sites. No one says at least pay
the global south a dying wage
but this is what they mean.
Meanwhile, avocado toast as parable,
or something. The point is I’m in the subprime
of my youth. Ask a punk
if you need the address.
I don’t so much have
a sense of humor
as a knack for camouflage
and a good field operations manual.
It’s in the mail, سعيد. Blink once if you agree.
When we say “of course we are for the state”
and they say “no one asked you
I’m solvent: blood-for-
oil in a gel medium.
Also, I’ve got cash to spare.
sounds to me like the windiest
place on earth & imagine it through
a series of reverse-image searches,
a satellite formalism, from where
the sun arrives. I don’t trust metaphor: I want a mouth
in its pettiness. Propaganda by the deed,
fistfuls of earth in my gullet.
I brought the zip ties, milk of magnesia,
electrolyte powder, a long draft of amnesiac wine.
I lied about my eye color on this application.
My face aches
I don’t ask
what the God is here,
that make it permissible
for someone to talk
about sword and book
without regard for currency
and its schematizing evils,
and their infinite casting call,
men without content
bent on fashioning a world
that fits in their hands,
no text but the text.
Collateral doesn’t approximate
At the time of this writing
inflation in Mosul crested
near 18,000%. Thirty US dollars
for sugar or tomato paste.
The west in its perpetual
and halo’d advancement
-cide, soft patrols, one finger
to the throat
“Everyone has grievances,”
he says, grinning, like any good
secretary of state. If you bring them,
they will drool. A colonial fantasy
printed across his hot pants.
سعيد I would have you speak for me
precisely because I know you would
demure, because I forget the holy freight
of just refusal. I have to believe you would laugh,
flag in hand, as if to say you are not
home here and neither are we.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ryan Kaveh Sheldon is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the State University of New York at Buffalo. His creative and critical work has appeared in Small Po[r]tions, Poor Claudia, wildness, DIAGRAM, and Jacket2. With Veronica Wong and Joe Hall, he co-edits Hostile Books, a micro-press/book arts collective.
ABOUT THE MANUSCRIPT
I wrote the poems in mechanical turk over several years. The manuscript stitches together work oriented by common concerns—the spectacularization of violence in West Asia, revolutionary affects, the Orientalist trope of envisioning Western society through the ventriloquized perspective of the alternatively decadent, savage, and despotic “Oriental”—but which wanted for methodological, even terminological anchors. The manuscript’s title—mechanical turk—is one such term. I was preoccupied initially by Wolfgang von Kempelen’s eighteenth-century machine, which accommodated a human operator inside of an “automaton” constructed in the likeness of a “Turk” and “played chess” against unwitting human opponents. The “Turk” materialized a longstanding literary trope, giving physical shape to the “Oriental” literary figure inhabited by European cosmopolitans who wished to comment on their own society through the perspective of the alternatively barbaric, hedonistic, or despotic resident of the “Orient.” Indeed, the “mechanical Turk” has enjoyed a remarkable half-life: from the object that toured Habsburg dominions to Walter Benjamin’s Turk, to fortune-telling machines that one encounters in rest stops and arcades, and Amazon’s “crowdsourcing Internet marketplace,” it persists in the Western imaginary as a repository for anxieties and fantasies about the non-place we (in the West) persist in calling the “Middle East.”
The second term that invigorates the project is “pessoptimism,” a Gramscian portmanteau that I encountered through the Palestinian writer Emile Habiby’s absurdist novel The Secret Life of Saeed, the Ill-Fated Pessoptimist. The later poems in the manuscript are written to/through its protagonist, who becomes something of an unwitting revolutionary: his position casts him as an agent of resistance and a “threat” even when he doesn’t want to be, indeed, even as he “surrenders.” What interests me about pessoptimism is its ability to register, with necessity, the progression of violence while also tracking the impediments to arresting or interrupting it. It lends shape, I think to the experience of recognizing the increasing urgency of revolutionary action and the declining possibility of its timely execution. I’m not sure this is, in the final analysis, a healthy interest, but it was one that I wanted to explore. What is the value, I think Saeed is asking, of irony tuned to the purposes of grieving? In any event, this is the question I received via his transmissions and wanted to take up. As an Iranian American who has always lived in the US, irony feels like a natural disposition: my access to my family’s homeland is forever mediated by the glut of American propagandistic distortions and contoured by a history of imperialist violence. Habiby—and Saeed—gave me the terms for earnestly confronting that history without surrendering the ability to laugh defensively. In other words, they provided me with a means of sustenance, a way of holding optimism in abeyance in a moment that, on the face of things, seems to recommend its abandonment. That’s what I’ve tried to bear forward here.