“No Asylum”, by Nicholas Karavatos, published by Amendment Nine, Arcata, California.
No Asylum is Karavatos’ first full length collection, and he recently wrapped up a book tour in the U.S. on the west coast. He has now returned to Dubai, where he teaches literature and writing at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates.
I started the book after hearing him read from No Asylum in Sausalito at Studio 333, and at Priya in Berkeley where I felt truly honored to share the “stage”. Karavatos is a strong reader, respected as one of California’s own despite his time at Sharjah and Muscat, his events recommended by an appreciative local poetry community. I read most of it in one sitting, without interruption, despite the length- and I am glad that I read it that way. The poems stand on their own and many have been published previously (West Wind Review, Portland Review, Minotaur, Red Fez, Thieves Jargon, and more) but there is a sense of cohesion in the way that he has organized them and thematic relationships emerge in the experience of them read together.
Karavatos begins with the ticking of descending elements: social to intimate, then up through ascending years. Before you can jump in, you have to consider why Karavatos chose to begin this way- my sense is that he is establishing the pattern, establishing the parameters of the lens, changing scale. Scale is an important element because it is often easier to understand power and the dynamics of coerced consciousness in terms of individuals as compared to the individual in societal context. Think about the difference between a year and a lifetime, or two people in a relationship as compared to two nations at war, both fraught with their complexities but with scale we can focus more on interplay, absent the distractions of perceived scope. He will return to years again at the end- this, the first of many places in “No Asylum” where we see layers shifting along co-occuring grades, coupled yet distinct, as David Meltzer states: “…sharp voiced political poetry in tandem with astute and tender love lyrics.”
Meltzer’s characterization proves helpful for the reader who second guesses this recognition as there is subtlety to this achievement, seamless but later, unmistakable.
Your niche is a door to God
My qibla vulva (“The al-Masjid Code”)
In the first poem, “Rapunzel Akbar”, the speaker finds himself considering Kabul via media reporting. It is the land of social control, often described with that eye for contrast that seeks to divide people into “enemy others” compared to the free United States: “jail for lewdly selling ice cream to girls”. (11) This is the new mandate of the media, supporting distinctions. And of course, supporting the State. This is the post-911 world after all- we have a new kind of microscope…the reader knows what this means as everything became prone to demarcations then, ways of thinking about “the enemy” designated as old or new along with our responses. The irony of this in the context of our identification with liberty is not lost on Karavatos, but he doesn’t hit you over the head with this point. He is political, but he is not preachy. His tone is not shrill, he is processing what he sees and he is urging us to do the same- at each level, individual to societal. I think that Karavatos might argue that the processing currently done way over our heads would be ideally undertaken down here, perhaps acknowledging that we are not being served well.
What are we seeing? And how much of our perception is manipulated, sympathies confused, our sense of actions and motives distorted?
War has again merged with the cinema and stage, war gestures: “A second car bomb for the crowd”. (“I don’t feel vengeful. Just sleepy.” 12) Pennsylvania Avenue, the musical, arrives: we wait as audience without questions, holding our applause but with our praise on the ready. We won’t stop to ask any questions. In asking, we challenge their stage, their scripts, and doubts seem unacceptable. “Wrong” is in the eye of the beholder, after all. Mercy?
Mercy is absent:
We put our dogs down/with more humanity
Absent as well is an examination about what is being done and has been done in our names by society’s “champions”, the new world must be ushered in quickly. Partly to blame are our distractions: doping scandals, (“Saw A Face In The Grain” ,13), the INS cracking down on “lingual crime” (“Calemnity Specs”,17) and all the ways we can reinvent the notions of safety and control. Control? But that is not what we are about, is it? We are “the free”.
We don’t see a lot of resistance on the slippery slope, we are afraid and we are categorically quiet. Apathy, acceptance, and a lack of examination despite the potential costs:
This is a story you would not want to get wrong (“Saw a Face in the Grain”, 13)
Like the admirers of the Revolutionary Bendix Washer, we have seats. We behave as though we are observers, as though these actions are removed from us- agitation taking place behind some glass.
Karavatos regards the culture, the poets, the capable but often absent witnesses, lost icons, the departed… what have they left in their wake? Have we taken up the cause of Witness? Not only are we silent, but we abuse the future- who knows what we are passing on in our refusal to acknowledge the legacy and responsibility passed down from society’s more vocal predecessors.
Brain robbery, “reversed charges from tomorrow” (“Shhh”, 30) and are we culpable?
We were / pretty vacant / When / The postmodern presidency and the politics of indeterminacy / Came knocking on / us woodenheads (31)
Shifting gears, Karavatos turns to individuals relating to individuals- women, they figure more prominently in the second half, and the poems themselves take on a different tone. People become more intimately connected: in bath tubs, kitchens, universities, sometimes strangers. Sometimes walking, agreeing not to argue. The arguments aren’t always his, we see. And when they are? He wants to “swim and sleep” “without ideology”. There are differences, but do those differences define us? Have to limit us?
The pond is small, these ponds can be any community. Again, the lens: A pool, a nation, a world- all with their respective strife, to scale.
Scale. Scale is how we understand ourselves in ideology, less as faceless people behind ideas but as people with ideas, people connecting with other people.
Nicholas Karavatos can be followed online here, where you can also see a list of links to publications and information about No Asylum.