Gary Barwin Reviews Shazia Hafiz Ramji's Port of Being
Einstein used the phrase, “spooky action at a distance” to describe “entanglement,” one of the very strange concepts in quantum physics. Particles even light-years apart seem to be mysteriously connected. Observing one will cause the properties of the other to instantly change. The poems in Shazi Hafiz Ramji’s brilliant debut collection, Port of Being, explore the many ways in which the self is “entangled,” in the world and the world is entangled in the self by observation, and whereby both are changed.
In the information age, the individual is observed—surveilled—constantly. Sometimes this observation is threatening and controlling (e.g. the male gaze or state and commercial surveillance). Indeed the book originated when Ramji’s laptop and phone were stolen and the thief contacted and followed her for months based on information gleaned from the stolen items. From this experience, Ramji began exploring the relationship between the personal and the public particularly with regards to the observer and the observed, the inward and the outward gaze.
The poems in the “Container” section “contain” phrases overheard in public or quoted from public sources (“Watch your step.” “Don’t let him get away”), and contextualize them in a network of phrases taken from contemporary culture and various registers of language:
to beat East Van rents
make us swoon like Ivanka at Trudeau the roses infrared
for the future-proofed deep dream
We are connected to the world by the sea of information—imagery and language—which surrounds us—beams at us—but we have to learn to navigate it. It creates what we think is the world, and also how we conceptualize ourself (“it filters through us, because we’re made of it,/the language, I mean” — “Astronaut Family.”) We can become icons of ourself:
Monroe was assembling
an RP-5A drone in LA
when a photographer
saw her and made her
(“Watch your step.”)
Monroe becomes the sign “Marilyn” to herself and to us. Place (and our place in the world) is process, is a histogram, a map of continously arriving data, from which we infer who we are and what the world is.
In the “Flags of Convenience” section named for the foreign flags under which ships are registered to avoid financial charges, Ramji explores the duplicity of language and quotes from Claudia Rankine, “The fiction of the facts assumes innocence.” Facts (AKA information), as evidenced in these poems about global shipping represent (or overwrite) belief structures. “Columbus’s first landing/Guanahani. baja mar. San Salvador.” The “innocent” naming of something (like a ship’s place of origin) frames its reality for the viewer. It changes the viewer’s view of the world.
In “Hollerith” (named after the inventor of the data punch card) in the “Surveiller” section, we see how information can empty out lived identities and turn them into mere data—erasures, lacks, holes in the data card:
Hole 3: Homosexual
Hole 8: Jew
Hole 9: Anti-social
Hole 4: Execution
So what are we to do, allow ourselves to be stalked, surveilled and changed by the flow of false flag information bombarding us like cosmic radiation, and, spookily, changing us? The arc of the book seems to argue that we must realize our own agency: the self, the spooky actor, also observes the world. A port (a port of being) is a window, an opening from which we can look out as well as look in. We become a poet of being, for these poems are surveillance: of the person, the poet consciousness, our place of being in the world. The poet has to constantly echolocute: experience the world and their mind and then speak and wait for bounce-back. They receive signals and bounce them back—make poems—to understand and locate themself. We create the shape of the world by articulating it.
Indeed, the last two sections in Port of Being are increasingly focussed on the self. From the self mediated by others’ view (consider the jaw-dropping phrase, “Smile’s reverse panopticon” —“Gerrid”) to the self considering itself. While the penultimate section, “Spooky Actors at a Distance,” is all “we,” the last eponymously named section of Port of Being explores for the first time, first person singular:
I want to remember
I’ve done this
for myself in the morning,
because I’ve been surprised
by my own innocence:
I cried silent and easy
when my amends were
(“Poem of Failed Amends”)
As Ramji has stated in an interview, “the book has a clear arc (at least to me) that moves into the lyrical”: “Let me be afraid/ of myself for a little while.” (“Cub.”)
The poet navigates in first person, sometimes claiming the duplicitous but alluring falsehood offered by society as a way of claiming agency: “I imagine you jerking off to parts/from The Society of the Spectacle”; or trying to take control of all of the data: “watch me make the mistake of thinking//I can out-think everything” (“Poem Beginning with a Falsehood,”); but ultimately taking agency through their own subjective experience: “It makes me/small, sad,/and comforted” (“Parents poem”) and “this is the construction of an act of love.” (“Astronaut Family”)
In the notes, Ramji writes of her experience with clinical depression and how these poems originated from—and, I’d argue, are ultimately—a therapeutic act of self-awareness and agency. What is the experience of depression if not a navigation between information coming from inside and outside, the self’s spooky entanglement?
In charting the navigation from being passively observed to becoming an empowered observer, with captivating rhythms and energized juxtapositions, through a process of triangulating our culture and self, formal invention, captivating images, and an intriguing and wide range of subjects and reference, Ramji has created an insightful, thoughtful, engaging and inspiring guide to being in the digital age.
The author of twenty-two books of poetry, fiction and books for children, Gary Barwin is a writer, musician and multimedia artist from Hamilton, Ontario and the author of the nationally bestselling novel, Yiddish for Pirates (Random House) and No TV for Woodpeckers (poetry; Wolsak & Wynn, 2018). Publications next year include, A Cemetery for Holes, a poetry collaboration with Tom Prime (Gordon Hill Press, 2019) and For It is a Pleasure and a Surprise to Breathe: New and Selected Poems, ed. Alessandro Porco (Wolsak and Wynn, 2019.) Barwin will be the Edna Staebler writer-in-residence at Wilfrid Laurier University in Winter 2019.