Thank You for the Window Office, Maged Zaher. Ugly Duckling Presse, 2012.
Review by Fazeela Jiwa
In Thank You for the Window Office, Maged Zaher’s writing echoes the short attentions and overstimulation of the Internet age. He offers an array of striking images and short phrases of the kind that might populate “Homer’s Twitter feed,” a gloomy world of “Tires everywhere/ Piles of used Xboxes” and the knowledge that “One of us will get to be the boss/ And feel the joys of the class system/ One will die of fear” (53). Pointed lines like these prove his narrator’s claim that “there is a heavy political component to all this twitching” (63); as an aesthetic strategy, Zaher’s truncated sense of verse astutely captures the tense contradictions of living in the era of late capitalism.
In Zaher’s poems, everything is a commodity: love “collapses/ Under the mercy of production” (51) and political action is reduced to “people with good hair/ Lenin, Subcommandante Marcos, Chavez” (51) while “justice [remains] a simple data point” (45). The people of this bleak world live lives contoured by systems of consumption and structures of power. Zaher’s narrator characterizes most people as stupid (“These are the masses/ They buy the stuff the leaders create”) or fake (“You are on display 100% of the time/ Change your shape according to the law”), either oblivious to or benefitting from the exploitation around them (15; 30).
Zaher begins from the belief that “we are mere productions of power,” and does not exempt his narrator, or anyone else, from complicity in maintaining the problems he describes (4). Despite stating, “I saw the great minds of my generation working/ For Microsoft and Boeing to be laid off later/ Like dogs,” (15) he elsewhere confesses that he partakes in firing decisions while nonchalantly composing poems over Chinese take-out (55). Every page of Thank you for the Window Office features contradictions that illustrate myriad power hierarchies that incorporate everyone and everything.
Living with contradictions is inevitable in a system that exploits the majority to reward the minority. These poems steep in the unforgiving processes of capitalism that birth such paradoxes as “The city looked okay from the window/ But if you clicked on the zoom button/ You would find a homeless man/ Who is totally forgotten/ …and asks someone about aesthetics” (54). The common state of living with these kinds of contradictions is easier to acknowledge than individual complicity with the structures that create the condition; Thank You for the Window Office rests squarely in this space of discomfort.
Even the poetry itself becomes problematic within these ensnaring structures. If the narrator had any faith in his poetry’s ability to describe complicity in exploitative systems without participating in them, that hope diminishes over the course of the poem’s self-analysis: in the beginning, “This poem is struggling hard” (12), but soon, “This poem can be assumed to be hetero-normative” (26), and eventually, “This poem is not working” (72). Attempting to follow prevailing themes throughout the book leaves the reader with a despairing sense of the “gap” that is variously mentioned throughout the text (24). This “gap” is an unsettling incongruity between ideals and reality. Each idea presented in Zaher’s text seems attractively complete, until he deconstructs it with sarcasm. He insists “the text is more profound before it is written” (17), and “imagination always kicks reality’s ass” (13). In these ways, Zaher emphasizes “gaps” in both his form and content, contradicting a straightforward reading by instead evoking a sense of profound discord.
But rather than waxing somber about this insidious feeling of disconnection, Zaher meets it with the acerbic, detached wit of “One more poet stepping into nihilism” (23). This nihilism may be seen as a self-protecting response to the commodification of everything; lines like “desire is expensive/ And my generic loneliness is overdue” are self-deprecating but also relate desire and isolation to money (35). In other ways, Zaher’s narrator can be hipster-chic in his apathy, which creates the distance required to assess his own entanglements, contradictions, and complicity.
Yet, Zaher’s use of irony begs a consideration of how artists and writers can discuss matters of complicity in exploitative systems without perpetuating problematic ideologies. For example, in a book where almost every page involves sexuality as a fundamental aspect of loneliness, Zaher’s narrator often portrays women as objects of lust. In this context, lines like “so what if we objectify each other?” drip with a cold indifference that may be read as sardonic, but may also reinforce the basic problem (4). Either way, the ambivalence provoked by such instances works to reveal more locations of contradiction, more questions about complicity.
In Zaher’s stark rendering of life under late capitalism, “It was hope that really screwed us” (23). Perhaps the author’s nihilist advice to a disconnected contemporary audience is to abandon airy ideals that are liable to be co-opted by companies. Instead, Thank You For the Window Office compels its readers to acknowledge complicity in our own rapid ruination, painting this as the only real act of agency left to a human “imagination [that] fails one sentence at a time” (32).
Fazeela Jiwa is an educator and writer. Her thoughts usually spin around the intersection of race and gender in the context of official and alternative art, politics, activism, and histories. She writes for independent and mainstream media, academic journals, creative anthologies, websites, spoken performances, zines, pamphlets, and walls.