Review by Fazeela Jiwa
Maged Zaher’s Thank You for the Window Office, feels like a cozy cringe. A cringe because the poem etches an encompassing sense of disillusionment against the routine of middle class life. The cringe is cozy, though, because – hell, that’s a familiar feeling. Zaher astutely captures the tensions and contradictions of living in the era of late capitalism.
The narrator reveals several identities: a successful IT engineer, a poet of the subculture, an amorous single man, an Egyptian immigrant alienated from both old and new homes. He is all of these at once, but never in the same line, enlisting a sense of separation and disconnect that many of Zaher’s readers will recognize in themselves. While inhabiting multiple worlds allows the narrator to acknowledge the inequity of North American lifestyle, Zaher reminds us with countless examples of the unrelenting, everyday structures that reinforce it:
There are standard gestures in the world
Like my buying you a drink
Despite the obvious fact
That infinite people are infinitely poor.
Rather than waxing somber about this feeling of disconnection, Zaher meets it with unwavering, sardonic nihilism. He does not exempt his narrator, or anyone else, from complicity. Despite stating, “I saw the great minds of my generation working/ For Microsoft and Boeing to be laid off later/ Like dogs,” he elsewhere confesses, in reference to O’Hara, that he partakes in the firing decisions while nonchalantly composing poems over Chinese take-out. The scornful wit with which Zaher expresses his narrator’s desperate apathy peppers this text, where no mention of salvation, change, or revolution is spared from the insidiousness will of companies: “It is time to save civilization/ One iPhone user at a time.”
Living with contradictions is inevitable in a system that exploits the majority to reward the minority; the unforgiving processes of capitalism are what birth a threefold paradox such 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.” 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, yet the narrator’s nihilism allows him some unexpected ease in parsing the disparate elements of his life.
For example, though he halfheartedly reaches for alternatives (“I am looking for ways to work remotely/ And be radical about it”), he does not waste a hope on the ability of “subculture” to break from the larger system that envelopes it. His casual pairing of “One more interview with a successful CEO/ One more poem about police brutality” is followed by “Thank you for the opportunity to join the subculture.” This line clearly echoes the title; both are steeped in sarcasm, perhaps casting both the window office and the subculture as commodities, identities into which he might seek acceptance.
Sex and love occupy many lines in Zaher’s poem, and might be another example of the narrator’s nihilism enabling him to simplify complexities into commodities. For despite many pages explicating the narrator’s desire, women are often portrayed as objects of lust and sexual intimacy is reduced to repeated instances of “jerking off.” This relationship to sexuality fits the picture of capitalism Zaher paints when he says “there is love – and it collapses/ Under the mercy of production.” Bereft of intimacy and inundated with its consumerist version, he asks flippantly “so what if we objectify each other?” – all the while, describing immense loneliness.
Zaher’s writing echoes the short attentions and overstimulation of the internet age. He offers an array of striking images and short, impeccable words of the kind that might populate the narrator’s manifestation of “Homer’s Twitter feed.” Despite the sense of truncated verse and the narrator’s flippancy, Zaher states, “there is a heavy political component to all this twitching.” The political content matches his chopped-up literary form: attempting to follow each theme through the text leaves the reader with a despairing sense of the “gap” that is variously mentioned throughout the text. Each idea seems more complete in the reader’s mind than in the poem, while Zaher insists “the text is more profound before it is written,” and “imagination always kicks reality’s ass.” This poem describes an unsettling incongruity between our dreams and our lived reality, and a sense of lack where we are ill fitted within the spaces we inhabit.
I keep searching for redemption in this smirk of a poem, but I only find a fetal hope that turns into cynicism the moment it is maligned. If not in the material experiences of revolution, community, or intimacy, then surely I might find the poet’s remaining hope in the creativity of language, or in the emotions of poetry? Zaher does offer fleeting relief from the nihilism of his narrator with descriptions of language and poetry. Yet even this intangible realm of potential fulfillment dies, as any hope the narrator once had in the poem diminishes over the course of the poem’s self-analysis: in the beginning, “This poem is struggling hard,” but soon, “This poem can be assumed to be hetero-normative,” and eventually, “This poem is not working.”
My search for hope is useless, even dangerous – as Zaher says, “it was hope that really screwed us.” Perhaps hope is unrealistic in times of great contradiction, or at least unwelcome. Yet, Zaher’s beautiful images and acerbic humour point to an ever-surviving human capacity for mirth, even if hopeless.
Fazeela Jiwa is an educator, writer, and researcher. 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.