But Here Are Small Clear Refractions.
WHERE DOES Orange Alert begin? Can its boundaries be mapped? How does one define Homeland? Poet Ed Pavlic explores these and other questions of the global/ surveillance age in But Here Are Small Clear Refractions, his collection color photographs and prose poems. As an account of the poet's journey to Siu, a remote village on Pate Island, located off the Kenyan coast, Refractions marks the flow of language, history, and culture along the East African coastline. Navigating the Lamu archipelago and the waters along the Somali border, Pavlic writes, "In a dream you wake when the channel ends ... It's sleep if your back's wet from the sea that seeps through ancient wood ... It's a dream if the boat's not made of wood ... You're asleep if the sky swims over head."
Traveling by dhow, the traditional sailing vessel of the Indian Ocean (think Sinbad the Sailor), the poet travels to meet with Mohammed Kubwa, brother-in-law of Fazul Mohammed, a man sought by US authorities for questioning about bombings in Mombasa, at the US Embassy (1998) and the Palace Hotel (2002). Refractions delivers an incisive poe6c meditation on geography, power, and difference during recent phases in the War on Terror. Pavlic's volume disturbs, disorients, and divests preconceptions, serving at a confluence of contemporary politics and poetics. To make these frequencies palpable, the poet's work locates Kubwa's voice as it "floats before your eyes, the tone's gone to the bottom of a shaft, a well." Refractions thereby unfolds deliberately in its considerations of light, sound, language, space, and law.
PAVLIC's poetry examines empire's long march along the East African coast: Chinese, Arab, Omani, Portuguese, British and American influences enter the cultural crosscurrents that propel the volume's account of the poet's voyage. Moving toward its crescendo, Pavlic writes, "a few years ago, [Kubwa] says agents of the Kenyan government came to Siu ... After eating lunch the agents told trim they must arrest his father. After accompanying his father to Mombasa, they arrested him as well. This is his story." Observing recent United States engagement in East Africa and the Indian Ocean, Refractions makes it clear that Mohammed Kubwa's story is only one among many caught in the tide of US sponsored military and diplomatic initiatives in the region, dating back to the administrations of George H.W. ("Daddy") Bush and William Jefferson Clinton. For the poet "the stories merge; they smell like papaya rind rubbed over rope burn on a palm."
While Refractions' geo-political commentary represents something of a departure from Pavlic's three previous volumes of poetry, it continues the poet's innovative work with African American experience. Extending and expanding the scope of Pavlic's larger project, it navigates the intersections of history and memory. In this respect it complements his earlier work in Paraph of the Bone (2001), winner of the American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Award, Labors Lost Left Unfinished (2006) and Winners Have Yet to Be Announced (2008), a poetic biography of R&B composer, vocalist and recording artist Donny Hathaway. Pavlic experiments freely throughout the volume, entering a variety of spaces--occupied and abandoned, obscure and precise--as his poetry draws upon a range of disparate, seemingly unlikely, sources. For instance, the poet includes an endnote that points out the title of the volume is derived from a line in Adrienne Rich's "Trace Elements." Similarly, in an interview with critic A.C. Huff that is included in the volume, Pavlic states, "the single most powerful 'external influence' on these poems was and is Keith Jarrett's The Carnegie Hall Concerts from 2005--especially movement number two." Accounting for the multiple musical impulses that inform his poetic project, Pavlic is quick to credit Yusef Komunyakaa, explaining to Huff "meeting Yusef in 1995 was important to me then. Knowing him has been important to me ever since" (58).
WITH But Here Are Small Clear Refractions the poet collects contradictory impulses of the region and the global moment: Pavlic's verse penetrates to connect and familiarizes estrangement. His prose poems circumvent the logic of disjuncture and division invested in concepts like nation and language, terms like core and periphery or tangibles of warfare and terror. Pavlic's poetic travelogue stands as a chronicle of his work with the Chinua Achebe Center for African Writers and Artists. In this respect, Refractions calculates distance, seeks prospects for repair and, given its subject matter--Africa, the West, Anger, Islam, Imperialism, Justice--speaks to questions that have answers that are not, as yet, forthcoming.
Pavlic notes that his conversation with Mohammad Kubwa occurred on December 26, 2006. During the first week of January, 2007 the United States began bombing coastal border regions between Kenya and Somalia. He cites a report from Forbes Magazine that states,
The attacks happened about 5pm local time Monday after the terror suspects were spotted hiding on a remote island on the southern tip of Somalia, close to the Kenyan border, Somali officials said.... The main target was Fazul Abdullah Mohammed ... (53)
REFRACTIONS punctuates the gravity of these conditions and interrogates their consequences. Toward the end of the volume, the poet writes, "... at Siu in its battle against itself--terror --while under the mistaken impression it's at war with an enemy. From this concocted notion of 'here' emerge mad visions of (impossible) 'objectives to achieve.' Something smells like cassia-sweat and curry colored dirt, it sits in your ear" (p. 48). Here Pavlic's poetry moves in, on capture mode, against the security state. Rendered in both profile and head shot (mug shot?) here, the poet offers reflections on self-evident truths sketched in seamless relief. He boldly signs his work, declaring, "I'm no ethnographer. I'm not a sociologist. I'm an American poet, this is what struck me. The poems angle in on things that appeared to me and these are the questions I'm left with at this moment" (p. 69).