In Their Own Words

Paul Legault On “The Gift of Muntadhar al-Zaidi”

Paul Legault headshot

The Gift of Muntadhar al-Zaidi

Qusta ibn Luqa wrote about pollution
first in Baghdad in the ninth century.
We always wanted air to breathe.
This is a farewell kiss from the Iraqi people,
you dog you say
                         as you throw the first shoe.
It’s natural. The second seconds the act.
Both feet have to want to run. Some burning
bush spread a fire. Some painter spilt blood
blooming rose in an oil slick, flammably red
as Satan in a Texan church. The basket
went out. Existence’s a conflict of interest.
Oil money’s money. Luckily people ain’t.
If money’s paper (hint: it’s not) we’re trees.
We gave the years numbers
to track a flood. Years needed
a mother. Time burns like a shower
getting hot as your boyfriends flush.
Give the embroidered stars some space.
Stitches need air to heal.
                                       Cut to that feeling—
Sappho sung it first—of us as the separation
of words from the body, this love letter left
on the air, that fragment left on the volcano
like a hand wandered away from its wrist,
its mind, ash-frozen in Pompeii in part.
In the event of a fire, take off your shirt
and throw it in. Eventually this message
will find the right you in y’all. Remember how
Saddam Hussein’s son shot those dancers?
Which of the millions dead never danced?
This way is this one way. I wanted all of them
like Dr. Manhattan in an egg. Cheer up.
On the way to a funeral in Jersey,
“Alegría” plays on the car radio.
I love someone else’s happiness.
Spring changed me into a bride.
That heart-stuttered look that love thought up
to make my eyes want to continue to look
at what is a destination called the surface
of your busy and perpetually moving body
stops me and other things from happening.
Let’s circle the Earth like a lost Roomba
cleaning the world until battery death.
Al-Khayzuran bint Atta told stories to live.
Scheherezade was a version of her self
risen from traffic into queendom
by intelligence, a superpower revealed
by a letter hidden in an old book.
Curious as George appears in a trance
FaceTiming Spiritus Mundi: Gyres
turn. That’s nature, all this living and dying
in sync with two forces. Wings beat
down and up goes the slow flamingo
into a hurried blur, pink with food.
I’m rideless.

                          We had all these years.

Georgie Hyde-Lees described a whole
system of energy of time overladen
with itself, said the voice said through herself
for her bf to write down and know a spirit: us.
Love’s no snitch, unless there’s a love story
to tell to know to not stop to listen to time.
The wind never tells you what you want,
but what you need? That’s a different take
made in lessons from your closest medium,
at the foot of the bed, levitating like a cloth
with a hand under it. I wanted to say
we are in the seat of fortune,
                                              but we are
in fortune’s backseat. It is an honor to be us
humans burning down the Capitol if need be.
Being keeps being hard to do for most,
but I’m not here to tell you what you know.
Basically, there is a way to bless chaos.
Look at how bright a candle gets, windlessly.

Everything’s to go, nothing’s to stay.

You can’t look too long, even if it’s pretty small
and pretty like a thought that starts a fire.
Prophecies make the future happen.
Throw the shoe. Throw the other shoe.
What you can’t do in words, just do.
Say something we didn’t understand before.
I could use a new language to face
these ends. You are full of good ones.
It takes money to educate ignorants,
and they have it. Sell all of the stuff
for all of the Earth,
                               all of the time.
Have you been here? Clean water runs
out like milk for a bowl to feed a kitten.
What if the voice of the dead speaking
through my love’s voice casually prophesies
the end? People keep it popping. You say:
Where did you put the remote?
                                                 You say:
The beginning started with the end
in sight—close enough to see it’s pretty
like the pink line between the clouds/mountains
from the lookout. Dorian never painted.
                                                               Big Bird
died. Don’t pluck me. I’m tired of them
killing people when they come too close.
My brother fixes eyes in Baghdad
in a place claimed by another place.
Did they take us apart scientifically?
It seems they just took us apart. The point
is getting back together. My favourite
democratic confederal state capital’s Rojava.

My favourite new country’s Bougainville.
Why isn’t there an even older Kurdish one—
nascent purple flower fruited into thought?
It’s dangerous to own a tape in a library
outside of Istanbul or anywhere: culture
when it sounds like a threat or a song.
Harry Styles sings music into a room
to be heard in the international ballroom
that’s thought. We get ice cream
after the Climate Strike. Show me
around your boat that doesn’t use gas
to get from one place to all the others.
The wind is always telling me to hop on.
Every time you get bucked, get backup.
You have a reason to be afraid of thunder.
Bulbs flash. Flowers too. Light likes us.
Looking is an art that saying cannot do.
M. wanted to be in a poem. He told me
violets are blue, so I believed him.
Violent cats drunk on moon under
something like a spell written into light,
does it matter that our souls got closer
to getting out? Every day I’m falconing.
I remember when there wasn’t
                                                a moon.
You walked around in the room
telling stories from the great beyond.
I couldn’t tell if it was witchcraft,
or, if so, whose problem was that,
since peace is what comes next
either way? You told me a future
full of students who climb trees
to learn where the world goes:
up when your words mean more
than money can say, up when
you look up and forget what’s up
has been pointing its new finger
at the new cause without answer.
All this humanly beauty’s a storm
we tossed our sailboats around in—
a revolution starting revolutions.
Flags break where the wind pulls them
out of their knots. Rope-play
is one way to say:
                           Fold the night
when I’m drunk on my youth again.
Be on my side of the chiliagon.
Spheres contain a single infinity
each. Walking up to mountains
I wanted to introduce myself: I am
a borderless thing like you under
all that surface. I can see your lava
climbing the walls from their insides.
Harun al-Rashid built a library for wisdom
to live in, because wisdom’s alive or dies.
You might know him from a thousand nights.
Zubaidah’s grandpa started Baghdad. Love
started us. Is it frightening to sing a duet
with yourself in the future past?
Mouldering away on top of a boulder,
I kicked the stand out and started to run.
Luckily there was a hill to roll me down.
I have a name as I write.
Did you get my text? It said
This has never been written before.
Days have sex with other days, of course.
The inarticulate lives in its hold on me (also)
until the beauty of something beautiful makes
the day again. I lose a lot. It’s kind of my thing,
says space to the force on the moon.
Not believing you’re still alive, living feels more
ungiven. Thrown things drop. Thrones get sat on.
Overthrowing is better than underliving.
Make other people progress. I’ll be
anxious as long as I’m young, so I guess
that makes me young forever. A boy,
perched on some window met me once
on the internet in our national history
pre-spring, stayed through time, moved
with me, moved back moving as a movie
about love which is all of them and us too.
I’m no philosopher, so I can give bad advice.
Forgive me to yourself if not to me.
Love strikes and uproots the world. You
have the light, then you don’t have the light.
Maybe we’re newer than we think we are.
We survived ourselves, so own what’s next.
What can you see from the top of a tower
at midnight on a full moon? It’s over
over there too just you can see
how over it is farther. Sirens
should sound for ambulances.
I can hear the men coming with their guns.

The Tower (Coach House Books, 2020). All rights reserved. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

On “The Gift of Muntadhar al-Zaidi”

When I turned in The Tower, a “translation” of sorts of W. B. Yeats’s The Tower (from Yeatsian to Legaultian English) my editor pointed out that I had forgotten a poem. In his Collected, W. B. deleted “The Gift of Harun al-Rashid” from The Tower and included it in a separate “Narrative and Dramatic” section. I had one more poem to write.

Yeats’s version of “The Gift…” is written as a One Thousand and One Nights inspired folk tale in which Harun al-Rashid, the great 8th century Caliph, “gifts” Qusta ibn Luqa, the great Arabic translator, with a wife who can describe the secrets of the universe but only when she’s asleep. It parallels the real life story of how Yeats’s wife, George Hyde-Lees, would channel spirits, generating automatic writing while in a trance. Like so many brilliant women in the early 20th century, her genius worked behind the scenes.

Hyde-Lee’s automatic texts would later be laid out in detail in W. B. Yeats’s A Vision, a whole astrological system of gyres of time predicting historical events and influencing the poet’s greatest works — “The Second Coming”, for example, that prophetic, apocalyptic monolith of a poem from which Joan Didion took the title for Slouching Toward Bethlehem and after which Chinua Achebe named Things Fall Apart:

     Turning and turning in the widening gyre
     The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
     Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
     Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world

Mrs. Yeats’s visions started during their honeymoon which, according to literary gossip, wasn’t going so hot until she started channeling “Spiritus Mundi”. My guess is Georgie wasn’t sleeptalking so much as talking. She knew how to captivate the Nobel Laureate’s visionary mind, i.e. with her own.

I wrote most of the poems in The Tower while I was living in St. Louis, from 2013-2015. My reference points were Yeats’s, but they were also my own. The closest tower I could walk to was the Compton Hill Water Tower which became a canvas for protest graffiti that would disappear and reappear almost daily. Slogans like “FTP” and demands for justice would be erased by city workers overnight. It was a time of civil unrest incited by the local police’s murder of Michael Brown. As such, the poems in the book act as time capsules of the experience of living there/then, surrounded by change (or the need for it, which is itself a type of change: when the system gets revealed). Change requires vision — of the gyres of power turning behind the scenes.

I started writing this new time capsule, “The Gift of Muntadhar al-Zaidi” in 2019, a year marked by deep unrest in Iraq, the setting of Yeats’s original drama. The poem is a tribute to the great Iraqi journalist, Muntadhar al-Zaidi, whose gift was the two shoes he famously threw at George W. Bush during a press conference in Baghdad in December 2008 to protest the countless casualties of the Iraq War. Al-Zaidi’s act resulted in his arrest but also inspired a cascade of like-minded acts of resistance. This shoeing of an American President and war criminal is both a protest and a prophetic gesture.

My poem has the same number of lines as Yeats’s, which means it’s a long poem. This gave me the space to trace many inspirations — from Greta Thunberg’s global movement to quiet moments with my friends. Like any of my “translations”, it’s a jumping off point to investigate my personal version of history. I wrote this on the cusp of 2020 — which already dates everything: pre- and post-pandemic, before the murders of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, and millions of Black people before them brought throngs of people from across the world into the streets to protest. History draws a line. You walk across it. If you’re a prophet, you swerve.

A poem is often a prophecy: a message from your (hopefully wiser) future self to your (more emotional) current self. Unfortunately, it can usually only be fully interpreted in said future. The future requires more than words — even from journalists. It requires movements. Al-Zaidi knew to be critical of the future of the United States because of its poisonous history. His protest got people to notice that there was something wrong. Something was already wrong. The U.S.’s relatively new tradition of murdering people in the Middle East is linked to the history of slavery and the country’s older tradition of taking Black and brown lives. If the power to change history is limited to language, one can’t overthrow oppression. But many might.

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