A Continent Away

In Ghaffar’s “Meanwhile, A Continent Away” I see a shift which could be termed a “shift in genre” between the second and third stanzas. I see this as a shift in address/description. The mode changes in a way that could suggest “the poem’s speaker has in the course of the poem changed his or her mind about what kind of poem is underway” (Harp, 147).The first stanza and part of the second address crow imagery. Ghaffar particularly plays with the concept the crows carry souls. In this case, crows carry names that seem equated with souls as they “enter into the bodies, / which suddenly heave, born again.” I had some confusion in the switch to the second stanza and placing exactly who the “they” were (bodies or crows?). Then, the reader is suddenly thrown in another direction with the address of “We.” The “We” seems cultural, mythic, expansive. The sense of mythic travel remains consistent between the stanzas, but the bodies in question change. The crows scattered seeds of names and the people scattered their blood over the land like seeds/names. The other parallel that shifts and mirrors simultaneously is the difference of crows flying above and dropping names to the ground and then humans measuring the bedrock and dropping blood to the ground. Both events are written on the land, but are still somewhat opposite. The observation of the crows, which is detached, shifts to the confident assertion of future action with the repetition of “We will.”

There is a second shift in the forth stanza because the language shifts from the complete lyric, floating mythic style into a sudden grounding: “We huddle together at dinner parties / in wonder at the cracked surface / of creme brulee” (69). I feel dropped into this particular landscape almost violently in its mundane quality. Just as suddenly I am back in the overarching cultural landscape: “We would like to burn / a gorge through our sleep until everything / that is monstrous is hollowed out” (69). I find that this movement fits well within the section of “Production” and in the title of “Meanwhile, A Continent Away.” In those clues I can accept the kind of production that is a magic trick or a sudden leap in place even though they are still jarring and meant to be. I also want to say that there is a final shift with the introduction of the “saki” in the fourth stanza. I cannot be certain what “the saki” is because while I think it refers to the arabic coffee in containers like saki, I might be missing something culturally. I tried some research to see if I could feel confident about “the saki” at the end of the poem, but I was not satisfied with the results. I do know that depending on its significance it seems another shift in address while weaving in the thread of collective assertions. The start of this poem seems mythic in the way the Joy Harjo plays with incorporating tribal/ancestral myths into her poetry. The poem incorporates cultural burdens that rise out of this mythic space and into the present. There is a disconnection because I do not feel the mythic translates as well into the modern insertions of “dinner parties.” By the end of the poem, I find the idea that the passage of time is built into the passage of names to people, objects, lands. The mythic come through as ancestry that changed across lands physically, but also arises underneath a culture in “a silent empire of meaning.” The “world away” is temporal and physically separate. I guess I am seeing the shifts in genre reconcile and reflect each other at the end of the poem. I was really intrigued by this, but I do think my interpretation is limited by cultural divide. Elements of this book alienate me because I am not/do not feel part of the “We.” I am reluctant to make definitive statements about the ending of the poem because of this.

4 Responses to “A Continent Away”

  1. Melissa Goodrich Says:

    I would even think that employing the kind of litany/list structure in the third and fourth stanzas signifies a change in genre. While it is not a perfect litany, there is a heavy emphasis of the “We” in these moments with phrases that begin sentences: “We will not hear it…” “We will not hear…” “We huddle…” “We would like to burn…” “We hole ourselves away…” “We will build another silent empire…” “Will will not wail…”

    I’m not sure if this signifies that the speaker has changed his mind about the kind of poem, but the MODE of the poem…or the emphasis. The crow was perhaps a metaphor for the “We,” but mid-way through the speaker decided the metaphor wasn’t as strong? Or the “We” creates a direct juxtaposition against the crows who make up a continent.

    I sympathize with not being able to interpret this writer/writing well…it seems like the moments I understand best are when the speaker acknowledges how difficult these poems are to “understand” (ie: p. 95 “Crack this riddle and I’ll give you a medal,” or in the case of this poem, “The saki speaks of the yawning gulf/between nothing and nothing”). I especially agree with your hesitation to interpret because of a cultural divide. I too feel outside of the “we” speaking in these poems, and wonder if its not more interesting that he employs a we that *is* exclusive, reminding us of the almost palpable boarders that exists between cultures and types of people, and how a quick Google search cannot make up for two people living completely different lives.

  2. stephroush Says:

    I definitely agree about the shift in genre with the “We” repetition. I noticed the repetition when looking at the poem, but it was not until after our exercise in class that I thought to include that. I also think your final comment is a big part of my interest in Ghaffar’s work. I feel frustrated that I cannot “decode” and hesitant because of cultural differences, but I read more and want to know more what is beyond the border. The harsh reminder of “how a quick Google search cannot make up for two people living completely different lives” is important because the more I am aware of the borders as a reader/person the more I am consciously attempting to break through and understand. At the same time, it highlights what little avenues, if any, I am able to take toward understanding/connecting.

  3. Melissa Goodrich Says:

    I agree – perhaps the point of this book is not to understand what the poem itself is saying (entirely), but to recognize our own foreignness in approaching it (ie: show, don’t tell). Such an experience reminds us that the American perspective is not the only perspective and, dare I say, this is an important lesson for us to learn – our vast ignorance about the rest of the world.

  4. This conversation reminds me of what we discussed the other day in class. How in some poems, you can exhaust all your efforts in trying to understand it, and what do you have in the end to show for all your hard efforts? Steph, I definitely feel that a lot of the times Ghaffar is creating this border between himself and the reader, just because there is this inaccessibility with the different cultures he is involved with. I do feel myself trying to break through the boundaries, even if I try and fail. It is frustrating at times, but I agree a lot with what Melissa said. We, as Americans have this egocentric perspective that there is one perspective on reading things, and that could perhaps be a commentary Ghaffar is trying to make. I think he’s trying to set boundaries on some things he doesn’t intend for us to break through such as understanding his cultural background. We cannot relate to that physically because we are not in his position, but he is giving us a window to glimpse into that world. And at the same time the boundary he wants us to transverse is that of familiarizing ourself with different perspectives other than our own.

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