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Asher Ghaffar
Wasps in a Golden Dream Hum a Strange Music
reviewed by
Kristina Marie Darling
ECW Press, Toronto 2008. Paperback, 121 pages. ISBN: 978–1-55022–854-0


In his first book of poems, Wasps in a Golden Dream Hum a Strange Music, Asher Ghaffar explores the ways in which the popular texts of consumer culture shape one’s identity. Adeptly choosing form to illuminate content, the works in this collection are written in a fragmented, elliptical style, which mirrors the constant bombardment of the modern individual with received images and ideas. At once lyrical and socially conscious, Ghaffar’s poems use this verisimilitude to critique the multiple, often contradictory possible identities offered by commercial ephemera, in the end asking whether one can construct a coherent sense of self from the cultural debris that surrounds us.


As Ghaffar considers these larger social questions, his use of five thematic sections to structure the book is especially impressive. Beginning with “Introduction,” which establishes commercialism and identity as central themes to the text, the poems work toward a sense of resolution, in which their speakers accept the impossibility of their attempts to glean a concept of selfhood from “Kmart” and “Hallmark cards.” Turning in the end to alternative sources of cultural wisdom, such as high art and the traditions of previous generations, Ghaffar’s poems ultimately call for a more balanced perspective, in which individuals negotiate consumerism with other ways of viewing one’s place in the world. This trend remains especially apparent in a piece entitled “Predictably, the House Was Not There,” which appears in the fifth section of the work. He writes, for example,


There was a time mourning and singing were communal acts.
We will attempt to untangle two disparate, acidic burn away of faces and feet.
The tongue learns to genuflect muffled speech.
We began the narrative when we were transmigrating
into language. Father was born, or ill-conceived,
between three wolves. Our feet could not clench a clod
and claim a miracle. (84)


Throughout this passage, Ghaffar depicts consumer culture as having been created by well-intentioned individuals, who have since lost control of it, a sentiment that remains particularly apparent in his description of its “speech” and “language” as controlling the speaker. Also portraying its solipsistic “narrative” as having deteriorated the “communal acts” that previously constituted social relations, the poem, in many ways, harkens back to the shared “mourning and singing” of previous generations. By prompting the reader to negotiate these widely divergent visions of selfhood, Ghaffar calls for a relationship to consumer culture that would prove at once multifaceted and balanced, rather than allowing it to eclipse other possible worldviews.


Likewise, as the book unfolds, narrative and language serve as provocative metaphors for one’s relationship to commercial ephemera, suggesting that, in many ways, it has become integral to the way one communicates and conceives of one’s sense of self. This theme remains especially apparent in Ghaffar’s poem, “Arabian Nights,” in which the poet considers the commercial culture as a “tongue” in and of itself, which retains an active reciprocity with language proper, and hence one’s ability to communicate identity. He writes,


We remember an imaginary place through the upward thrust of language. Even when one is an exile from the tongue, the distant echoes of tongue still form the body with an inarticulate sheath. This body exists within another body, just as sap exists inside the trunk of a tree.
We intuit our place in the grand scheme of things. On the silence of page. One begins again. In articulate. Vibrating. Yet. (100)


In this excerpt, Ghaffar depicts the cultural debris that the modern individual encounters in a consumer society as being inescapable. Just as “the distant echoes of tongue still form the body” of the speaker even when “an exile from the tongue,” for the author one’s identity remains inextricable from the cultural texts that one has encountered over the course of a lifetime. Suggesting that, as a result, one must learn to inhabit popular culture in a balanced and conscious way, rather than seeking to escape it completely, Ghaffar proffers astute social criticisms with lyricism and grace in this poem, as well in many others throughout the collection.


Likewise, in conveying these broader societal observations, Ghaffar’s use of other recurring metaphors serves to ground the poems in concrete experience, the end result being a seamless weaving of the tangible and the philosophical. For example, the poet continually invokes the act of crossing borders between countries as an emblem for the sense of metaphysical displacement induced by the various messages and identities espoused by commercial society. Particularly apparent in a piece called “On the Question of a Borderless Body,” Ghaffar gracefully uses this metaphor to suggest that consumer culture has rendered the self as changeable as the miscellaneous popular texts that one encounters. He writes, for example, in the poem,


Ever since he was a child, he knew that he was meant to learn how to ride the tiger, like Durga. He was not a Hindu — much less a shaman. In deep sleep, there was sentient bliss. From this he discerned that the self has no fixed boundary. It could wander into other countries, into disparate yarns. It was unmarked in dreams. It didn’t belong to race or class. It was borderless. (6)


In the section quoted, the poet presents the consumerist self as being not only “borderless,” but inherently unstable. In “On the Question of a Borderless Body,” like other poems in the collection, Asher Ghaffar searches for both a sense of wholeness and a relationship to commercial culture that will enable it. A finely crafted and thematically provocative debut, Wasps in a Golden Dream Hum a Strange Music adeptly uses poetry as a forum to discuss broader trends in society, the end result being a lyrical and socially conscious collection of poems.

Kristina Marie Darling

Kristina Marie Darling

Kristina Marie Darling is a graduate of Washington University. She’s the author of several chapbooks, including Fevers and Clocks (March Street Press, 2006), The Traffic in Women (Dancing Girl Press, 2006), and Night Music (BlazeVox Books, 2008). A two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, her writing appears or is forthcoming in issues of The Gettysburg Review, The Boston Review, Shenandoah, The Colorado Review, and other periodicals. Awards include residencies at the Vermont Studio Center and the Prairie Center of the Arts, as well as a scholarship from the Squaw Valley Community of Writers’ annual poetry conference.

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