The Poetry Project

Tel Aviv by Mohammed Zenia

Review by imogen xtian smith

In the World through which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself.
xxxxx —Frantz Fanon

A twenty-first century flâneur might find themself trampling centuries of desolation for any number of reasons: necessity, privilege, a willful nod to writers ranging from Baudelaire to Cole, flight lining or cruising for lovers & home. Amidst the wreckage of ongoing colonialisms, one locates selves within a labyrinth of hodge-podge recipes, amusement parks, bodegas-cum-health food stops, parts of the body riddled with syntax. In Tel Aviv, the debut from poet & musician Mohammed Zenia (Porosity Press, 2020), this accumulated chaos enters moments of focus that locate & implicate both speaker & reader in a world of artifacts nostalgic for unreachable irreducibility—bright & laminate, yet traumatic in glaring banality. Zenia wonders & wanders a poetics through the rubble of global occupations that our hearts—having nurtured among them by any means—can never un-feel or see.

Tel Aviv not so much maps as strews constellations of vertigo, memory, the collapsing & subsuming of one embodied, colonial-reified identity (in this case Black, immigrant, oft-houseless, consummately punk & lovelorn) into the dailiness of its manifestations, imperatives & desires—that which forms the subject-agent of boundless capital. In passages framing walks up Eastern Parkway, Crown Heights to Bed Stuy & on to Bushwick, Zenia locates beauty, wonder, & horror in the underlying gentrification tenuously weaving urban existence: “In a way it’s like gravity and the sun, and the sun is Tel Aviv but also its gravity.”

What if all our joys & nostalgias, our longings for intimacy & home, our movements to forge & become an I are derived & dependent on continual relations of violence? Can we curb the desires Tel Aviv & global capital sew within—desires we might call american dream or bevy of fish, romance, gender, & touch—the fantasies of all settlers, complicit or otherwise? For Zenia, sources for world-building span dreaming to loving, poem-ing a way through, becoming other than pre-destined “pieces of shit.”

In the book’s opening section—a sequence of prose poems by turns comic, aphoristic, & parabolic—Zenia confronts the reader with dreamscapes, tangibles, & the tensions arising when one no longer differentiates. “Every time I go to Tel Aviv, I lose my teeth to the desert and wake up in my own bed. I couldn’t even locate Tel Aviv on a map,” they write. Later, we encounter the speaker’s grandfather, divorcing his partner of 60 years (survived through holocausts, depressions, & several children) to open a quasi-successful dry cleaning business, date a 19-year-old, & slowly secrete a ubiquitous toxicity to the Everglades. The glossy allure of Tel Aviv poisons all—“shades of laboratory experiments gone wrong and the smell of lovers falling apart.”

Tone runs elastic, turning elegiac in the book’s second, sprawling section, full of skeletal, crystalline lyric & psychedelic litany. The sporadic nature of Zenia’s verse wanders in harmony with Tel Aviv’s fractured worlds. People, fates, & places are absorbed in language both reflective & dry, often discomforting for the sheer precision of intent, an immolation of all moments encountered in the text:

I am walking
Crown Heights
under Atlantic
reaching for home
Tel Aviv,
I scream
there it is
a city
in snow
pillars and
computer chips
amid garbage bins
Tel Aviv
the achievement
of tears
of hope
Tel Aviv BedStuy
Tel Aviv beneath
the warm poverty
of my sleeping bag

Still, amidst the layered façades of empire, a lineage of hope & tenderness underlies the absurdity of Tel Aviv’s global project. From the rubble of history & language, Zenia finds space to sing with imams, with the seen & unseen, housed street-side or shuttered behind bars, glass & steel, pillars of salt wrought animate—“the people I love and share bones and breath with.”

The poetics of movement become an act of deep presence & time travel, fantasy blurring with materiality along thresholds of mania, indulgence, excess, & ruin, grounded in the imperative to forget underlying the colonial project’s production of meaning:

is it the same deli or different one in the same place?
next to the Bushwick border, an
auto wrecking yard, buttressed between
emptiness and Tel Aviv

where we ate microwavable burritos

All colonial cities are stand-ins for one another. That’s a gross simplification & also truth. Tel Aviv is unforgivable, as is Las Vegas, Atlanta, the gentrification of Bed Stuy & redlining preceding it. Within the temporal structure of Tel Aviv, repetition gives way to a universality-obscuring origin.

Tel Aviv—a city that’s always a point of occupation. Tel Aviv—the material foundations of home (such as they are). Tel Aviv—a casino in Las Vegas fashioned after the Great Pyramid, as it could only be imagined post Napoleon & Louvre. Tel Aviv—thoroughly Israeli, meaning euro-american, meaning capital, meaning white, a euphemism for theft. Tel Aviv—a pile of trash on Riis makes your skin nostalgic for the queer euphoric, having crossed conservative strongholds of coastal Brooklyn to arrive. Tel Aviv—a poet looking for something like home whose potential lives in every unaffordable brownstone, predestined for demolition. Tel Aviv—shiny things salvaged from the wreck of what was once bright & shiny. Tel Aviv is both &—, unforgivably synonymous with Césaire’s assessment of Europe, a place-name for colonial lusting.

Thinking & feeling with Zenia throughout the book, I’m wracked with the lingering fear that all my queer, abolitionist aspirations are themselves emergent within the global pillage of Tel Aviv. “The maze of Seattle could be the maze of Connecticut,” they write, “I chase you and then you chase me / our / hands in our pockets / and none of this any / fun.”

The question should haunt your reading of Tel Aviv—at skin level & locationally speaking, whether cozy in your apartment, on a bus, a bench, a casino in West Virginia, which is everywhere—it’s disconcerting & grounding all at once. The abundance Tel Aviv renders could be beautiful, hold your childhood, your second & third transitions, your post-death, might even illuminate something transcendent-ish in the spirit. That said, we wind up “hung over broke addicted to meth and lonely.”

Tel Aviv, you see, is constructed happiness. Or horror—the veil is thin, built atop other Tel Aviv’s looking forward & back forever.

nobody wants to become a caricature or
actually seem dumb enough 
to knowingly dig the gutter 
they fall into

and yet I do it all the time

We empathize with & judge Tel Aviv’s narrator for wanting existence both ways: nostalgic for colonial fantasy, undermined—though less easily overturned—by its destructive prowess. Tel Aviv is a mirror.

There’s something Sebaldian in Zenia’s poetics, wandering the ruins of consummate destruction in conversations with Lara Mimosa Montes’ Thresholes. Tel Aviv is Invisible Cities with a sick & tired narrator reporting ruins to a ruin. Section two particularly conjures the melancholic Berliners of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, Zenia’s voice like an angel caring for those tossed about in trajectories of & beyond any fullness of grasp:

I think about all the loss of Tel Aviv and the hurt that people want to fly into as if they were daredevils or professional mercenaries instead of people just searching. Tel Aviv is exactly like buying a monkey, building a boat out of fish in search of other fish, or falling in love, getting into a fist fight outside a bar over a perceived and ridiculous slight. Sometimes people just want to get hurt, and in the end that’s the only real reason you wind up strung out on the boulevards facing the endless suburbs of Tel Aviv.

Throughout, Zenia draws again & again from ecologies of care & compassion, perhaps our most apt resource for destroying & creating out the rubble:

and in the end
if poetry holds us together
and everything turns out alright
I’ll sell my body to science and kiss
the toes of the elderly and psychotic
I’ll return all the books I have ever stolen
and forgive Condoleezza Rice of her trespasses as
poetry has granted
reprieve from mine.

Tel Aviv offers a working template, through poetry, of the radical possibilities for world-building, cut with awareness of prescribed presence in a world bent on endless forgetting & mechanical re-production.

#263 — Winter 2021