At the beginning of his Confessions, translated by Albert Outler, Saint Augustine contemplates the problem of addressing that which one cannot wholly know: “Grant me, Lord, to know and understand whether first to invoke you or to praise you; whether first to know you or call upon you. But who can invoke you, knowing you not? . . . It may be that we should invoke you in order that we may come to know you.” To address, Augustine suggests, requires presuming to already understand the other and our relation to them—but it can also be a way of becoming familiar, of forging the relationship anew. Momtaza Mehri’s “By Such Honorifics, You Attempt to Summon the Old Country You Have Never Seen” similarly probes the creative capacity of address. The poem comprises a litany of phrases naming ways a diasporic subject might perceive their homeland, which range from the aching (“Depository of guilt,” “Unfinished eulogy”) to the scathing (“Ideological crutch,” “Pitiless receptacle”). But the final line, by restoring a traditional mode of address, disrupts the evaluative list and revises my understanding of what came before. What I’d read as a script of disaffection, I now see is shot through with the desire for relation. There is not only an estrangement here, but a tenderness too—an opening, a kind of praise.
– Claire Schwartz
Listen to Momtaza Mehri read "By Such Honorifics, You Attempt to Summon the Old Country You Have Never Seen."
By Such Honorifics, You Attempt to Summon the Old Country You Have Never Seen
Depository of guilt Tally of defences Redemption arc Recreational facility Excuse for a personality Get Out of Jail Free card Father’s belt Ideological crutch Cartographical mirage Chosen affliction Spilt milk Pool of amnesia Extreme sport Terminal psychodrama Unfinished eulogy Crowded abattoir Nursery of martyrs Pitiless receptacle Basin of platitudes Lovable bastard Unreliable host Enduring headache Bad joke O,
Reprinted from Bad Diaspora Poems, published by Jonathan Cape. Copyright © 2023 by Momtaza Mehri