Ali Alizadeh is an Iranian-born Australian writer, currently teaching in Ankara after having done so in Wuhan. He holds a Ph.D. in Professional Writing from Deakin University, Melbourne. Eyes in Times of War is his second book and was launched in Melbourne in July 2007.

My new collection of poetry, Eyes in Times of War, attempts what I firmly believe to be one of the most urgent artistic tasks of our time: to provide a work of art that is absolutely committed to the exigencies of our tumultuous age. That is, the task is to connect the representation (artificial, literary — the poem) to reality (political, worldly — the event) and, therefore, to revoke the persistent, even if philosophically questionable, chasm that separates the poem from the event, a division that maintains the very concepts of ‘representation’ and ‘reality.’

It has been argued that ‘commitment’ does not necessitate an art that is anti-representational, most significantly by that ‘mystical Marxist’ critic, Walter Benjamin, in his classic 1936 essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (alongside countless other materialist artists and theorists who have praised the virtues of realism, naturalism, and the like). In fact, Benjamin is ebullient about modern art forms that ‘directly’ represent reality, such as photography and cinema (1936: 227-235). However, I concur with Benjamin’s colleague and contemporary, Theodor Adorno, who not only observes the reactionary nature of realism and suchlike mimetic approaches, but also believes that a truly radical, committed work of art is one that aspires to ‘firmly negate empirical reality’ and, by doing so, to ‘destroy the destroyer’ (1962: 96). Regarding realist ‘working class’ novels favoured by the majority of Marxists, for example, Adorno finds in the case of those ‘which are fed through the best-seller mechanism, we can no longer distinguish how far the horrors narrated in them serve the denunciation of society as opposed to the amusement of those who do not yet have the Roman circuses they are waiting for’ (1944: 68).

I consider such an enterprise to be utterly necessary and timely not because of the palpably ghastly ‘empirical realities’ of our world — sadistic wars between ‘the West’ and ‘Islam’; escalating ecological disasters such as global warming; the unprecedented calamities inflicted upon the populations of the ‘developing world’ by a force identified as ‘globalisation’; the affluent world’s increasingly inhumane treatment of migrants and refugees from economically depleted, environmentally ravaged and war stricken parts; and so on. It is necessary and timely because, if art is to remain at all relevant and alive not only as a cultural agent but also as an entity autonomous from the very instruments that are almost always complicit in the aforementioned horrors — for example, media outlets that inculcate, obfuscate and deny and entertainers that mislead and perform as diversions— then the work of art must become, as it were, ‘a part of the solution’ in order to ‘destroy the destroyer.’ In my view, the time for sheltering behind obtuse fantasies of either ‘telling it like it is’ (e.g., Marxist realism) or ‘art for art’s sake’ (e.g., Conservative aestheticism) has, to borrow from William Butler Yeats’ ‘Easter 1916,’ ‘changed, changed utterly.’ It is my desire to see the birth of the ‘terrible beauty’ of a truly political art, one that neither reports/confirms nor beautifies/hides the horrors of our world.

Such a work of art must once and for all revoke and transcend the abovementioned paradigm of mimesis, and refuse to be a secondary, and therefore merely supplementary, depiction of a supposedly concrete, complete reality. It must refuse the mimetic even if, as Derrida (1972: 154-166) and Culler (1982: 102-103) argue, no reality is ever ‘complete’ and no writing can ever be seen as simply ‘supplementary’ or auxiliary. Such a creation—for instance, a folk song lamenting a war crime committed by an army or a television documentary ‘exposing the truth’ of some malfeasant individual or government’s doings—must be anything but didactic, tendentious and, as some of the opponents of ‘protest art’ would have it, ‘boring.’ It must be more than an assessment of an event. It must belong to that event, be an extension of it, or, in fact, an autonomous political event in its own right, one even capable of engaging with and opposing the world’s deleterious and pernicious realities. Such a work must be epical and not fictional; or, in the words of the early XXth century poet and critic Lascelles Abercrombie,

such poetry has symbolically to re-create the actual fact and factual particulars of human existence in terms of general significance—the reader must feel that life itself has submitted to plastic imagination. No fiction will ever have the air, necessary for this epic symbolism, for not merely representing, but of unmistakably being, human experience (1922: 110).But how can such a seemingly ambitious and sophisticated concept be attempted? One poetics, which I have drawn upon in writing the poems of my collection Eyes in Times of War, can be found in Adorno’s further explication of his notion of committed art, where he provides the following story about Pablo Picasso as an example:

An officer of the Nazi occupation forces visited the painter in his studio and, pointing to Guernica, asked: ‘Did you do that?’ Picasso is said to have answered, ‘No, you did’ (1962: 96).I, too, can name the combatants, belligerents and warmongers of our era as authors of some of the harrowing poems in my book. The book’s title poem, for example, signifies the doings of the perpetrators of various acts of violence—war, suicide, capital punishment, etc.—as seen through the ‘eyes’—words—of the poem:

Gouging them out, no matter
how violently, so very feeble
when what’s passed through
burns beyond the lens. The embers
of reality hoarded in the kiln
of experience, this palimpsest
of seething and seeing the ablaze
sites. One: the classmate
who extolled the drama of
jihad as I cringed. His, no doubt
the dull repetition of the ethos
propagated by the wartime regime
of my birthplace, and the blasts
of so many boy-martyrs at the Front…
(‘Eyes in Times of War’)
Should I ever be asked by my former Islamist classmate ‘Did you write this poem?’ I would tell him à la Picasso, ‘No, you did.’ This poem does not at all ‘represent’ oreven ‘reflect’ the bellicose Iranian boy of its subject matter—it does not, for example, say what he looked, sounded, or acted like—but follows his implicit ideology to the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq War where thousands of teenage boys were ‘martyred,’ that is, were used as landmine-fodder in the infamous ‘human waves’ (as depicted by A.M. Ansari (2003: 234-235)). That is to say, the poem becomes his fantasy of becoming a martyr for Allah in the course of a putative Holy War and not my representation of his ‘reality’ (his appearance, name, characteristics, personality, etc.). Further in the poem, other atrocities are not merely ‘shown’ but are, as Abercrombie (1922: 110) would have it, ‘submitted to plastic imagination,’ that is, made artificial and dramatic, even theatrical:

…a heroin-dealer
convulsing on a noose
suspended from a crane at
the intersection of our street and
Tehran’s main highway. The grocery-
bag on his face almost comical
as his body writhed with full tragic
intensity. Say, how could I
forget that? Scratch out
the treacherous eyes that exploited
my teenager’s curiosity? Never
mind. We did escape the Grand
Guignol of Iran. In times of war
people become theatrically
(‘Eyes in Times of War’)
In a similar vein, the poem ‘Your Terrorist’ does not simply depict the mindset of a suicide-bomber, but shows the speaker’s ‘terrorism of the weak’ to be the product of the listener’s ‘tyranny of the strong.’ The ‘I’ of the poem, its disadvantaged speaker, is the creation of ‘you’, its privileged recipient; and, once again, as Picasso would have it, it is ‘you’ who has composed the poem, and not ‘I,’ its author:

O master, your words
are crucial to my survival. I have to
put your goggles on my eyes
to see myself,
a dangerous alien with
incomprehensible language
and innate savagery
because you are so civilised and meaningful.
You have the weapons
the tools for proving the logic
of your power. You wear clothes
that bolster your shoulders
and accentuate your height.
Me, I’m naked
and paraded as a prisoner
on your catwalks. I’m been
defeated, dispossessed and now
detained in the cages
of your metropolis. I can’t remember
if I ever had my own culture
because your powerful voice
has deafened my memories…

(‘Your Terrorist’; formerly published as ‘Your Monster’ on the Saloni Mediterranean website)
Much has been said about the rapport between Islamic terrorism and the supremacist and imperialist policies and attitudes of Western powers; and that some responsibility for the former phenomenon should be allotted to the latter. My poem, however, does not necessarily ‘blame’ the powerful West for the aggressive acts of powerless Middle Eastern terrorists, but treats ‘the terrorist’ as a mythic, theatrical trope, as the speaker of an ostensibly staged monologue. That is to say, this poem yields ‘reality’ to the work of my as well as the reader’s imaginative reception. As such it is not the righteousness or otherwise of the speaker-actor’s words that form the discourse of the poem, but his or her identification, to use the terms of George Monboit (2003: 267), as a ‘barbarian,’ a ‘terrorist,’ a ‘monster’:

…Your logic
proves that I’m a primitive
at the mercy of your civilisation.
Yes, I understand
your language. I’ve been learning
the lexicon of my inferiority
from behind the bars. I now know
how to spell and pronounce
the terms of my slavery. Your shackles
are called Security; your war
Operation Freedom; your cluster bombs
food parcels for my children. 0 master,
I understand
what you want your filthy slave to be. I am
your barbarian, your terrorist;
your monster.
(‘Your Terrorist’)

This poem, then, is about the production and appellation of a certain kind of violence, and not its ethical and/or ideological dimensions. It is, as the seminal Freudian theorist Jacques Lacan (1949: 442) might have it, a ‘mirror-image’ that constitutes ‘the symbolic matrix in which the I is precipitated in a primordial form.’ This ‘I’ — which Lacan terms ‘Ideal I’ — is at ‘the threshold of the visible world’ (1949: 443). In ‘Your Terrorist,’ the dreaded protagonist becomes visible, only momentarily through adapting a theatrical/poetic personification as an ‘Ideal terrorist’, before disappearing into the nothingness at the end of the poem where the reflective, mirror-like quality of the text is made excessively obvious by the obsessive repetition of the possessive determiner ‘your’ and therefore self-annihilated. As such, I should hope that this poem is neither prescriptive nor didactic, neither propagandist nor preachy, but an authentically artificial, idealised, and hence effective and committed, verbal dramatisation of the terrorist narrative. A similar poetics in portraying politically and/or historically charged mythic identities can be found in the works of other contemporary post-colonial poets. In the poem ‘My Name is Noble Savage’ by the Choctaw Nation Amer-Indian poet Leanne Howe (2005: 76), for example, the romantic ‘noble savage’ myth, central to the project of European colonialism, has also been presented in its ‘Ideal’ form:

I was built for iconography
Break my hymen
I bleed and reproduce
Children you sketch
and photograph,
But soon abandon
How many wounds do you hope I carry?
….My name is Noble Savage
You killed me
In order to bring me back to life
As your pet, a mascot
A man.
Since I’m your invention
Everything I say comes true.
I have drawn upon the Lacanian ‘Ideal-I’ in many other poems in the collection, particularly those that deal with seemingly ‘archetypal’ characters. In ‘The Traitor,’ for example, I aimed to dramatise the narrative of a typical political defector, inspired by the stories of some ‘counter-revolutionary dissidents’ identified as such and vilified and punished accordingly during China’s Cultural Revolution and Iran’s Islamic Revolution; stories as can be found in popular works such as Jung Chang (1992) and Azar Nafisi (2004):

…I enlisted to fight for our freedom
to be entrapped in a charred trench
for weeks, months, years. The reek
of my comrades’ cadavers
rotted my nose; the sight of their
I began to snigger with horror
like the children who now
brutalised by the coarse notes
of our symphonic national anthem
marched and brandished guns
beneath the cutthroat and vehement
sneer of our Supreme Revolutionary
Leader. They declared me
unfit. I agreed wholeheartedly…
(‘The Traitor’)
This poem begins with the speaker seeing himself as anything but a traitor to the revolutionary cause. He participates in battles against cruel oppressors, celebrates victory alongside his comrades, and afterwards executes a number of ‘vicious collaborators.’ What has taken place here, however, has been the repression and denial of the speaker’s own desires. He has, in Lacanian terms, misrecognised himself in the figures of the ‘collaborators’ and denied that his exterminated opponents were in fact manifestations of his own unconscious volitions to win power, dominate and become an oppressor. According to Lacan (1949: 445), such a ‘misrecognition’ constitutes a refusal to recognise that an individual has no ‘function other than the utilitarian one’— the very antithesis of revolutionary idealism—and therefore the individual’s conscious desires, as radical and liberating as they may seem, result in inverted, paradoxical and perverse outcomes such as:

a freedom that is never more authentic than when it is within the walls of a prison; a demand for commitment, expressing the impotence of a pure consciousness to master any situation; a voyeuristic-sadistic idealisation of the sexual relation; a personality that realises itself only in suicide; a consciousness of the other that can only be satisfied by Hegelian murder (Lacan, 1949: 445).The poem therefore concludes with the speaker finding himself in a prison as his ‘pure’ and conscious desire for revolutionary action is annulled by the impotence of entrapment in the Hegelian master/slave dialect. Here, he at last recognises himself not in the imagoof the ‘freedom-fighter’ but in the mirror-image of the traitor:

…I spat at our national flag
and farted with all my intestinal vigour
during the national anthem. They
shaved my head, branded me names
that I finally found incomprehensible
and, though left to survive
unlike so, so many others
the blisters of the word ‘traitor’
still sting my flesh, so many years
since the Revolution ended.
(‘The Traitor’)

Needless to say, poems such as this have nothing whatsoever to do with ‘empirical realities’ of certain events, and everything to with these events’ significance, imagery, potency, simulations and mythology. Instead of documenting the ‘truth’ of a certain event, my poems bear witness to these events. That is to say, they become mirrors in which the events’ aura and symbolism—and not their ‘real life’ corporeal presence—are made visible. I therefore agree with contemporary French philosopher Alain Badiou who envisages ‘the poem as truth of sensible presence deposited in rhythm and image, but without the corporeal captation by this rhythm and this image’ (1992: 78).

The poem, in other words, does not require verisimilitude or a ‘flattering’ semblance of reality (‘corporeal captation’) performed by a linguistic artifice; but the depositing of a ‘sensible presence’ in the style and form of its discourse. Such a (re)definition of poetry signals a return to a pre-Socratic philosophy which views the poem as neither permanently separated and excluded from the political and the societal (Plato) nor as one in which the poem is re-admitted into the world of ‘reality’ and rendered as a permissible/tolerable, albeit still separate, different and inherently secondary aesthetical, supplement (Aristotle). According to Badiou, in the philosophy before Socrates and his above-mentioned disciples, ‘the logos is poetic as such. It is the poem as such that takes ward of thought’ (1992: 70).

Restoring such primary importance and functionality to the poem as a medium not for at all representing, but for unambiguously being the rationale and ideology of the political—power and resistance—is precisely what I have attempted with the poems of Eyes in Times of War.

As a final example from my book, I would like to cite the poem ‘Australia’ and the ways in which it can be read as the very primitive articulation of the logos of ‘the Australian identity,’ as the linguistic containment of the founding philosophy of the Australian nation. The poem begins with a polemical, and admittedly facile, expression of the speaker’s outrage at the formation of the country’s current socio-cultural landscape:

To achieve your grand freedom
you’re destined to shackle others
in perpetuity. To renounce
your heritage of imprisonment
you shall turn the Others into
criminals. Bland observation?
Perhaps, and it won’t do
for signifying the grotesquery
of banishing refugee children
to desert cages, or denying
the horror of transforming the land’s
original inhabitants into persecuted
After acknowledging the shortcomings and the futility of merely representing the menace of racism in contemporary Australia, the speaker decides to not speak against but speak for—that is, to articulate and take ward of— the logics of xenophobia and white supremacy. The speaker asks the poem’s recipient—a personification of Australia—to voice the psychological reasons for the nation’s seemingly obsessive and pathological racism:

…Tell me
or catharsis? Revenge
most likely. Asian and Muslim
asylum seekers must reimburse
the insults your forefathers suffered
on the convict ships. The Aborigines
shall be wiped off their land since
you were exiled from yours…
This discourse is an exploration of the ways in which White Australia imagines itself —and its perceived Others—and not a self-righteous denunciation of racism per se. This poem is, in other words, absolutely committed to not only critiquing but also becomingthe voice of the traumas and repressed desires of the Australian psyche which, as least in my view, constitute the raison d’être of the enduring phenomenon of white racism in Australia. My own perspectives on the origins and logic of the continuation of colonial-style racism in Australia are perhaps more in concert with cultural theorists Ken Gelder and Jane Jacobs who observe that most White Australians, despite forming the absolute majority of the country’s population, imagine themselves as ‘marginal and embattled…restrained, even disabled’ (1998: 126). My views here are also strongly influenced by the poet Les Murray’s incredibly — and perhaps unintentionally— revealing 1998 epic of white ‘victimhood,’ Fredy Neptune. In ‘Australia,’ even the term ‘racism’ and its conventional connotations become redundant as the term soon shows itself as a delayed displacement for an actively suppressed Oedipal fantasy:

…Racism? Don’t
be dull. Your unfathomable
abhorrence makes xenophobia
hide-and-seek. You seek retribution
for being born, or at least for being
raised on a desert island, rejected
from the moist and temperate
bosom of Mother England. Can’t you
admit your repulsion? Must your
hate-speech be forever flawed
by laughable allusions to fairness
and openness?

The speech of the poem itself is, I hope, not ‘flawed’ in its argumentation, and is neither insincerely ‘fair’ nor pretentiously ‘open.’

This poem and others in my collection are articulations, verbal extensions and artistic formulations of our world’s undeniable unfairnesses, barbarities and injustices. Whatever their perceived ‘message,’ I hope these poems provide the reader with an analytical and persuasive understanding of the terrors and conflicts that I have either personally borne witness to or acquired knowledge about. It is my aim to bring the reader face to face with the wars and terrors of our world and even to provoke a committed and comprehensive attempt at dismantling the ideologies and engines of hatred, hostility and belligerence.


Ali Alizadeh’s Eyes in Times of War is published by Salt Publishing, Cambridge, 2006.
ISBN 13: 978 1 84771 287 8; ISBN 10: 1 84771 287 7.
Website: 84471 2877.htm


Lascelles Abercrombie (1922). ‘The Nature of Epic,’ in The Epic: Developments in Criticism ed. R.P. Draper (London: Macmillan, 1990)

T.W. Adorno (1944). ‘The Culture Industry,’ in The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, ed. J. M. Bernstein (London: Routledge, 1991)

T.W. Adorno (1962). ‘Commitment,’ tr. Francis McDonagh, in Literature in the Modern World: Critical Essays and Documents ed. Dennis Walder (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990)

A.M. Ansari (2003). Modern Iran Since 1921: The Pahlavis and After (London: Longman)

Alain Badiou (1992). ‘Philosophy and Art,’ in Infinite Thought: Truth and the Return to Philosophy, ed. & tr. Oliver Feltham & Justin Clemens (London: Continuum, 2005)

Walter Benjamin (1936). ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,’ inIlluminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, tr. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969)

Jung Chang (1992). Wild Swans (London: Flamingo Press)

J.D. Culler (1982). On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press)

Jacques Derrida (1972). Dissemination, tr. Barbara Johnston (London: Continuum, 2004)

K.D. Gelder & J.M. Jacobs (1998). Uncanny Australia: Sacredness and Identity in a Postcolonial Nation (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press)

Leanne Howe (2005). Evidence of Red (Cambridge: Salt Publishing)

Jacques Lacan (1949). ‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,’ in Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. Julie Rivkin & Michael Ryan (Malden: Blackwell, 2005)

George Monboit (2003). The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order(London: Flamingo Press)

Les Murray (1998). Fredy Neptune (Sydney: Duffy & Snellgrove)

Azar Nafisi (2004). Reading Lolita in Tehran (Sydney: Hodder Headline)

W.B. Yeats (1916). ‘Easter 1916,’ in The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats, 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan & Co., 1950)