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Divide and Rule

by Walid Bitar

The new collection from Toronto poet Walid Bitar is a suite of dramatic monologues that find their genesis in the author’s experiences in North America and the Middle East. The narrative voice fans out to include numerous speakers who argue politics across geographic and philosophical divides, often passing the mic in mid-
sentence. These poems employ different demographic voices, though their refusal to bind together into consistent speech prevents them from attaining a democratic one. But this does not seem to be Bitar’s intention, and while the book allows the odd generality, the syntax tends toward the singular.

Even “Scorched Earth Policy,” one of the book’s more tonally consistent poems, teeters between arenas, being alternately militaristic, economic, and environmental, all within the deceptively simple presentation of four quatrains written in pentameter, and opening with the insult, “I can’t beat your ignorance senseless –”. The formalist veneer isn’t the book’s only illusion.

More interesting is the relationship Bitar cultivates with simplicity. Some poems give up their aphoristic back-slaps too easily, and while this abandonment to low thought can be excused by the relative erudition of his speakers, his authorial decision to group the book’s most folksy declarations at the ends of poems speaks to a hedging of his philosophical bets. (See, for example, “Sound Barrier,” which closes with the epiphany-seeking lines, “I fall back on memories I shouldn’t trust, / and don’t expect they’ll break my fall.”)

Through his atonal chorus, Bitar manages to mostly avoid easy political bromides, even as his narrators engage in them on the page. Bitar’s citizens are not capable of fixing their own problems – they can barely even name them. Divide and Rule is a troubled, but nonetheless troubling, fever dream.