Terence Hayes: Master of Form

When it comes to form, nobody does it like Terence Hayes: he understands the larger view of form as a Force that can drive a point right into your heart. In this New Yorker article, author Dan Chiasson says that the sonnet, a form Hayes calls “part music box, part meat grinder,” became the poet’s vehicle of choice for his recent book, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin , because for him,

the sonnet offered an alternative unit of measurement, at once ancient, its basic features unchanged for centuries, and urgent, its fourteen lines passing at a brutal clip.

In the book, the American sonnet both contains and assaults his assassins: “I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison, / Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.” The form itself being the brainchild of “the L.A. poet Wanda Coleman, who died in 2013 and who coined the term American sonnet. Who considered the term as referring to a more “improvised” sonnet that used jazz techniques and musical patterns.

The language is powerful and immediate, exuding worlds and threats. This is what sets Hayes apart: the combination of power, poetic skill (unique use of craft), unrelenting content, and an intensity of heart that drives all this into a tour de force of words closing in on flesh.

All cancers kill me, car crashes, cavemen, chakras,
Crackers, discord, dissonance, doves, Elvis,
Ghosts, the grim reaper herself, a heart attack
While making love, hangmen, Hillbillies exist,
Lilies, Martha Stewarts, Mayflower maniacs,
Money grubbers, Gwen Brooks’ “The Mother,”
(My mother’s bipolar as bacon), pancakes kill me,
Phonies, dead roaches, big roaches & smaller
Roaches, the sheepish, snakes, all seven seas,
Snow avalanches, swansongs, sciatica, Killer
Wasps, yee-haws, you, now & then, disease.

A list that also serves as ammunition, a kind of automatic fire that thrills with its sheer brilliance and expanse of imagination. And also with its truth, how he disgorges the racist and white supremacist attitudes made flesh in the form of Donald Trump and his followers. To which this collection is addressed, among other things.

This word can be the difference between knowing / And thinking. It’s the name people of color call / Themselves on weekends & the name colorful / People call their enemies & friends.” 

Trump is a palpable undercurrent throughout the book, and occasionally Hayes addresses the President directly, calling him “Mr. Trumpet”:

. . . You ain’t allowed to deride
Women when you’ve never wept in front of a woman
That wasn’t your mother. America’s struggle with itself
Has always had people like me at the heart of it. You can’t
Grasp your own hustle, your blackness, you can’t grasp
Your own pussy, your black pussy dies for touch.

These poems all happen in the mind, which has been portioned into zones called “I” and “you.” Both assume countless different roles, but what remains constant is their reliance upon each other and their tendency to flip positions. This makes the work morally ambiguous in ways some readers will resist: I suspect that not everybody will recognize “blackness” as any part, even a rejected part, of Trump, a man whose loathing of black people seems unabashed.

Yes, “Hayes isn’t describing canonical melancholy, the pined-for vision of mortality that poets sometimes indulge in. He fears a more immediate kind of danger, which can’t be aestheticized or glorified in verse. “You are beautiful because of your sadness,” Hayes admits. And yet: “You would be more beautiful without your fear.” 

In the form he invented:

The Golden Shovel

after Gwendolyn Brooks

I. 1981
When I am so small Da’s sock covers my arm, we
cruise at twilight until we find the place the real
men lean, bloodshot and translucent with cool.
His smile is a gold-plated incantation as we
drift by women on bar stools, with nothing left
in them but approachlessness. This is a school
I do not know yet. But the cue sticks mean we
are rubbed by light, smooth as wood, the lurk
of smoke thinned to song. We won’t be out late.
Standing in the middle of the street last night we
watched the moonlit lawns and a neighbor strike
his son in the face. A shadow knocked straight
Da promised to leave me everything: the shovel we
used to bury the dog, the words he loved to sing
his rusted pistol, his squeaky Bible, his sin.
The boy’s sneakers were light on the road. We
watched him run to us looking wounded and thin.
He’d been caught lying or drinking his father’s gin.
He’d been defending his ma, trying to be a man. We
stood in the road, and my father talked about jazz,
how sometimes a tune is born of outrage. By June
the boy would be locked upstate. That night we
got down on our knees in my room. If I should diebefore I wake. Da said to me, it will be too soon.
II. 1991
Into the tented city we go, we-
akened by the fire’s ethereal
afterglow. Born lost and cool-
er than heartache. What we
know is what we know. The left
hand severed and school-
ed by cleverness. A plate of we-
ekdays cooking. The hour lurk-
ing in the afterglow. A late-
night chant. Into the city we
go. Close your eyes and strike
a blow. Light can be straight-
ened by its shadow. What we
break is what we hold. A sing-
ular blue note. An outcry sin-
ged exiting the throat. We
push until we thin, thin-
king we won’t creep back again.
While God licks his kin, we
sing until our blood is jazz,
we swing from June to June.
We sweat to keep from we-
eping. Groomed on a die-
t of hunger, we end too soon.
——————-
The Blue Terrance
If you subtract the minor losses,
you can return to your childhood too:
the blackboard chalked with crosses,
the math teacher’s toe ring. You
can be the black boy not even the buck-
toothed girls took a liking to:
this match box, these bones in their funk
machine, this thumb worn smooth
as the belly of a shovel. Thump. Thump.
Thump. Everything I hold takes root.
I remember what the world was like before
I heard the tide humping the shore smooth,
and the lyrics asking: How long has your door 
been closed? I remember a garter belt wrung
like a snake around a thigh in the shadows
of a wedding gown before it was flung
out into the bluest part of the night.
Suppose you were nothing but a song
in a busted speaker? Suppose you had to wipe
sweat from the brow of a righteous woman,
but all you owned was a dirty rag? That’s why
the blues will never go out of fashion:
their half rotten aroma, their bloodshot octaves of
consequence; that’s why when they call, Boy, you’re in
trouble. Especially if you love as I love
falling to the earth. Especially if you’re a little bit
high strung and a little bit gutted balloon. I love
watching the sky regret nothing but its
self, though only my lover knows it to be so,
and only after watching me sit
and stare off past Heaven. I love the word No 
for its prudence, but I love the romantic
who submits finally to sex in a burning row-
house more. That’s why nothing’s more romantic
than working your teeth through
the muscle. Nothing’s more romantic
than the way good love can take leave of you.
That’s why I’m so doggone lonesome, Baby,
yes, I’m lonesome and I’m blue.
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Astronomer-Poet Rebecca Elson Remembered at Brainpickings


Rare indeed is the scientist-poet, gifted in language and math/ scientific thinking at the same time, but this describes Rebecca Elson, featured in this post on the Brainpickings site, a gift from one-woman-curator Maria Popova. Elson’s stellar scientific career, for which she was a natural genius, was cut short by 9/11 funding crises and the scientific patriarchy which did not give women their due at the time. At that point she turned to poetry; and the result is amazing, a collection of poetry, essays, and other writings selected by those who knew her and published as A Responsibility to Awe in 2001. She died at the age of 39 in 1999.

Despite her untimely death, she returned to scientific inquiry and is remembered most for her scientific contributions (52 scientific research papers), although her poetry also remains popular and was highly praised even at its publication: The Economist named her book as one of the best of the year in 2001.

Since I myself wanted to be both a poet and astronomer at the age of 9, Elson’s work holds a particular fascination to me. And as I attempted to explain relativity in college by having people on my dorm floor act it out (or at least one dramatic aspect of it), at which point I had an epiphany about it, I was particularly drawn to this poem of hers from the book:

Explaining Relativity

Forget the clatter of ballistics,
The monologue of falling stones,
The sharp vectors,
And the stiff numbered grids.

It’s so much more a thing of pliancy, persuasion,
Where space might cup itself around a planet
Like your palm around a stone,

Where you, yourself the planet
Caught up in some geodesic dream,
Might wake to feel it enfold your weight
And know there is, in fact, no falling.

It is this, and the existence of limits.

Fady Joudah: Powerful Voice for Truth


The discovery of Palestinian-American poet Fady Joudah is something earth-shaking, huge, both indelible and too quickly passing, like the flight of a bird. A practicing physician who devoted significant time to Doctors Without Borders, a man who takes his causes and compassion seriously, he was selected by Louise Glück in 2007 for the Yale Younger Poet Series Prize for The Earth in the Attic. (Did anyone else notice Louise Glück has great taste?) His work as a doctor shows up in his poetry in startling ways. He has also translated two books of Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry, and was a finalist for the 2008 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. Among other awards and achievements. Recognition for work such as that below, where truth is shown as something that understands a bludgeon to the head cannot be understood or mitigated by a bludgeon to the head.

And for this month of Ramadan, this poem,

The Tea and Sage Poem

By Fady Joudah

At a desk made of glass,
In a glass walled-room
With red airport carpet,

An officer asked
My father for fingerprints,
And my father refused,

So another offered him tea
And he sipped it. The teacup
Template for fingerprints.

My father says, it was just
Hot water with a bag.
My father says, in his country,

Because the earth knows
The scent of history,
It gave the people sage.

I like my tea with sage
From my mother’s garden,
Next to the snapdragons

She calls fishmouths
Coming out for air. A remedy
For stomach pains she keeps

In the kitchen where
She always sings.
First, she is Hagar

Boiling water
Where tea is loosened.
Then she drops

In it a pinch of sage
And lets it sit a while.
She tells a story:

The groom arrives late
To his wedding
Wearing only one shoe.

The bride asks him
About the shoe. He tells her
He lost it while jumping

Over a house-wall.
Breaking away from soldiers.
She asks:

Tea with sage
Or tea with mint?

With sage, he says,
Sweet scent, bitter tongue.
She makes it, he drinks.

*******

And for this past month of re-awakened violence in a place called Gaza, where violence is never allowed to sleep, always blamed on those who are killed, or we might say, chopped down. This poem:

Sleeping Trees

By Fady Joudah

Between what should and what should not be
Everything is liable to explode. Many times
I was told who has no land has no sea. My father
Learned to fly in a dream. This is the story
Of a sycamore tree he used to climb
When he was young to watch the rain.

Sometimes it rained so hard it hurt. Like being
Beaten with sticks. Then the mud would run red.

My brother believed bad dreams could kill
A man in his sleep, he insisted
We wake my father from his muffled screams
On the night of the day he took us to see his village.
No longer his village he found his tree amputated.
Between one falling and the next

There’s a weightless state. There was a woman
Who loved me. Asked me how to say tree
In Arabic. I didn’t tell her. She was sad. I didn’t understand.
When she left. I saw a man in my sleep three times. A man I knew
Could turn anyone into one-half reptile.
I was immune. I thought I was. I was terrified of being

The only one left. When we woke my father
He was running away from soldiers. Now
He doesn’t remember that night. He laughs
About another sleep, he raised his arms to strike a king
And tried not to stop. He flew
But mother woke him and held him for an hour,

Or half an hour, or as long as it takes a migration inward.
Maybe if I had just said it.
Shejerah, she would’ve remembered me longer. Maybe
I don’t know much about dreams
But my mother taught me the law of omen. The dead
Know about the dying and sometimes
Catch them in sleep like the sycamore tree
My father used to climb

When he was young to watch the rain stream,
And he would gently swing.

Arrested for a Poem: Dareen Tatour, Poet of Resistance

The long-standing question “Does Poetry Matter?” has found a resounding answer in the affirmative in the arrest, trial, and conviction — and its aftermath — of Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour for a poem, the writing and publication of which was determined by an Israeli court on May 3, 2018 to constitute an act of terror and “incitement to violence.” This is almost 3 years after her arrest in October of 2015, during which time she had been in various forms of detention, starting with prison and then house arrest under severe restrictions in an apartment far from her home town, and, after an outcry from PEN, Israeli writers and artists, and other people and international organizations, finally a judge allowed house arrest in her home town with the same previously imposed ban on internet usage and electronic monitoring that restricted her movements. All this for a poem, or actually a small group of poems. Yes, the world says, poetry matters.

As Ms. Tatour said, “My trial ripped off the masks. The whole world will hear my story. The whole world will hear what Israel’s democracy is. A democracy for Jews only. Only Arabs go to jail. The court said I am convicted of terrorism. If that’s my terrorism, I give the world a terrorism of love.”

Further, “I cannot live without poetry,” Tatour told Haaretz. “They want me to stop writing. For me to be a poet without a pen and without feelings.”

Her attorney, Gaby Lasky, decried the “criminalization of poetry” in which translation and interpretation played a large part, asserting “When the state tries people for poetry, that derogates from the cultural richness of all society.”

Perhaps the best witness would be Tatour’s poetry itself.

Detaining a Poem

One day,
they stopped me,
shackled me,
tied up my body, my soul,
my everything…

Then they said: search her,
we’ll find a terrorist within her!
They turned my heart inside out—
my eyes as well,
rummaged through even my feelings.
From my eyes they drew a pulse of inspiration;
from my heart, the ability to sketch out meanings.
Then they said: beware!
She’s hiding weapons deep in her pockets.
Search her!
Root out the explosives.
And so they searched me…

Finally, they said, accusing me:
We found nothing
in her pockets except letters.
We found nothing except for a poem.

(Translated from the Arabic by Andrew Lever)

*********

I Will Not Leave

By Dareen Tatour

(Translated by Jonathan Wright)

They signed on my behalf
And turned me into
A file, forgotten
Like cigarette butts.
Homesickness tore me apart
And in my own country I ended up
An immigrant.

I abandoned those pens
To weep over the sorrows
Of the inkwells.
They abandoned my cause and my dream
At the cemetery gates
And that person who’s waiting
Laments his luck
As life passes.

Besiege me,
Kill me, blow me up,
Assassinate me, imprison me.
When it comes to my country,
There’s no backing down.

*******

Perhaps the best witness would be the poem for which she was convicted:

Resist, My People, Resist Them

Resist, my people, resist them.

In Jerusalem, I dressed my wounds and breathed my sorrows

And carried the soul in my palm

For an Arab Palestine.

I will not succumb to the “peaceful solution,”

Never lower my flags

Until I evict them from my land.

I cast them aside for a coming time.

Resist, my people, resist them.

Resist the settler’s robbery

And follow the caravan of martyrs.

Shred the disgraceful constitution

Which imposed degradation and humiliation

And deterred us from restoring justice.

They burned blameless children;

As for Hadil, they sniped her in public,

Killed her in broad daylight.

Resist, my people, resist them.

Resist the colonialist’s onslaught.

Pay no mind to his agents among us

Who chain us with the peaceful illusion.

Do not fear doubtful tongues;

The truth in your heart is stronger,

As long as you resist in a land

That has lived through raids and victory.

So Ali called from his grave:

Resist, my rebellious people.

Write me as prose on the agarwood;

My remains have you as a response.

Resist, my people, resist them.

Resist, my people, resist them.

My Review of Ladin’s Fireworks in the Graveyard at The Rumpus!

The Rumpus has published my review of Joy Ladin’s transformative poetry collection Fireworks in the Graveyard” today here. Joy Ladin is quite an amazing person herself, and enlightened me, in the process of reading her work and about her struggles, about the deep connection between transexuality and religious faith. The review explores this and so much more. Please check it out!

Remembering J.D. McClatchy: 1945-2018

J.D. McClatchy is a name I kept running into everywhere but which had not been attached to any particular poetry. As if he was more of an essayist or critic. I should have thought “librettist,” a title which he earned over and over again with his many well-received libretti. But in fact he was first and foremost a poet, and a masterful one at that, particularly with form. This article describes him as a “thrilling, passionate” teacher who made his students focus first on form, which gave at least the writer of that article the understanding of the effective power of restraint (form). Quoting him from an interview in The Paris Review, the article gives us his take on the value of form:

“It’s like adoring the open sea, the clash of elemental forces, the overpowering scale of water and sky, the sleek majesty of sloops, the billow of sail and pull of line—and wanting to study and pay homage to it all by building a model of a favorite boat—and then deciding to do it inside a bottle,” he said.

Exactly. I love this guy.

More on his life and work can be found here. As longtime Editor of the Yale Review, and recipient of many awards and grants, he certainly made his mark in the art of poetry. His subject matter penetrates beneath his poetry’s polished exterior. Here are a couple gems:

Mercury Dressing

To steal a glance and, anxious, see
Him slipping into transparency—
The feathered helmet already in place,
Its shadow fallen across his face
(His hooded sex its counterpart)—
Unsteadies the routines of the heart.
If I reach out and touch his wing,
What harm, what help might he then bring?

But suddenly he disappears,
As so much else has down the years…
Until I feel him deep inside
The emptiness, preoccupied.
His nerve electrifies the air.
His message is his being there.

——————————-

Resignation

I like trees because they seem more resigned
to the way they have to live than other things do.
—Willa Cather

Here the oak and silver-breasted birches
Stand in their sweet familiarity
While underground, as in a black mirror,
They have concealed their tangled grievances,
Identical to the branching calm above
But there ensnared, each with the others’ hold
On what gives life to which is brutal enough.
Still, in the air, none tries to keep company
Or change its fortune. They seem to lean
On the light, unconcerned with what the world
Makes of their decencies, and will not show
A jealous purchase on their length of days.
To never having been loved as they wanted
Or deserved, to anyone’s sudden infatuation
Gouged into their sides, to all they are forced
To shelter and to hide, they have resigned themselves.

Jane Hirshfield: Incomparable, Uplifting


Jane Hirshfield, whose work often addresses the spiritual side of poetry, brings that transcendent theme to us in beautifully wrought epiphanies, never in-your-face, yet never clouded with their ambiguity. Undoubtedly it is her attitude that gives her poetry that fine edge, as indicated in this quote from her Poetry Foundation’s author description:

Hirshfield once said. “I don’t think poetry is based just on poetry; it is based on a thoroughly lived life. And so I couldn’t just decide I was going to write no matter what; I first had to find out what it means to live.”

This was exactly my feeling long ago when I began writing poetry; I wanted to write and loved writing poetry, but felt I didn’t have the life experience behind me to give my words what I thought of as poetry’s most essential quality: wisdom and that delicate balance between the expressed and the inexpressible. This is what I unfailingly find in Hirshfield’s work. In pursuit of “what it means to live,” she studied at San Francisco Zen center and received a lay ordination in Soto Zen in 1979. This gave her, one might say, mindfulness training, and a way of looking at what it means to be alive, but she never liked it to define her, expressed in various interviews, such as this quote:

“I always feel a slight dismay if I’m called a “Zen” poet. I am not. I am a human poet, that’s all.”

Of course; a poet with a true voice is not confined by their courses of study or even their experiences. And in addition to writing poetry, Hirshfield brought to the attention of the poetry world many overlooked women poets, including traditional Japanese women poets. So without further ado I shall let two of my favorites of hers speak for themselves.

Heat

My mare, when she was in heat,
would travel the fenceline for hours,
wearing the impatience
in her feet into the ground.

Not a stallion for miles, I’d assure her,
give it up.

She’d widen her nostrils,
sieve the wind for news, be moving again,
her underbelly darkening with sweat,
then stop at the gate a moment, wait
to see what I might do.
Oh, I knew
how it was for her, easily
recognized myself in that wide lust:
came to stand in the pasture
just to see it played.
Offered a hand, a bucket of grain—
a minute’s distraction from passion
the most I gave.

Then she’d return to what burned her:
the fence, the fence,
so hoping I might see, might let her free.
I’d envy her then,
to be so restlessly sure
of heat, and need, and what it takes
to feed the wanting that we are—

only a gap to open
the width of a mare,
the rest would take care of itself.
Surely, surely I knew that,
who had the power of bucket
and bridle—
she would beseech me, sidle up,
be gone, as life is short.
But desire, desire is long.

And this one, very different but the same voice.

For What Binds Us

By Jane Hirshfield

There are names for what binds us:
strong forces, weak forces.
Look around, you can see them:
the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,
nails rusting into the places they join,
joints dovetailed on their own weight.
The way things stay so solidly
wherever they’ve been set down—
and gravity, scientists say, is weak.

And see how the flesh grows back
across a wound, with a great vehemence,
more strong
than the simple, untested surface before.
There’s a name for it on horses,
when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh,

as all flesh,
is proud of its wounds, wears them
as honors given out after battle,
small triumphs pinned to the chest—

And when two people have loved each other
see how it is like a
scar between their bodies,
stronger, darker, and proud;
how the black cord makes of them a single fabric
that nothing can tear or mend.

Sharon Olds: Body and Soul


Rediscovering Sharon Olds is something akin to being born, bursting from where I was a second ago into somewhere else entirely, without even a warning pulse of labor to ease me into it. I’d read her poetry before. Is it me? Was it her? Why didn’t I get this reaction before? I go back and read some older poems of hers. Same thing, maybe stronger even. Ok maybe try something brand new. Oops, that was the one, “How It Felt,” that started it all. Of course, she is an Established Poet, has all the accolades and honors including a Pulitzer Prize for her next-to-most-recent collection Stag’s Leap. Even so, Olds has been castigated for her treatment of “inappropriate” subject matter, mainly sex. But what I’ve read lately is quite powerful, especially some of her work regarding childhood. So here are a couple of her poems, starting with one on an “inappropriate” subject, beautifully appropriated.

After Making Love in Winter

By Sharon Olds

At first I cannot have even a sheet on me,
anything at all is painful, a plate of
iron laid down on my nerves, I lie there in the
air as if flying rapidly without moving, and
slowly I cool off—hot,
warm, cool, cold, icy, till the
skin all over my body is ice
except at those points our bodies touch like
blooms of fire. Around the door
loose in its frame, and around the transom, the
light from the hall burns in straight lines and
casts up narrow beams on the ceiling, a
figure throwing up its arms for joy.
In the mirror, the angles of the room are calm, it is the
hour when you can see that the angle itself is blessed,
and the dark globes of the chandelier,
suspended in the mirror, are motionless—I can
feel my ovaries deep in my body, I
gaze at the silvery bulbs, maybe I am
looking at my ovaries, it is
clear everything I look at is real
and good. We have come to the end of questions,
you run your palm, warm, large,
dry, back along my face over and
over, over and over, like God
putting the finishing touches on, before
sending me down to be born.

———————-

Another poem below about her difficult childhood, showing me it’s important to read a wide selection of poetry to get a sense of the poet’s own sense of purpose.

The Day They Tied Me Up

None of the pain was sharp. The sash was
soft, its cotton blunt, it held my
wrist to the back of the chair
as if it were healing me. And the fierce
glazed-string weave of the chair-seat
printed me in deep pink, but I was
used to that, I loved the way matter could mark us,
and its marks dissolve. That day, no one touched me,
it was a formal day, the nerves lay easy
in their planched grooves. The hunger grew but
quietly, edgeless, a suckling in my stomach
doubling, it was a calm day, unfolding to its
laws. Only the pleasure was
sharp —- the tilt of the black bottle
over their bed, the way the ink
lowered itself into the spread, I could
feel its dark genie shape
leave my chest, pouring forth, and it was
India ink, the kind that does not come out,
I sat attached to the chair like Daphne
halfway out of the wood, and I read that blot.
I read it all day, like a Nancy Drew
I was in——they had said You won’t be fed till you
say you’re sorry
. I was strangely happy, I would
never say I was sorry, I had
left that life behind. So it didn’t surprise me when she
came in slowly, holding the bowl that
held what swayed and steamed, she sat and
spoon-fed me, in silence, hot,
alphabet soup. Sharp pleasure of my
wing-tip hands hung down behind me
slack as I ate, sharp pleasure of the
little school of edible letters flowing
in over my taste buds. B,
O, F, K, G, I
mashed the crescent moon of the C,
caressed the E, reading with my tongue that
softened Braille——and she was almost kneeling to me, and I wasn’t sorry.
She was feeding the one
who wasn’t sorry, the way you lay food at the
foot of an image. I sat there, tied,
taking in her offering and
wildly reading as I ate, S S F
T, L W B B P Q
B, she dipped into my mouth the mild
discordant fuel——she wanted me to thrive, and decipher.

Faisal Mohyuddin: The “Gentle Ferocity” of His Must-Read Voice

If you haven’t read or discovered Faisal Mohyuddin, then this may be the moment to wake up to the unforgettable, even transformative experience of his poetry. Also an accomplished and unique visual artist, as well as a recognized innovator in the teaching profession, Mohyuddin’s poetry is not to be missed. His newest collection, The Displaced Children of Displaced Children, won the 2017 Sexton Prize in poetry judged by Kimiko Hahn. A “proud American Muslim” whose voice enlightens a path to multi-cultural coexistence and compassion, one cannot really categorize his work in the usual sense, because its boundaries are made dynamic by their heartfelt human core. Just a sample of his work below. (More on his website.)

Migration Narrative

What wilts becomes
the world for the weary.
They can’t help but

wonder at the lovely
shadow touch of another
war’s rubbled song.

If crossing freely into fire
can churn the blood’s
hollow music, then

surely the orphan can
ask at dusk for water
and get more than spit.

—————————-

The following poem, published in The Missouri Review, is one of the most amazing poetic expressions of faith, fatherhood, love, and defining sacredness, I’ve seen.

The Opening

It is You we worship; it is You we ask for help. Guide us
to the straight path: the path of those You have blessed,
those who incur no anger and who have not gone astray. —The Holy Quran, “Al-Fatiha,” verses 5-7

THE CHILD: Tell me, Father,
what new turbulence took hold
in your blood on the day of my birth,
and did your stomach sink
each time I cried out for the basket
of your arms?

THE FATHER: I held you too close
to feel anything but the wild
gallop of your tiny heart.

THE CHILD: Did you recite
the call to prayer in my ear, slip
your pinky, dipped in honey, in my mouth
to mark with song and sweetness
my entry into the ummah
of the Prophet Muhammad?

THE FATHER: All night, I nursed
a candle’s flame, leaning in and out
of its sphere of light, mumbling verses
of the Qur’an, mispronouncing
the Arabic, not understanding a word
beyond “Al-Fatiha,” but knowing,
nonetheless, I had fulfilled
this first obligation of fatherhood.

THE CHILD: What was it like
to look into my eyes for the first time?

THE FATHER: I felt as if my fingers
had combed the embryonic silt feathering
the deepest bottom of the ocean.
And when I resurfaced, holding the key
to fatherhood, I understood
the true worth of being a living thing.

THE CHILD: What did you say
to Mother when she could not find
the words to tell you about how
the breaking open of a body
propels one toward heaven, that God
promises the greatest share of Paradise
to mothers?

THE FATHER: After a long silence,
I said, “To every unutterable thing
buried in your heart, to every miraculous truth
teetering on the tip of your tongue,
yes, yes, ameen.”

THE CHILD: Did you spill the blood
of two goats, give their meat to the poor,
to bless my arrival, to mark
the transition of my soul
from the library of the eternal
into the living fire of a body too fragile to share?

THE FATHER: For twenty years,
I harvested the silhouette of my father’s voice
from the night sky, let its echo rock me
to sleep whenever I felt so crushed
by heartache that even God’s infinite love,
a rescue vessel sailing through a history
of bloodshed and loss, could not hold me
intact enough to believe in survival—
so if it was my hand or another’s
that guided the blade along two throats
I cannot recall, nor do I want to.

THE CHILD: What else
might you have done
had fatherhood not stolen you
from the life you knew?

THE FATHER: When a surgeon
saves your life by amputating a limb
housing a reservoir of poison,
you do not curse the violence
of his work, nor the pain of the procedure.
You bow down before God.
You thank the man. You learn to write
with the other hand, to walk
on one leg.

THE CHILD: One final question,
Father. What should I say
when my son, when I too become a father,
asks me about the hours
of your life that exist beyond
my knowing?

THE FATHER: Tell him more
about the hours of your life
so his hunger is not as desperate
nor as bottomless
as ours.

Gabeba Baderoon: A Deeply Beautiful Poetic Voice from South Africa

In memory of Winnie Mandela, the brave freedom fighter against apartheid in South Africa who died this week (and if you have any doubts about her heroism, read this), I searched the work of South African poets to find a favorite to post here, and with great delight discovered the powerful, gifted voice of Gabeba Baderoon. The recipient of many awards and also the praise of well-established poets, a bio can be found here.

She is equally adept at addressing such public issues as war, oppression, and national tragedy, and the very small personal details of life, infusing a special magic and lightness of tone into whatever subject she chooses. Here, on war and social tragedy:

WAR TRIPTYCH: LOVE, SILENCE, GLORY

By Gabeba Baderoon

I. Always For The First Time

We tell our stories of war like stories
of love, innocent as eggs.

We will meet memory again at the wall around our city,
always for the first time.

II. Accounting

The mother asked to stay.
She looked at her silent child.

I was waiting for you.

The quiet of the girl’s face was a different quiet
Her hands lay untouched by death.

The washer of bodies cut
away her long black dress.

Blue prayer beads fell
to the floor in a slow accounting.

The washer of bodies began to sing
a prayer to mothers and daughters.

The mother said,
who will wait for me.

(on the aftermath of the bombings on a holy day in Najaf, Iraq)

III. Father Receives News His Son Died in the Intifada

When he heard the news, Mr Karim became silent.
He did not look at the cameras,
nor at the people who brought their grief.
He felt a hand slip from his hand,
a small unclasping,
and for that he refused the solace of glory.

And here, a more personal detail of no apparent significance takes on that magic we seek in poetry.

THE ART OF LEAVING

By Gabeba Baderoon

The warmth is leaving
your shirt, hanging
over the back of the chair. Slowly
it is giving back everything
it had of yours.

Here she gives love and relationships in a different context, allowing the physical and emotional elements their space, time, and an unexpected transcendence.

THE DREAM IN THE NEXT BODY

By Gabeba Baderoon

From the end of the bed, I pull
the sheets back into place.

An old man paints a large sun striped
by clouds of seven blues.
Across the yellow centre each
blue is precisely itself and yet,
at the point it meets another,
the eye cannot detect a change.
The air shifts, he says,
and the colours.

When you touched me in a dream,
your skin an hour ago did not end
where it joined mine. My body continued
the movement of yours. Something flowed
between us like birds in a flock.

In a solitude larger than our two bodies
the hardening light parted us again

But under the covering the impress
of our bodies is a single, warm hollow.