from American Poetry Review, November / December 2007
I STILL REMEMBER THE CHURCHES in the Coptic quarter of Cairo—underneath the ground, a dark staircase to the side of an empty courtyard, nearly overlooked. The entire church existed in the dark under the streets of the quarter, as if true faith should always be secret or, at the least, an aside.
The Quran tells us, "even if all the trees in the world were made into pens and all the oceans in it made into ink, with seven more oceans to multiply it, still the words of God would not come to end." It's what poets dream about—that the entire universe is neverending revelation and everyone with their ear to the ground—literally—might luck into prophecy. Still, with all the countless men and women in the beginningless generations who have "heard" the words of God in the rain, the wind, the stones, or from angels, we haven't managed to still the storm in the world or our hearts.
"The Quran mentions one hundred and four revelations but only four of them by name," my wise father told me once. The four? The Torah, the Quran, the injil—a text revealed to Jesus, but now believed by Muslims to be lost—and the Zubuur (psalms) of David. And the other hundred books? "We don't know their names," my Dad says. "So the Bhaghavad-Gita could be one," I ask him. "It could be," he agrees. In this way he taught me respect for all traditions of the world, but also respect for mystery itself—the one hundred missing books equal the one hundred names of god. Is 'One Hundred' itself only a metaphor for all the trees and oceans of the world?
For me, how you talk to God is paramount. I first learned to pray in another language I didn't understand. I was taught syllables first by transliteration and then in the Arabic original. It was hard work getting my tongue wrapped around the Arabic vowels and consonants that do not exist in English. Like the consonant in the middle of my first name and the vowel at the beginning of my last name, faith is unpronounceable.
My favorite of the five daily prayers was the first because you prayed it early in the morning before dawn, usually before anyone was up, in the privacy of your own room. As far as prayers go, though you were reciting them out loud, they were secret. My next favorites were the noon and afternoon prayers because for some reason these prayers are supposed to be recited silently. Your lips move so people know you are in prayer but you make no sound.
For so many generations faith needed to be secret; under pain of torture or conversion. Silence is different than secrecy of course, but like the one hundred and four books, we cannot know the truth of our faith. And if we can then there's no 'faith' to it; such faith has all the charm of reading a dictionary.
Because I couldn't speak to God properly—I learned to speak to Him by rote—I drifted away from prayer as an idea of speaking to God ritually and towards different forms of worship: meditation, yoga practice, and a perhaps odd habit of talking to God or an empty room the way you might a talk to your friend at the coffee shop.
A drone in music often accompanies yogic chanting or meditation. It's a single note held and maintained. Often times if you listen carefully to it you can hear the harmonic sounds under the note—you can hear infinity in the singularity, as in David Lang's The Passing Measures or Sheila Chandra's ABoneCroneDrone series. The sound is supposed to organize or focus the practitioner on the inner sound-called "nada." I always liked that the word meant 'nothing' in Spanish because nada is nada—no thing at all in the heart of awareness. Williams once declared "no ideas but in things"—Robert Enright suggested "no things but in ideas" but I think I'm going to prefer the more essential "no things."
Not to say that there aren't "things" but after all, then again, there aren't.
For some time I have been in love with the paintings of Agnes Martin. Not with the blankness of them at all, but with the human touch, with the coolness, the emptiness of mind that can approach· a canvas and lightly touch it. Each small gesture, each motion on the surface seems so silent and thus an incredible vessel of human emotion and communication. I find her canvases deafening in their purity, in their motion, in their restraint. Compare these to true blankness like some of Ryman's work, or the minimalist restraint of pure suggestiveness as in On Kawara's work.
You only think there's nothing there. But there's something there, something solid and real. Cage taught us that there is no silence—especially not these days of intense electromagnetic radiation blanketing the air—and there never was.
It seems like any time someone thinks they have heard God whispering to them there's trouble in it for someone.
I think it's why I began to be attracted to poetry that was quiet about what it believed. Foremost among these poets—who speak of the ineffable, but in outlines, so that you better know the stakes of trying to believe anything—is Jane Cooper. Her work is haunted by the fleeting nature of a human life against the immortal scale of not God or a Creator but rather Creation, as if for Cooper the maker is in the made. "To live to be a hundred / is nothing," she writes in a poem about Georgia O'Keeffe, "the landscape is not human / I was meant to take nothing away." Her poetry always acknowledges that there is something that cannot be said, questions about existence that will not or can not be answered. In another poem, "birch leaves // make a ground bass of silence / that never quite dies."
Talking to God is always essentially talking to Someone Who isn't going to answer. And for many of us it is talking to Him in a language we may not understand. Most people pray looking at their own hands. The body, perhaps, being the soul's ultimate fetish object. The body is the mortal part, the case of existence that the soul can look to for proof it is "real," that the world is actual. And of course—the urge is at the root of religion—the body looks at the soul in wonder, desperate for proof that there is more than the world, that there is some form of immortality.
In the Siva Samhita, an ancient Yogi text that until very recently has been difficult to get in English translation, it is written, "As in innumerable cups of water, many reflections of the sun are seen, but the substance is the same; similarly individuals, like cups, are innumerable, but the vivifying spirit, like the sun, is one" (Siva Samhita I:35). It's as if in human life—as in poetry—there is an electric current in the air that animates each individual body or poem that is entirely unique and beyond the fleshly or verbal confines of that individual construct.
Or as Donald Revell expressed, you don't find poetry in poems. Because every poem—every effort at putting the ineffable into language—is destined to fail. Just a few years after Dickinson wrote "I felt a Funeral in my brain" she tried again: "I felt a Cleaving in my Mind." The two poems, born of the same impulse, following the same grammatical and rhetorical routes, arrive at very different kingdoms indeed. The second poem in fact becomes a form of meditation on the impossibility of saying the same thing twice—"The thought behind, I strove to join / Unto the thought before— / But Sequence ravelled out of Sound / Like Balls—upon a Floor."
What are you supposed to do then if you can't know anything the first time and can't speak properly of the experience? Adam Clay ends his book The Wash with a poem called "Beneath the Bridge." The speaker beneath the bridge kneels nightly by the river despairing of ever hearing. He thinks, "some ballad singer had sung it all." He meets a gravedigger who tells him, "the radio of eternity begins anew / when each of us is born and ends each time / we look to the sky and think to sing along." It seems to me that Clay offers the key notion—it's not wrong to speak but to sing along with Creation is not enough. One needs like Dickinson to speak and then speak and then speak again.
If there are a hundred unmentioned books in the world, it stands to reason, my father thought, that all peoples of the world, in all various times, must have had revelatory texts—why would anyone be left out of salvation, he wondered? It's an ecumenical Islam that I adore in him. "All rivers go into the same ocean," my grandfather was fond of saying on the question of religious tolerance. I thought him incredibly wise to have thought of such an image; of course I later found that particular quote in both the poetry of the Sufi poet Hafez and the philosophical writings of Swami Vivekananda. Vivekananda may have read it in Hafez, but it pleases me immensely to think of my Muslim grandfather reading the Vedanta teachings of Vivekananda.
But it's a one-way conversation, the idea of prayer. You talk to God. God is silent. You read the silence. For some people the holy texts are God talking back. Some people know the texts so well they can quote any part they find relevant to any daily situation. There are divination methods using the text to discover answers to daily dilemmas. Does it strike you as odd, a way of putting words into God's mouth? So much depends on the belief then of absolute purity of transmission of those texts. The crucial metaphor of Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses was an imagined situation of a corrupted holy text. Mayhem ensued in art as in life.
The trauma of a prayer is not merely that we are forced into such a desperate situation as having to pray for something, but in the ultimate lack of an answer. Should the prayer be fulfilled we take it as an answer, but there's no cognitive certainty there. Similarly if the prayer is not fulfilled we try for the justification: that God had other plans. And how, may I ask, might God "answer" the prayer of a parent of one sick child but not another? You would say, "It was in God's plan," in which case we have to admit no one "answered" any prayer, but events unfolded beyond the pale.
In any case the rhetoric of prayer leaves the supplicant in a poor position indeed—we are powerless creatures, on the outside of Divinity, with no concrete influence on it whatsoever. No wonder children and adults alike prefer stories of youngsters with broomsticks and spider suits, wardrobes with doors to other worlds, or horcruxes that can hold the mortal spirit.
Only some poems talk about life, describe objects and experiences. Other poems dream of music, dance and prayer—like the wisteria in Lisel Mueller's "Monet Refuses the Operation," sometimes you find a poem that "becomes the bridge it touches."
The purity of the form of the prayer might best be discovered then, without expectation of answer. It's a brave supplicant that continues to speak in the face of silence. One might expect the supplicant to either abandon speech or to change one's understanding of God. Revell's idea is that one does not find 'poetry' in poems, but that a poem is what is left after 'poetry' has passed through a place. There is some ineffable experience that we might try to write about or describe, but often the experience itself remains slightly beyond the ken, the way one must not look directly at the sun, the way one must not, in some traditions, speak the name of God.
But how could I be a poet, how could I pray at all, when there was something I wasn't telling anyone, even God? Isn't absolute silence, the thing that won't answer, the one thing you can trust, that you can tell anything to? But I couldn't even do that much. Ultimately it was my unwillingness to speak about the one thing perhaps most important in the mortal and carnate universe—my body's desire—that torqued my language into poetry. I never knew how to say anything directly and so I had to hedge in a hundred different ways.
It's naïve to say this hedging in poetry did not carve a landscape in my ability to express anything or even my ability to think through something in my actual life.
To me Islam was never about the absolutes or the adherence to one interpretation of it—indeed it splintered almost immediately upon delivery. The one verse that was repeated over and over again in the Quran that I loved the most was "Surely there are signs in this for those of you who would reflect." The fact that this verse is used rhetorically and poetically causes many to miss its actual practical application: active engagement in matters of faith.
But I'm not to be trusted. I can talk about faith and silence in poetry and metaphor a million times but the most intimate of my self's secrets—love and desire—remained utterly separated for so many years from the most intimate of my body's partners in the world—from the seed and soil it came from, from the places it was brothered to.
When I learned to talk to God or to Silence, the lack of response was key to my willingness to speak at all. If God was never going to respond to me I would have to figure out Heaven for myself—I would have to know not by book but by heart what I believed and where I was bound. The Quran with its constant repetition of mysterious stories followed by that ubiquitous repeated verse—"surely there are signs in this for those of you that reflect"—seemed to back me up.
When you sit in a darkened room, talking to no one, even headlights on the street a hundred feet away seem to be happening right next to you.
Last year, I lost a manuscript of poetry. Forty original pages, handwritten, not backed up, not typed up or anything. What I could reconstruct I reconstructed from earlier drafts, from memory, from prayer, and sometimes from dream. When I lost my folder of poems, I received so many different forms of advice. Robin said that the loss itself would change my writing practice. Gray said that I should write to the silent place itself. Marco said even if I couldn't remember the poems' words, the experience of writing them had already changed me, was already in my body. So it would be possible to rewrite those poems just from memory. Even if the 'poem' itself, the trace-record of poetry as Revell says, was utterly different, the 'poetry' of it oughno be the same, the undamaged part, the eternal part.
But the poems and the poetry of the experience both were ephemeral—one written on paper with ink in letters, the other so intangible we can't even talk about it. Better to hold the silence. The silence—held as if physical, but ironically about the absence of the physical body: the folder of poems is gone, fluttered away like the novel Apu throws from the mountaintop after the death of his wife at the end of Ray's Apu Trilogy.
Gray told me, "you have to write to the lost poems now," and so I began writing directly to the loss and silence. It had something to do with my own silence, even perhaps my shame at keeping silent, at wanting that silence to be beautiful. Silence wrote back as poems.
If it was possible for Silence to write back was it possible—actually possible—for me to speak?
Like many writers I kept a journal by my bedside, either for transcribing dreams roughly in the middle of the night or even attempting automatic writing while in a half-waking or half-sleeping state, the state when one's inner consciousness is supposedly alert—when one could attempt extreme mental feats like learning a foreign language or memorize sacred texts simply by hearing them recited. I heard from someone at some point that it was better to allow the dream-worlds to pass unapprehended. Could I damage the pure secrecy of them by trying to write a single version? Wasn't it better then to allow them to pass like a stream, allow those images, phrases, words, and poems to remain in my subconscious mind to be forever fertile, forever feeding me? Should there be things one never says, not even in the darkest places of the night?
I found myself in Cairo, summer of 2001, accompanying my father on a business trip. Together we visited the Ras-ul-Hussain masjid. A place of secret origins, this masjid was said to be the burial place of the head of Imam Hussain, grandson of the Prophet. Well, most Shi'as believe that Hussain—all of him—is actually buried in Karbala, Iraq. Still we found ourselves there, flabbergasted by the intense devotion of the Cairenes—mostly Sunni—to this most Shi'a of saints. My father told us we had to pray there and that if we prayed fot anything there it would be granted since it was a place of such intense devotion. What moved him the most were the Sunnis themselves building and preserving this place.
Whether or not anything holy had actually happened there or anything holy was actually buried there was beside the point for him. And for me, it was an actualization of my own sense of spiritual doubt being ultimately the most sacred thing.
But what could I pray for? To have my body's love and desires disappear, change? To have the courage to speak? When it mattered—when it really (strangely) mattered—there was nothing to pray for. Because to "pray" would mean to ask for an answer. I did not want to "receive" an answer, I wanted to "arrive" at an answer.
Is prayer panic or in the most perverse way an actual denial of faith? That if God loves you he would come and take away your hardship? And if your hardship is not lessened, what could that mean? How could I pray for something? Was it selfish?
Beyond all that—heartbreakingly—I could not choose what I wanted.
My book of poems The Far Mosque was about—in its conceptual form—the changing of the direction of prayer by God from the "far" mosque in Jerusalem to the "near" mosque in Mecca. In the story the Prophet is borne aloft from Mecca to Jerusalem and then up into Heaven to receive instruction. In response to the historical controversy about the actual location of the far mosque, Rumi said "Solomon's mosque is not made of bricks and bars. . . the farthest mosque is the one inside you."
So it might not be so odd that there's always something you are whispering to God that no one else is supposed to hear. The holiest place—the place you can jump up into heaven from—is inside you. There's not such a long way—modern South Asian history notwithstanding, as my wise grandfather instinctively knew—between apparently different religions. In most religions public expression of prayer is preferred and encouraged. I never liked it. In Mohja Kahf's novel the girl in the tangerine scarf, Khadra is asked by her mother, "Do you still say your prayers?" Khadra first wants to answer, "Not five but five hundred times a day," and then instead wants to say, "God is not an asshole."
Poetry and prayer—both ways of talking to God, I guess—depend on secrecy or at least secretiveness. As much as I have ever been public about my life, who I love, how I love him, I have always held it back as a secret from those who ought to have known me the best, the most, the every way.
How could I talk about faith, about my life, when everything about it I hold close to my chest, every time I write about it I try to write it into tricks?
There was one thing in the world I never thought I would say. I tried to say it in a dozen different secret ways.
Whether you are keeping a secret or keeping your silence it comes out in everything you say, every poem you write. I always wanted to tell everything but knew there was a piece of it—not a piece of it, but the thing itself—that I could not tell. How to satisfy the urge of this without a narrative gift? I wrote a novel in which nothing happens and nothing is explained. I wrote poems as musical fragments.
Small wonder the writer Anaïs Nin came to mean so much to me. Nin's primary urge was to share her inner life. In two lucid essays, "On Writing" and "Realism and Reality," she explains that her allegiance is to emotional truth not narrative detail and not, as it turns out, to factual truth either.
At first she attempted to distill her life into novels. Ironically her two most critically successful fictions are her first and her last, both most unconventional in their attention to the forms of fiction. House of Incest is more prose poem than novel and Collages is the most thinly veiled autobiography of any of Nin's fictional works. Some of the characters still retain their actual names. Nin's other novels are equally visceral in their privileging of essential emotional drama in the face of the peculiarly organized requirements of the standard structures of sentence, chapter, and character.
But what's more interesting about Nin's efforts is the fact that her truth reads like tarot. There are no less than three different versions of the infamous diary. Six volumes of Nin's diary were prepared by Nin for publication, vetted carefully and edited by Nin in conjunction with Gunther Stuhlmann, who edited the final volume by himself following Nin's death in 1974. Some people, including Nin's husband Hugh Guiler, elected to have their portraits excised completely from the diary. In these cases Nin claims not to have edited substantively.
Nin's will stipulated that the suppressed material from the diaries ought to be published but only following the deaths of Henry Miller, his wife June, and Guiler, who was the last of the group to die, in 1985. Rupert Pole, Nin's second husband, had compiled four volumes of this suppressed material until his death several years ago. If one assumes that Pole did not edit this material at all (inaccurately labeled the "unexpurgated diary," it contains in fact only previously suppressed material with some reprinting of the original diary for context) then one is astonished to discover the extent of Nin's editing of the earlier published material. In one instance when Guiler mediated a fight between Henry and June to Nin's chagrin, Nin substituted her brother Joaquin as a 'character' in the scene. The rest of the dialog,in that scene as printed in The Diary of Anais Nin: Volume 1 is substantively different—to suit Joaquin's temperament one assumes—than the scene as recounted in the "unexpurgated" version printed in Henry and June.
So we have the version edited and rewritten by Nin, the version in Nin's original words but selected and arranged by Rupert Pole and then we have the third version—the actual diary volumes themselves, property of the Anaïs Nin Trust. Only one scholar has access to it under the terms of Pole's will. As with Emily Dickinson, it seems it will be some time before the general reader will be able to pass through the veils of secrecy that Nin has surrounded herself with—in life as in death. But perhaps it is somehow appropriate that there is no way to read the actual facts of Nin's life. It is as if, through her novels, and the various versions of diary, she has indeed managed to be more truthful to the emotional experiences of her life. The diary we cannot see is the thing that brings that experience into sharpest focus.
Were the poems I wrote after the loss of the folder practice for a speech I was afraid to give? Is the form of a "prayer" just practice for actually talking to God? After years of comfort with these questions—comfort with silence, comfort with secrecy, comfort with the gifts in poetry they offered me—I found myself at last wanting only to speak.
For a long time, many years, I have been vocal politically. It was easy to speak about injustice in the world while ignoring the injustice in my own life, my own skin. There are so many different ways to be silent. We, as Americans, know something about that. The long silence about Iraq between 1991 and 2001 betrayed the fact that the Gulf War never "ended." Bombing missions and the UN embargo continued to take countless civilian lives. Ask the hundreds of thousands of children UNICEF has estimated to have perished due to the sanctions. Ask Layla Al-Attar, the brilliant and world-renowned Iraqi artist who was killed in her home in June of 1993 by a Tomahawk missile launched by the US against military targets in Baghdad. Seven of the 23 missiles launched that day went astray and hit residential neighborhoods. Since they were precision missiles after all, the houses on either side of the Al-Attar residence were unscathed in the attack.
In a year when boys in Iran were hanged for their sexual orientation, two women in Somalia were executed for their relationship, countless others in Egypt rounded up and harassed and jailed, I found myself wondering, why should I speak against the death of Muslims? In fact, why should I speak?
Last winter, on another visit home to see my family—visits in which I was unable to answer even the simplest questions about my life—I was sitting in a room full of people and suddenly I couldn't breathe. I got up and went into the other room. My mother, not wanting to see but still seeing, finally came to me, her hand extended, saying "What are you thinking about?" I took her hand and suddenly found myself speaking.
How I said it—in pieces, first to my mother and then to my father, how assiduously I avoided certain words and phrases and tried to tell the truth by speaking anything but it—and what happened after—I will not yet tell.
Every essay, like every good poem, should have a dark and silent place in it. The important thing is that I spoke about something I imagined would be a secret my whole life. I spoke it to her, I spoke it to my father, spoke it finally in that house.
I couldn't even believe myself as I heard the words coming out of my mouth.
For so long I worshiped the silence, the quiet place in existence, of being unwilling, or unable to speak, but more than that, exploring the beauty and mystery of doubt and unknowing that proceeds from a via negativa philosophy of not being able to name a thing, not being able to speak it.
How much have I been irrevocably changed by this pressure, the way a landscape is sculpted by the glacier as it advances across it, but also as the glacier retreats? Everything feels strange now—my writing in my journal, interacting with friends and colleagues I have known for years, interacting with my partner, Marco. I keep wondering, can they tell something has happened? How will poetry and prayer work for me now?
In the hadith it is said, "Paradise lies beneath the feet of your mother." It is a part ofIslam I find very easy to believe. But the body and the soul might not agree on its meaning. I think there is a place in the "self" where the flesh of the body's temporal existence and the quotidian awareness of the mind and the placid awareness of the eternal (and usually very quiet) soul do not meet. I think that God is the place you cannot go.
That afternoon after speaking with my father and mother, I sat in the kitchen alone, terrified, thinking When will I be able to go back to my parents' house? When will I hear my mother's voice again? If paradise lies beneath the feet of my mother, how will I get there?
When my father asked me, "Are you Muslim?" all I had in response was silence. Inside I wanted to say, "Yes. Yes. Yes." But the assent couldn't even touch the intensity of my silent belief. I couldn't explain anything when I most needed to be able to explain. At the end of her first book, Jane Cooper asked, "To the sea of received silence // why should I sign / my name?".
For a man to leap up into Heaven, he had to go from the near mosque to the far mosque to the "farthest mosque." And what did he hear there? He was sent from silence back to his home—told that the direction of worship was what was closest to him. For years I prayed to silence. In a single afternoon the direction for my prayers changed.
About the Author
Kazim Ali teaches creative writing at Oberlin College and in the Stonecoast MFA program of the University of Southern Maine. His books include the volumes of poetry The Far Mosque and The Fortieth Day (forthcoming from BOA Editions in May 2008) and the novel Quinn's Passage. His edition of Michael Burkard's Envelope of Night: Selected and Uncollected Poems 1966-1990 will be published by Nightboat Books in December 2007. His website is www.kazimali.com and poetry videos are available on his YouTube page.
Editors: Stephen Berg, David Bonanno, Elizabeth Scanlon