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Sunday, June 15th, 2008
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The Fortieth Day (American Poets Continuum)

by Kazim Ali

Riddles of Spirit

A review by Miguel Murphy

In his second collection, The Fortieth Day, Kazim Ali proves himself an alternate visionary, one who would summon the troubling questions of loss and existence through the sheer contemplation of what it means to be "spirit." In reference to the Islamic tradition of a second memorial funeral service held forty days after burial, the title of this beautiful collection sets the tone for contemplation and mourning. True, his poems enact prayer not as supplication, but as riddle: "Should I draw the spirit," he asks in the second poem of the book, "as a lantern or a cup." This cleanly sets up the poet's dilemma as part grief, part philosophy. His book is a guide to this meditation in which we pursue the struggles of our spiritual bewilderment.

Many of Ali's poems have titles that seem to be searching for a way to name, to identify "what's in us that reaches / to know what's after." Consider "Dear Father, Dear Sound," "Dear Sunset, Dear Avalanche," and "Dear Dangerous, How Do You Explain It" -- titles that imply reciprocal embraces, metaphorical exchange. If "a person is only a metaphor for the place he wants to go," then we can frame these addresses in the author's search to understand spiritual existence. In the first poem of the book, "Lostness," Ali states (as he questions): "dear God of blankness I pray to dear unerasable // how could I live without You if I were ever given answers." "God" here is temporal ("dear afternoon God dear evening God my lonely world”) but permanent (“dear utterly unmistakable ether // dear Lostness"). Ali's work subtly questions this relationship between divinity and selfhood and challenges what we mean by the word itself: "God," he acknowledges in "Afternoon Prayer," is "a curt question or a curtain."

Throughout this book, poems enact the contemplative struggle of faith; often Ali meditates on natural forms until we find that wilderness too is prayer. In "Chasm" he writes "all this time I have been speaking / to nothing but wildness // and now wildness is answering." Another brief catalogue of titles reveals a preoccupation with nature as a means to meditate on the nature of spirit: "Morning Prayer," "The Year of Winter," "The Desert," "The Ocean Floor," "Horizon," "Ursa Major." Nowhere does nature reflect Ali's query as to the nature of human existence more than the human body that dies. In "A Century in the Garden" he remarks "what is the difference between entity and eternity." The nature of the self is an inverse riddle to that of God: "I am brief and a river," he writes, "somehow space and far away."

If the question of God is only one riddle of this book, it is a mirror to the riddle of spiritual hunger. "God" is indefinable ("the sound of eternity you’ve been there"), so too is "Self" ("am I music or motion") -- and Ali enacts this dilemma stylistically. Almost completely written in couplets or monostiches, the book is as much space, as much silence, as it is poetry. Ali wants us to experience a deep contemplation that is forceful, both rigorous and transformative. Without punctuation, many of his couplets read intuitively first as "questions," then as declarations; syntactically, they become answers to themselves, reminiscent of the Zen koan and other philosophical riddles. The poem, "Dear Lantern, Dear Cup" is one characteristic example:

should You light the way
or should You hold me

dear earthquake in the ground
who is waiting

am I shining into infinite space
or will I be spilled

And in "Math" Ali asks directly, "Who is that in the space where your / self and your self do not meet?" Like light itself that acts both as particle and wave, the question of form (literally in the poem, and figuratively in relationship between spirit and body) is itself a trick conundrum-it sets up a question under the wrong paradigm. The answer isn't so much an answer as a consideration of both states of being at once. "How does one skip a stone on water," he asks in a statement, "the moment between skips."

What does prayer mean for a poet who accepts these questions of being as answerless riddle? "In sculpture you are not supposed to carve / but carve away" Ali writes in "Double Reed," and in "The Desert," while considering a man "trying to talk to the cacti," he asks himself (and us):

If you could receive only one answer
would you choose to know

what he is choking on
or what he is trying to say

Prayer, then, presents Ali with a choice he cannot make, and this inability allows his poems to remain vulnerable. But vulnerability is an act of spiritual receipt. "Drifting somewhere between map and maelstrom," he writes in "Naval Missive," "should I ask for my thirst to be quenched or for unquenchable thirst." One cannot help but remember Whitman's impulse to "loafe" as an active invitation to the soul. Another potent metaphor, listening too becomes spiritual action.

Despite the intensity of his lyricism, and perhaps because metaphor is this poet's necessary vehicle, so much abstraction in the book is rarely given narrative anchor. Ali seems to write poetry in direct contrast to the wallpaper of capitalism, but some readers may find it overwhelming. On the other hand, these poems are selfless, more conscious than self-conscious; they direct us to questions of human existence and spiritual wonder, rather than focus on the narrative trappings of personality and incident. Ali's poetry is thus of the highest order, a poetry in which we can deeply consider the nature of our experience and ask ourselves questions like, "Where did I come from? Which way will I be borne?"

Miguel Murphy is the author of A Book Called Rats, a recipient of the Blue Lynx Prize for poetry. He is a frequent contributor to Rain Taxi.

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