Kazim Ali’s poetry allows us more than a glimpse into his rich oeuvre of work resonating with a commitment to creating a language of spiritual and political urgency that walks with soft footsteps. If there was one word to describe Ali’s poetic style and methodology it could well be ‘palimpsestic’. The range of the poems in this collection is wide, poems that are re-imaginings of Quranic and Islamicate myths and figures, translations of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and prose-like poems mapping cities through an autobiographical lens, but in spite of the diversity of engagement they all work with a sense of an ‘always already’.
The poems’ revisionist engagement with mythology forges an epistemology of time that contests normative constructions of temporality by deploying endless and revisionary voices of myths intertwined with the meandering flow of memory.
Myths operate as locations from which the poet seeks to connect the past with the present, meshing together what is routinely polarized, the ‘religious’ and the ‘secular’, ‘East’ and ‘West’, myth and history, time and distance, given to readers as a ‘collision or collusion with history’, a phrase that aptly describes this layered wording, to borrow what Ali borrows from the poet Susan Howe in his poem ‘Skyward’. The poems often engage the voice of a believer speaking from within the religious tradition and then subtly reveal themselves through a technique of de-familiarization to be spectacular Blakean subversions of entrenched morality or accepted notions of divinity. Wrapped in intricately and delicately woven echoes, the verses appear before us caught in a labyrinth of past and present, and leave us, having silently and yet radically, breathed new urgency into forgotten or hardened ‘truths’ and having opened the sealed contours of variegated geographies.
In spite of the hybrid sources of myth and belief that the collection draws from, Quranic, Biblical, Greek, contemporary cultures, there is a thread that binds them together, other than the voice of the poet: the resurrected figures are invariably humanized and we hear their painful choices, their complex psychological states and their revolts against handed down roles. Then there is a realization that accompanies the despair, a carving out of the diminishing space, of a new and subversive power like a lamenting Icarus after his fall who declares, ‘It’s a sham, this charnel-choice/ between heaven and home’ (‘Icarus’). Interestingly this rejection of divinity as oppressive obedience to the ‘law of the father’ is reiterated in several poems that engage with both Islamicate and Biblical figures thus mapping them across a universal human condition. Marah, the wife of Lot, finds redemption, like Icarus, in supposed punishment, echoing the isolation of the being inside a body, which ultimately unfolds in eternity, ‘disappearing into the infinity of matter’ (‘The Plaint of Marah, Woman of Sodom’). ‘The Promise Keeper’ carries the same quiet revolutionary realization that ‘Wings will not carry you skyward/ Your own body is the only mosque you need’.
It isn’t difficult to see that the pleasure and the subversive power of the poetry stems from Ali’s being an insider’s voice. He writes to question dogma and the harshness of scriptural authority but in the language of a devout believer. The theatre of re-imagination borrows from the vocabulary of crisis and doubt encountered in religious literatures. There is rage in the face of suffering, suffering when promises are delayed, and unbearable doubt. The Imam Mahdi pleads, incognito in ‘Ghaibat’, ‘couldn’t I too have a staff built of snakes?/ couldn’t you burn the bushes beneath/my window each night?’ Miriam the prophetess, sister of Moses, laments exasperated after the plague that ‘Something’s always falling out of the sky […] Even the saviour supposedly is going to descend from Heaven.’ […] ‘I wait for the time our saviour might emerge from the dark earth. When the bush won’t burn. When the river won’t bleed.’ (‘The Plagues’). Yet, instead of only an isolating cry in the dark till deliverance comes from above, Ali’s poetry delivers a promise at the limits of human knowledge and at the heart of the human spirit that ought to be in sync with its surroundings, if only we ‘would learn to read the book of the sky, he would see the birds circling lazily around hot currents, which could only mean a large body of water is near’ (‘Fairy Tale’).
Things coming from ‘above’ are held in deep suspicion by the deeply democratic impulse of poetry. Personal salvation and political freedom are tied with each other and they are both from within. In the Miriam poems, Miriam as a young girl of thirteen, menstruating, having to make the cruel choice between saving her baby brother and fulfilling a faceless god’s promise is re-imagined as the original carrier of God’s word. At the moment she finally makes a choice, ‘in the name of my blood dropping to the river bank’ and ‘in the name of the blood of my people’ sets the baby in the river she declares, ‘And then let never again in the history of the world a slave woman be at odds with the tides. Let never again in the history of slave women those waves and waters swallow up our babies’ and reclaims lost power (‘The River Bank’). The very utterance/textuality used to enslave women in Biblical and colonial history becomes the location of resistance, a re-writing that reimagines feminine agency as a powerful personal sacrifice for the sake of future political freedom for her people.
The Miriam poems are deliciously feminist and querist critiques of hetero-normative Gods and their male agents and by re-writing the role of women in foundational myths, the poems correct the imbalance of power. Choices, terribly difficult ones, ultimately placing oneself in peril but ones that eventually decide the fate of people are shown to be made by the women, while the men, be it Moses, Pharaoh or even God, are too extricated in the wresting of power and imposition of law. It is the queen at ‘At the Court of the Pharaoh’, who ‘leaned over and hissed in Pharaoh’s ear:/ There. Look. Now your quarrel/with the Hebrew God is over./ Let these people go./ Even the Goddess of the Nile/ is giving you Her/ Sacred Sign. ‘And Miriam, always overshadowed by her brother laments not being able to do her bit at court.
In their deft exposition of patriarchal power the poems delineate the colluding of that power with Eurocentric philosophies of transcendentalism, a consequence of which is human and ecological exploitation. They work to erect in the face of that metaphysics a mytho-philosophy of the ‘body’, wherein the ‘real’ bodies of men and women, of rivers, of cities with layered histories and desires, of the planet as a ‘living being’ become the site of ethics. Miriam laments that ‘While he was on the mountain with God’s ear/I was on the ground, sweating in my robes’ / ‘trudged in mine through manure’ and ‘squeezed out blood with my own hands’. The ‘word’ of God is pitted against the ‘work’ of ‘women’ and an expression is sought through all the poems that is wound up with, not severed from living, breathing bodies, land and human alike.
The choices of mythic figures may not be deliberately political but the personal, given the poet’s own confrontations with his religious legacy and his own location as a man of Indian-Muslim ethnicity living and writing in a ‘global’ world turning increasingly suspicious of the ‘other’ is rendered deeply and powerfully political. In that sense the resurrection of myths and figures of Islamicate literature, both ‘secular’ and ‘religious’, of giving contemporary meaning to the forgotten women of the Bible are acts of political insurrection. They decolonize ‘thought’ by blurring the boundaries of discursive thought/belief. More significantly, the lament of an Icarus or Miriam may also be read as a reflection of the poet’s own struggle with morality and authority where he comes to realize that ‘the prayers he learned all his life mean no more to him’ and rejects freedom born from divisions: ‘But wings are small things invented by men/Who could not but cut the cobalt sky/From the sapphire sea/While I want to weave blue and blue together’ (‘The Astronomer’ and ‘Confession’). Ali’s relationship with the religious myths he re-imagines is born from an intimacy and desire that questions our very understanding of subversion or resistance as polemical ‘other’, urging us to think about forms of subversion that have embraced complexity and sustained plurality. It also urges us to think about the medium of poetry, non-European poetry, in the practice of resistance and what it may do differently from other disciplines that engage with resistance through imagination and empathy.
This is poetry of sensuous materiality, of a resistance whose place and voice is the body, poetry of the suffering, desiring and courageous human spirit which hardens and breaks in isolation but often in the breaking finds truth. It guides us into a realization that all our myths, histories and futures are indeed palimpsests, connected and speaking through each other. The cry of the poetic spirit is that of the forgotten, it is one that recognizes that if there is to be salvation it must be in finding and articulating connections, no matter how elusive. ‘It’s always the broken that holds the universe in place’ (‘Carlisle’) the believer-poet writes, his words aflame with metaphors of nature that are both real and fable. These are words we need to hear urgently for ‘who knows where they go’ (‘Fairy Tale’).
Sonali Pattnaik has taught English Literature at colleges in Delhi and Mumbai University. She is currently on a sabbatical from teaching to work on her PhD. on ‘body politics of contemporary cinema’.