Pilot Light
A Journal of 21st Century Poetics and Criticism
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False Windows: On Poetry & Prayer
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Wright’s urgency arises from the speaker’s position within the community of shared contingency. Though readers may rightly interrogate his authority to speak on behalf of a regional culture, his prayer is personal only insofar as his experiences extend from and reflect the larger context he inhabits. Poetry and prayer both serve as well, however, to negotiate the relationship between the outcast and the society that excludes him, in which case the excluded voice may find in poetry an approach to his own marginality. Take for example Kazim Ali’s poem “Prayer,” from 2004’s The Far Mosque, which seems at first only to describe an act of prayer observed from some distance. This is poetry presenting itself in the first instance as anthropology of religion through straightforward, if tightly crafted, description. The practice described in the poem—pilgrims tying green threads at a shrine—is a relatively common one in Sufi Islam in which believers tie knots on a saint’s tomb to seal their prayers. The poem does not signal exactly which tomb the scene observes, but it could be that of the fourteenth-century poet-saint Sayyid Ali Hamdani in the Shah Hamdan Mosque in Kashmir. The green thread practice at Shah Hamdan plays a central part in a poem by one of Kazim Ali’s major influences, the Kashmiri American poet Agha Shahid Ali. It could also be the shrine of another fourteenth-century Sufi saint, Zar Zari Zar Baksh, who is buried in Khuldabad. Zar Zari’s tomb is a popular pilgrimage site for Muslim women seeking help with fertility or finding a husband. Since they are barred from entering the tomb itself, the women tie green threads to the doorway to be blessed and then tie them to their wrists until they conceive.  

Whether the scene is actually the grave of Hamdani or Zar Zari is, of course, not as important as the premise that the act of tying a knot to a fence represents the limits of access and knowledge. The pilgrim physically confronts the barrier to the holy relic and signals this confrontation with an act of binding, restraint. They cannot touch the saint; they cannot speak to God. They do this because it is all they can do. In this way, the tying of threads is like the writing of poems.

The speaker maintains his distance at first, excluding himself from the class of pilgrims who perform a public ritual of private petition, even as the pilgrims themselves are excluded by the iron fence. From this vantage of remove, his focus is on the material evidence of prayers already said—the talismanic green thread. The three accented beats at the outset suggest the fervent hopes the threads represent but also something more. Interestingly, the poem places the action of the first line on the threads themselves, which “interrogate” the wind. They do not merely ask or even petition, but examine, perhaps darkly: the material trying to extract an answer from the immaterial. The wind knows something but it is not talking. But why is the wind, rather than the saint or even God, the subject of interrogation? What can the wind do? What can the wind say? And why do the threads ask the questions instead of the pilgrims? Already in this exchange between object and physical force, material and immaterial, we have an intimation of emptiness and silence as kept secrets.

In the second couplet the poem moves from description to commentary to lyric narrative. We assume of course that each thread is a prayer, but the claim that “each prayer is a chance to weave” is more surprising. A chance to weave what? If we are at the tomb of a saint said to increase fertility and search out marriage prospects, the “chance to weave” is the chance for domesticity, for being knit to family and community. The prayers of the unmarried or infertile women, located as they are at an excluded margin, here become all the more poignant because they depend on the very stuff that would represent the status of inclusion: yarn, thread, domestic centrality.

And if we are at the tomb of a poet? I would also suggest that weaving here indicates the craft of poetry itself. Each prayer, each poem is the opportunity to create something new out of existing threads. The repeated construction of this line, suggestive of scripture’s trance-inducing rhythms in which each line builds on its predecessor even as it replicates it, draws a parallel between the languages of prayer and poetry.  In an essay posted on the National Book Critics Circle website, Ali claims: “The first language of poetry I heard was the language of prayer, my father reciting from the Qur’an and other scripture. Part of poetry will always, for me, have the rhythms of those long-lines, the structure of those couplets, the second line answering the first in some way.” Ali here suggests a formal response, drawn from religious practice, to the silences that keep the outcast out and the human away from the divine. Lineation and rhythm create the dialogue the pilgrim-poet seeks, a simulacrum that may have to suffice. We might read Rothko’s murals the same way: two colors in dialogue, the artwork content—or required—to answer itself.

The resonance between prayer and poetry—as acts of weaving threads, weaving lines, weaving petitions—prepares us as readers for the intrusion of the lyric I into Ali’s poem. The poet, until now silent in the background, steps forward to announce his own prayer, which is not to return home empty-handed. By delaying the introduction of the first-person voice until the middle of the poem, even in a poem as short as this, Ali allows the anthropological lens firmly established in the first three lines to include him without immediately making the poem about him. The speaker resists making his poem a prayer even as he admits that he, too, has something to pray for. He keeps the exact content of his petition secret, though we could understand the speaker to desire the same thing as the female pilgrims: inclusion. Ali, a gay American Muslim born in the UK to Indian parents, frequently writes about the parallels between spiritual and social marginalization, the desire to believe in a faith and society that do not believe in you. There’s something strikingly democratic about pilgrimage sites that opens up the possibility of inclusion: all prayers are equal in their secrecy. All prayers, it might be worth adding, can also be rephrased as “I do not want to return home without that which I came for.”

Which poet is the pilgrim looking for? Hamdani, perhaps, or Rumi. Or maybe Shams-al-Tabriz or Hafez. Maybe Kazim Ali himself in a search for the inner poet? Who does not really matter. What does matter is that the speaker came to the tomb of a saint looking for a poet and was turned away. The screen into the region of answered prayers is impassable with poetry. “I have to tie the thread around my own wrist bone.” My own. No one else will do it for me: my body is the site of blessing, he seems to say. Unknowing is the space of imagination. Thus excluded from the prayers he observes at the shrine, the speaker can only return home to the threading of language and belief around his own flesh. The assonant rhymes of tomb/home/bone call to mind the saying of Rumi, from which Ali takes the title of his book: the farthest mosque, the one from which you can ascend to heaven, is the one inside you. Ali’s poem is not structured as a prayer of direct address precisely because the speaker feels he is not sanctioned to pray. He is the wrong gender or sexuality or nationality. He does not believe enough. A poem that contains the idea of prayer, a description of prayers observed and the rhythms of scripture, permits him to approach but not pass into a ritual from which he is painfully shut out.

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