I love how poems of the spirit insist on what is perennial in us, beyond the immediate social and political contexts we find ourselves in. As Kwame Dawes writes in a new poem included here, “The carrier of wood . . . will walk daily to the / shrine no matter who sits on the throne, and / she will count the epochs by the moons between / each civilization of locusts.” That doesn’t mean, of course, that poems of the spirit cannot or do not engage the events of our moment. In a poem memorializing the victims of the recent shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Yehoshua November places that tragedy in the context of the ancient spiritual lineage upheld by Jews around the world:
It is October 27, 2018. A stranger passes through
unlocked double doors.
In lockdown, over sirens, just blocks from the bullets,
unaware of exactly what’s unfolding, Robert’s son
begins his Bar Mitzvah portion:
Abraham inviting angels, wayfarers,
into his open tent.
In the context of the perennial human drive for transcendence and in the continuity of the old and new, it gives me great pleasure to include new versions of Ghalib and Rainer Maria Rilke here, translated by M. Shahid Alam and Erik Bendix. Though it is more than likely late in the human story, as Jane Hirshfield puts it, “Little soul, / it is strange— // even now it is early.”
Wood. Salt. Tin.
do you remember?
You once walked
over wooden boards
to a house
that sat on stilts in the sea.
It was early.
The sun painted
brightness onto the water,
and wherever you sat
led directly to you.
the sea-road was muted
some mornings blinding.
Then it would leave.
it is strange—
even now it is early.
Immortal soul, I did not believe in you.
Against the age’s preference,
I wanted for your markings and history
the markings and history of, say, a small zebra—
slightly implausible, far from unique,
one visible pelt meant to disappear into the crowded many,
one dark stripe alive among the crowded many.
You seemed to want to go on separately.
You seemed to want elsewhere, and more.
I wanted less. One moment to pause
while setting kibble out in a dish for the calico cat
who might or might not
be inside the box when it finally opens.
One goldfinch holding the whole Mesozoic discovery,
hunting for seeds and hungry,
escaping, a few moments longer, the cat also hungry.
This dilemma cannot be solved,
and will be.
My immortal soul, perhaps you went into an Archelon ischyros,
swimming with its sea-turtle nose above water,
Immortal soul, had you existed,
what more than that cold water could we have wanted?
Home, Not the Hollow
cured with gasoline
not the belly swollen
their arms flattened
and squeezed through
slick and star-struck
like a calf
frantic sweat, not hands
not a boy
snapping his own bones
hymnal, not hex
home, not a beehive
the shekhinah as exile
(from the volcano sequence)
hidden one: when the temple fell
when Jerusalem arose and fell and whenever
we were persecuted and scattered
by the nations,
to follow us in pain and exile
you folded wings patched coats
survived working praying giving birth
dragged mattresses pans in peasant carts
swam across hard seas, sick and homesick
landed in the golden land
they called you greenhorn
you danced in cafes
you went in the factory
bargained pushcart goods ice shoes Hester Street
put makeup on threw away wig
and you learned new languages
now you speak everything
lady, but part of you is earth
part of you is wounds
part of you is words
and part is smoke
because whoever was burned over there, you were burned
you died forever with the sheep
whoever survived, you speak in our tongues
open your wings, instruct us
say what we are
do not confuse us
with the sanhedrin of the loud speakers
who have no ear for your voice
but we who thirst for your new
instructions, source of life
come into our thoughts
our mouth. Speak to us
voice of the beloved
say what we are
say what we are to do
ZEINA HASHEM BECK
Of the two of us, I always thought I’d be the one
whose body failed first. I slip the socks onto your feet
& tell you I remembered the phone charger
but forgot my night guard—you might hear me
grind my teeth in my sleep. I wake with pain
in my jaw, describe the breakfast the nurse wheels in
(dried peach, bran flakes, pancakes, coffee)
though I already know you’ll choose
pancakes & coffee. I open the curtain & announce
it’s a nice day outside. My father once told me
hell isn’t fire—Allah peeling the burnt skin,
letting it grow back again. Hell, he said,
is perhaps the soul swimming alone
in the infinite dark. After the MRI, the doctor
mentions three brain lesions.
Of the two of us, you’re the one who loves
more kindly. Once, you drew a yellow daisy
& wrote, UNBREAKABLE. The most alarming
dreams soothe & terrify. The doctor describes
the three daisies on your brain. I’m awake now, & unsure
what it meant to be on the kitchen balcony
in my childhood house. The gardenias were still there,
but the clothesline was empty, as was the school
opposite us, which no longer had walls.
The tree with the purple flowers was gone.
I do not want to be standing here,
next to the car taking you to another
hospital. Before you leave, you say, My son
needs a red shirt for the school show. Write it down.
Saying goodbye doesn’t always come
with men in white, drumming, chanting
prayer, like those who climbed all the stairs
of the city in Ramadan, to sing away
to the holy month. Al Wadaa, we called them,
The Farewell. When they knocked
on our door, Mom gave them money,
asked me to wave. I was terrified
when the doctor named the disease
& told you one can manage it these days—
there are pills, there is time.
I know we are not young young,
know the body is but a shell—
shoulders throb, hips need oiling
at the hinges, hair whitens—
but isn’t it too early? & death,
whichever of us it comes for first,
will it be forgetfulness or remembrance?
Of the two of us, you’re the one who believes
more. It matters, what we tell ourselves,
so we tell ourselves,
We are here we are here we are here.
Do you pine for photograph-worthy limbs, slender hands?
I asked about the soul & mom said God has tender hands.
I worried I’d need a ladder to climb up to heaven.
Or a strong grip. Or an ancestor to send her hands.
I’ve watched them shatter window glass. I’ve watched
them knead flour, water, grief. Render, hands.
Their earthly veneer tells time & the weather. Show us
how love. How green. How remorse. O calendar hands.
What medicine for longing? Salt water lifting
the breathing body. Sun, skin. Scent of lavender. Hands.
The child lets go, charges toward the sea alone. Come
dark, she drifts to her mother’s touch, bends her hands.
The mother recites into the child’s palm: O bird how
to eat you? Tickle. O apple tree leaves. Remember hands.
If you wave goodbye. If you wave come back. If you twirl
enough, will you learn to welcome surrender, hands?
God slips His likeness of me under His pillow.
Morning grows cloudy, the house darkens,
and I know what the rain at the sill is saying:
Be finished with resemblances. Your lamp
hides the light. A voice,
being a voice and not the wind,
can’t carry anything away. And yet,
it makes any land a place, a country
of the air, and laughter its seventh day.
Last night I dreamed of voices in a grove.
Ladders reaching from the ground into the branches.
I was mending my children’s coats,
worrying if the light would last
long enough for me to thread the needle.
It’s spacious beneath God’s pillow,
where I nod with the trees in the wind,
listen to the rain,
and count the seconds
between the lightning and the thunder,
deaf to former things,
unencumbered of things to come,
leaving God to recoup
a human fate.
God snores, His slumber immense
and musty with the season’s litter.
God rolls over in His sleep
and churns the sea-bed
to dislodge many buried keys.
Outside, a bird is telling time’s green name.
It stops when I stop to listen,
and starts again as soon as I give up
holding my breath to hear it,
as though whole-hearted listening intrudes
where hearing ajar makes room for singing
so tender my attention snuffs it,
or else so brimming
my ear’s least turning spills it.
Sooner or later, God will again
bear out that semblance He makes of me each day.
He’ll knead, fold, punch, pull, mark, smudge,
erase, and tear away.
Sometimes it feels like love.
And makes me tremble.
Sometimes it hurts like death.
And makes me shake.
The Light of the World
Christ, a wounded healer, descends
A dark, steep stairwell to the realm of the dead.
Sometimes night comes, but the edges don’t meet.
He has yet to learn patience, or the theological
Difference between both and either or.
Sometimes it’s dark enough to see stars.
A precarious light, he holds up a vast distance crossed.
A linga of flame, he flares but nothing catches.
The dead, by reflex, turn away from his scalded flesh.
Merely Being Here
The soul, seeking sweetness, departs the body as a bee,
Delineates from the chaos a path among black-eyed susans,
Alighting here and there on the surface tension of time,
Teetering as wind intervenes in the grasses and treetops.
A memory reiterated becomes a new, an other memory,
And whatever has been accentuated or occluded is not less real.
The subject, of course, is the simultaneity of what happened,
The narrative inferred by what the eavesdropper misheard,
The elisions and incongruities smoothed out, but the clutter undistilled.
It is not surprising the attention the barely discernable receives,
The gaps and exclusions in the pulse of rain, for instance,
Or the erasures, which, upon a second look, are quite evident.
The soul—there must be a rational explanation—comes
And goes at will, possesses a lucid and somber solidity—
Today a bee. Tomorrow a lizard or, perhaps, a little armored pill bug,
(The only crustacean, by the way, fully adapted to life on land).
It is essential to narrow one’s subject, but the digressions pile up
Like loess, shift and collapse as one attempts to walk away.
Prayer should be a tunnel
my Hebrew teacher says, and I’m a pig-tailed kid again, descending
from a blazing Florida day to the murky depths
of SeaWorld’s Tunnel of Terror: a massive glass
passage through a seawater tank. Sharks glided by,
fins foxed and furrowed as the edges
of old treasure maps. Far above, the inaccessible
surface rippled with a chainmail of light. Prayer should be
a tunnel, she says again, making an O
of her hands and pushing it out before her—my teacher, also
a dancer, uses her body to create structures
in the air.It should take you there, she says. English is
not her first language, but by there, I know
she means God. By tunnel, I think
she means conduit, a direct channel in. A sign
in line had shown an elephant perched atop
one of the tunnel’s glass blocks to demonstrate
its fortitude, to tell me not to be afraid. But I was,
each shark with its hacksaw teeth was clearly meant
for me, and it was only a matter of time before one
gnawed its way through, bringing all the water
rushing in. And what would happen first—
drowning or being devoured? For those, like me, rooted
in terror, a moving sidewalk kept us in motion, easing us
through the eerie underpass, acting
just like time, which moves us without the need for us
to move, which moves us whether or not we want it to.
Prayer should be a tunnel, she says, but what words,
what melody, would let me make with my body
such grand architecture in the air, let me stand
in one place and travel both out and in, let me sink
and not drown, let me wander unafraid into the open mouth
unscathed yet changed?
Fasting in Tunis
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances.
My God taught me hunger
is a gift, it sweetens
the meal. All day, I have gone without
because I know at the end I will
eat and be satisfied. In this way,
my desire is bearable.
I endure this day
as I have endured years of days
without the whole of your affection.
Your desire is one capable of rest.
Mine keeps its eyes open, stalks
through heat that quivers,
waits to be fed.
The sun burns a hole through
the sky and I am patient.
The ocean eats and eats
at the sand and still hungers.
I watch its wide blue tongue, knowing
you are on the other side.
What is greater: the distance between
these bodies, or their need?
Noon gapes, a vacant maw—
there is long to go
until the moon is served, white as a plate.
You are far and still sleeping;
the morning has not yet slunk into your bed,
its dreams so vast and solitary.
Once, long ago,
I touched you,
and I will touch you again—
your mouth a song
I remember, your mouth
a sugar I drink.
The Infinitely Tall Rabbi Once Again Begins His Lecture on Free Will
Imagine two cups of tea sit on a table.
One: simple, plain.
The other: the scent of honey and lemons.
If you choose the scented cup,
your choice is not likely a free one.
Something outside yourself—
sweetness of honey, freshness of lemons—
compels your hand.
In this sense, you are a robot,
a programmed machine. Anyone
who knows you could
predict your decision. Or, better said,
you are a prisoner
to your predilection
for sweets and citrus fruit.
So too, when a choice bends
to the practical—
the medical resident
and not the rabbinical student—
the secret ambassador of reason
has likely had his way with you.
The same holds true, of course,
if, valuing spiritual life,
you choose the future rabbi over the resident.
Both decisions hang on a benefit, a reason,
and as such are not free choices.
Let’s say, however,
you desire something you cannot explain—
to yourself or anyone else.
Something you could just as well
not thirsty, one morning,
you wake and decide
you would like a plain cup of tea.
Perhaps this decision comes
from the space of intuition that hovers,
unchained, above the regions
of reason and emotion.
A free space,
simple and undefined—
a clean field of snow.
There is Only One Story
(on the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting)
There are always two stories:
That of the body, that of the soul.
In this case, twenty-two stories.
There are always two questions
(which can also read as statements):
How was this allowed to happen?
How holy are these souls?
There are always two stories,
plus the story of Cousin Reva,
who, arriving late that morning,
was instructed by an officer to wait things out
at the nearby public library.
I feel guilty about not dying with my friends,
she said the next day.
It is October 27, 1988. My friend Robert
plays whiffle ball in his backyard
abutting Tree of Life Synagogue.
It is October 27, 2018. A stranger passes through
unlocked double doors.
In lockdown, over sirens, just blocks from the bullets,
unaware of exactly what’s unfolding, Robert’s son
begins his Bar Mitzvah portion:
Abraham inviting angels, wayfarers,
into his open tent.
Perhaps, Robert postulates,
the soul of my recently deceased father interceded
on high, causing the news to be hidden
until his grandson had closed the Torah scroll.
And in the afternoon, the scroll is reopened,
and we read:
And Abraham came to eulogize over Sarah
and to cry for her.
And according to the hidden story—
the one the mystics tell—
Abraham represents the soul,
and Sarah the body.
Now it is night. Half a block from the apartment
where, seventeen years earlier, my wife and I
lived when first wed, Jews of Pittsburgh
stand in the rain, holding candles. Eleven souls continue
their endless ascent into the region of mystery
then swoop back down to hover,
incandescently, over their former lives.
Away from the cameras and fanfare,
eleven bodies are ushered through
pottery shards placed over twenty-two eyes,
Water poured to purify physical forms
that had, until recently, housed souls
whose last act on Earth was to whisper a prayer.
There is only one story:
Jews serving God to the best of their ability—
with whatever Torah they know,
whatever strength they can muster,
and then some.
There is only one story, says the Zohar:
The souls of the Jewish people
throughout Jewish history
form one larger body.
The body bears more wounds
than we want to recall. It limps forward.
No one can explain how
it has not faltered.
Hori Ke Din Dekhi Aaye Re :: Look, Holi Has Come
We fling talcum,
bound to the Ganga ghat,
where even ghosts throw
colors. In Opelika
pines release yellow
clouds, cardinals shed
pinions and down.
The puppy blows
her undercoat. Chhannulal says
Sham and Radha play
only one day, Hori,
but Shiva plays Holi
with pyre-ash every day—
My heart, pichkari
of crimson dye,
paints the gullies
inside me in rose, hibiscus,
in carnation, marigold,
in bela, in jasmine—
Davit Gareji, 9th–13thC.
The convent keeps its sacrament of rock,
Consecration, every cell
One station of a holy isolation.
To this fastness
I have brought my byzantine
Fixation on all things monastic, born
Of a notion
That silent and withdrawn
I might at last enclose my fugitive
Virtue in a bare,
Bored heart. But every chamber
A debauch of color: Christ of ochre
Slouching one saucy
Thigh askance; velvet-cloaked
Christ with red lips asimper and the sad
Eyes of a lover. I have betrayed
My dun ascetic from my earliest,
Beneath the burlap
Of my swaddling have I pulsed
Into my very plaster, cinnabar
Blush down to the rough
Of my bones, and no chantry far
Or flint enough to unfix it. God knows we bear
Our truest cloister
With us as we go.
Prayer to Recognize the Body
There must be a word for this
heart-growing, to explain
these teeth, stinging like a gift—
tremble of sweat coaxed from scalp
and flesh. The next thing I covet:
the third eye’s velvet blink, the green
pulse in my veins of a forest
I can’t make myself step
out of. And what of all the things
remade, swabbed free of salt?
Because who can tell the difference
in the dark between antlers and branches
and bone, between the thick-haired
chest of an animal and you?
after/for Lucille Clifton
Lightbringer say you’re celebrating
what my mother’s shudder’s spoken
—she spoke me Babel’s son.
queer has no models.
can bewilderment be a middle name?
wonderstruck & windblown this
wilderness has meandered me between
inhale & exile,
a sparrow caught in that thicket
who remembered how to sing; Lightnamed
say you celebrate with me every day
someone in the church is praying
that faggots like me would die
& every day the Pharisees fail.
Lord my wonder
or this thicket
riddled ashes the dust
drawn by branches
have horizon held
against whatever dark
valley shadows come
each evensong whisper
mercy nettled not unlike
eyes downcast or up
rain or wind nor
caught utter absence of
hyssop won’t wash me
Christ my wander
here zeroes am I
rife with loosestrife
ichor of no god
shed veins to stave
this nothing in the blood
held horizon have
dark whatever against
come shadows valley
whisper evensong each
mercy can wheres
every here confess
rind reft of seed
cupped said husks
yeses stuck to teeth
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
“I Have 13 Different Identities Living Inside of Me. Here’s What Our Lives Are Like.”
–Rose Minutaglio, Cosmopolitan
Who gathers your pieces together,
pieces that can’t see, pieces that can’t hear,
pieces blotted out by terror?
You don’t remember. You have so many histories
and only one body
for all the identities
living inside you
the way you live
in me, no more or less real
than anyone else, no less splintered,
no closer to understanding
why I summon you by name.
You don’t know what I’m talking about.
You don’t even know I’m talking.
I’m a deep dive you don’t remember taking
into multiple realities, multiple conceptions
of self and other
and one inconceivable me
fluttering above your fear
that you can’t do anything
or that you can,
but only by being a different person,
different from yourself,
different from me.
Don’t be afraid. I walk with you through the fire.
Protect the pieces you’re afraid of losing
or maybe just afraid of,
the children who never grow older
and the children who were never born
and the children who are nothing
but gaps in your memory.
How many pieces are there?
Does it matter?
Your body has never been yours alone.
I’ve always been here with you,
a call you try not to answer,
a polyamorous mother
loving every piece
into which you’re broken.
The jackals. The owls. The self-harming darkness.
The splinters of shame and despair
that tell you you deserve
all the hate you get.
I hold them, so you can let them go.
I remember, so you can forget.
I’m making something new out of you,
something that will never be afraid.
I am the labyrinth
you feel lost inside. The storm
that waters your desert.
who never ghosts you,
whose haunting keeps you alive.
“I revealed myself to those who didn’t ask for me”
“I Posed in a Bikini in Times Square.”
–Anna O’Brien, Cosmopolitan
I can do this forever, but for you,
it’s now or never.
You whisper, grin, push me away, question
whether I was ever there, tell yourself
you don’t have to answer
even if I am.
Sometimes, you provoke me to my face.
Usually, though, you busy yourself
with your own imagination,
eating food that makes you hungry,
worrying about money
and what to do with your body
and wishing you could just stand still,
like a pool of water.
What do you want me to do?
Pose in a bikini in the middle of Times Square?
Create a new earth and heaven?
Been there, done that.
I’m not here to be fetishized, forgotten, confused
with your ideas of perfection.
I’m what makes you sweat, feel sick to your stomach,
cursed, impure, ashamed.
Smoke in your nostrils
that tells you something’s burning.
You’re no one’s plaything, not even mine. You
are a vigil I keep, a flock I pasture,
a grape on the vine still bursting with blessing
even at the end of harvest,
and I’m the light
you’re afraid of losing,
the light in which you can see yourself
as a new reality
in which you and I are singing,
me through you and you through me,
a new song
about what it means to be human.
Not an indecipherable mess;
not a pot
of meat and feeling,
or a headstone covered with body paint,
or burning garden, or irony sweating. Not
a creature starving for love. Love
I am revealing.
Prayer Written on a Wide Veranda on a Comfortable Couch in Sewanee, TN
If prayer requires an audience that is divine
and invisible, it is true that I don’t pray. Better to say
I attempt to envision and hope to enact and perhaps
there is a German word for that,
one that sounds a little like a sneeze
and a little like a birthday-candle-wish.
Maybe what I mean is that I yearn or aspire
wishfully, wistfully, from anywhere I am perched,
which happens just now to be amid a cloud
of French-fry-scented air in which a couple of butterflies
are spiraling and nearly settling on the rim of my tea cup
so that I fear I will sip them and so ruin their delicate wings.
I never wished to be a butterfly, exactly,
though something winged and barely-bodied might suit me,
suit how I am always floating loose from the weight and heartfeel
of my earthbound and bleeding form.
I have wished to leave my body entirely, like a cicada husk, whole,
translucent, empty and tenacious, clinging to some door’s rusting screen
while another part of me got on with things elsewhere.
Other times I have imagined a substance, molten and seeping lava-like
into all the chambers in the building of my body,
hardening to passageways I could then move through,
learn to slip the stubborn locks, discover
the short cuts and servants’ staircases
and the colored glass windows hidden high in the tops of closets,
windows that flood with unexpected light so plush and dazzling
even the dust motes shine like ice crystals. How it would be
to feel myself a palace.
And I have wanted to be a tree, of course.
But I am a clumsy giant, always catching up gravel in my sandals,
uprooting tender stalks as I pass. Yesterday
a baby bird lay smeared and spreading into the dirt where I walked,
the ants already taking
the little body into the ground.
I am unprepared for the death of anybody.
My father says he is ready and unafraid; he wants to eat the world
and hold it in his pockets, has tried to memorize
its topography, its history and regional trivia, the equations
which attempt to explain its curvatures and potencies.
He collects what he can
even while giving away what he is no longer able to hold.
My mother is dropping the world like a trail of crumbs behind her. They disappear
before she can turn to look. There is no way back
and no view forward. She doesn’t know she was ever carrying
anything. I know I can’t control what matters
or most of what doesn’t. I love the night moths
and the climbing vines. I even love a little the nest of yellow-jackets
waiting for the errant foot, the unseen dead thing betraying its last hiding
with stink, the lone leaf spinning and spinning where it has been caught
in a cobweb on a bicycle pedal. Insects rise up humming
from the grass where I step. I wish to be a hermit crab,
naked and rattling inside the beautiful shell of this world.
tide God this surf
that only ever
it be You left-
glint of ghost
crab shell shards
from half sunk rib-cage
bone pile isn’t
known otter sea
orbed translucence firm-
amental & unfirm
see-through viscous glint each
teardrop-shaped you can’t
photograph them only
what’s under them’s
sandgrain & shadow
there & unthere
sun & earth
& moon in syzygy luminous
side turned from
clingfish suckers un-
ebbflow how is full
eclipse of moon
tellable from new
tentacles of sea
lunar yank where what’s de-parted cedes
what’s left I have lived
another lunation with-
without hymn Now the mean
lower low tide
now nebulae & star-
cluster visible moon would never
show Let these
bones live Let these
crystal jellies live trans-
picuous if what
they do can be called
live one globe on sandrib
pellucid the other
on black horizon unlit so
supermoon at perigee
closest & least revealed
what we call newmoon’s what
seems gone but still
ascends before us new
Lord whose gravity’s
most urgent when occluded
refuses ever to go new
moon imperceptible & super
that place invisible where it
The Flight of Locust
The carrier of wood for the sacred hut at the far end
of the yard; there where the longest shadows
of the stucco-walled bungalow barely kiss the foot-
hardened earth surrounding the complex of branches,
leaves and stripped trunks of hardy shrubbery—
the carrier of herbs, of selected stones, of
sheets of paper with the ledger of all dreams
and all anxieties, will walk daily to the
shrine no matter who sits on the throne, and
she will count the epochs by the moons between
each civilization of locusts. This morning
we watch the scar of gray and brown
strolling across the field; and she treats
the explosion of locusts in the air
as a benediction; this is the wild
dance of sacrifice and reward; this
then is the way that God sends manna
to feed a nation. At the shrine,
the carrier shakes out her saffron inner
cloths and covers the earth with the
clumsy dance of locusts. She places
them on a sheet of steel; butter for grease
with salt and pepper. Before eating,
she places two in the flames for the
spirits to consume; of course fire will
always eat, fire will always end
the rituals of the living, fire in the
hand of the prophet. Fire is the hand of God.
The one where I beg
I’m watching my country admire its teeth. You said there is no god and I looked up.
The scar on your arm is its own sad music, pink ribbon, the kind of song that makes us
want to fuck strangers. There will be no god when this is over. What gave me the audacity
to touch you? The moon doesn’t care. She shows us our teeth every night. She is so chill about the way we
fuck up her space. Tell god to come get me. From a high enough vantage point, anything looks like
begging. Tell that to the dogs! How they will howl all night long. They think we must be benevolent beasts,
too—all the ways we can hurt each other
but don’t. I say let’s call this touching a truce. Will we still beg when this is over?
When I don’t have any teeth left. When you have the bite marks to prove it.
When we pass this quiet between us, hounds for a world on fire.
Late have I lost thee, dear clarity,
drowned in muted cloud.
Even my pupils have no keys,
their black pools narrowed
to the small white rectangle
of false light. O cloud, you hide
some loud joy, and dangle
yourself between earth and light.
The gray day passes in haze,
like the last, washed-out black
washed out again by rains
that refuse to break into flakes,
to cover the gray with white.
Gradations of gray, layered
upon gray, drying concrete
hovering heavy overhead.
Quagmire, ash, quicksand
mind, sinking fast. What is earth
shrouded by cloud, cloud, cloud?
The opposite of birth.
Here I am, Lord, scraping away
in your mist, uncertain whether
it is inner or outer weather,
nearly night or nearly day,
not sure if I’m asking for you
to leave, at last, for good—
or to stay—if you are the cloud
or what the cloud hides.
Translated from the Urdu by M. Shahid Alam
My hopes signal despair.
Troubles nest with me.
My death is by decree: why
Does sleep slip by me?
I have laughed at my lows.
Now nothing lifts me.
For perks I tried piety.
That life did not suit me.
Smell it, if you cannot see.
A heart burns inside me.
I am in a place where
No hint of I reaches me.
Is Ghalib off to Kaaba?
His nerve astonishes me.
Do not be miserly now for wine tomorrow.
He owns the vineyard: his Cup is never dry.
Once, you snapped at an angel when he
Scoffed at us. Why have we no honor today?
This horse flies at the touch: we ride
Without reins, going we know not where.
If seeker, seeking, sought are in their essence
One, how does the One know another?
Coyness is a screen that hides self from self.
Not from us, you are veiled from yourself.
The face you see in vision, that face is a mask.
You are still asleep though you wake in a dream.
RAINER MARIA RILKE
Translated from the German by Erik Bendix
The Eighth Elegy
dedicated to Rudolf Kassner
Creation beholds openness
with all its eyes. Only our eyes seem
reversed and ringed around it
like traps, surrounding its free exit.
What is out there we know solely from
the animal’s countenance; for we turn even
young children around and force them to look
backwards at formation, not with the openness that is
so deep in an animal’s face. Free of death.
We alone see death; the free animal
has its demise constantly behind it
and ahead of it is God, and when it walks, it
walks in eternity, the way fountains proceed.
Never, not even for a single day, do we have
the pure space before us which flowers
open endlessly. We always hear of the World
and never of a Nowhere without negation:
the unsupervised purity that one breathes
and knows endlessly and does not crave. As a child
one gets lost in its quiet and then one gets
jolted. Or some person dies and is it.
For close to death one does not see death any longer
but stares out, perhaps with a large animal gaze.
Lovers, were it not for the loved one who
obstructs the view, are close to it and they marvel . . .
it is revealed to them as if by accident
behind the other . . . but no one gets past each other,
and so World is again what the other sees.
Always turned toward creation, we
see in it only the mirror of openness,
darkened by us. Or only see that an animal,
a mute one, looks up and stares quietly right through us.
This is the name of our destiny: to be opposite something,
nothing beyond that, always just opposite.
If the assured animal that approaches us
from the opposite direction had
awareness of our sort, it would rip us around
with its changes. But it senses its being as
endless, unpremeditated, and without regard
for its condition, pure, just like its view of things.
Where we see future, it sees everything
and sees itself in everything, healed forever.
Yet within that alert warm animal
is the weight and care of a great sadness.
For what often overwhelms us
always clings to it as well, a remembrance as if
what we now strive for had once been
closer, more faithful and its attachment
of infinite tenderness. Here everything is distancing,
and there it was breath. After its first home
the second one seems breezy and bastardized.
Oh blessedness of tiny creatures,
who always remain in the womb that brought them forth;
oh joy of the gnat, which still hops within,
even when it weds: for womb is everything.
And behold the semi-security of the bird,
which from its inception almost knows both worlds,
as if it were an Etruscan soul, as if it came from
a dead person received by a room,
but with a resting figure as its lid.
And how shocked is any creature that must fly
having come from a womb. As if startled at
its own self, it darts through the air like a crack
going through a teacup. The way a bat’s trace
crazes through the porcelain of evening.
And we: spectators, always, everywhere,
turned toward all this and never beyond it!
It saturates us. We arrange it. It falls apart.
We rearrange it and fall apart ourselves.
Who then has spun us around, so that
no matter what we do, we take the attitude
of a person who is departing? As he turns,
comes to a stop, and lingers on a final hill
that shows him his entire valley one last time
—so we live and forever take leave.
Notes on The Eighth Elegy
Dedication: Rudolf Kassner was a close friend to Rilke throughout the last 17 years of Rilke’s life. They met through Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe, to whom the Elegies as a whole are dedicated. These three friends were spending time at her Duino Castle in 1911 when the Elegies first began to take shape. This particular Elegy could be read as a turning upside down of the Christian idea of conversion. Rather than coming closer to God by accepting Jesus, Rilke suggests that animals are closer to God than we are, and that a shift to their perspective might reconcile us to our mortality and bring us closer to divinity. Kassner seems to have been uncomfortable with this Elegy as a reply to his own advocacy of conversion through the Son of God.
Line 58, “an Etruscan soul”: Etruscans were buried in small stone chambers capped with lids bearing life-sized figures of the dead in repose. On the inner walls of these chambers, the souls of the departed were depicted as birds flying away.
“Wood. Salt. Tin.” by Jane Hirshfield originally appeared in Poetry. Reprinted by permission of the author.
“My Confession” by Jane Hirshfield originally appeared inThe New York Review of Books. Reprinted by permission of the author.
“the shekhinah as exile” by Alicia Ostriker is reprinted fromThe Volcano Sequence, copyright © 2002 by Alicia Ostriker. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.
“Hidden Hearing” by Li-Young Lee is reprinted from The Undressing, copyright © 2018 by Li-Young Lee. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
“Ghazal: Hands” by Zeina Hashem Beck originally appeared in The Adroit Journal. Reprinted by permission of the author.
“Prayer should be a tunnel” by Jessica Jacobs originally appeared in New England Review. Reprinted by permission of the author.
“Fasting in Tunis” by Leila Chatti originally appeared in Narrative Magazine. Reprinted by permission of the author.
“Prayer to Recognize the Body” by Vandana Khanna originally appeared in The Goddess Monologues (Diode Editions, 2016). Reprinted by permission of the author.
“Prayer Written on a Wide Veranda on a Comfortable Couch in Sewanee, TN” by Rebecca Aronson originally appeared in Plume. Reprinted by permission of the author.
“The one where I beg” by Ruth Awad originally appeared in The Journal. Reprinted by permission of the author.
“Kaaba” and “Coyness” by Ghalib, translated from the Urdu by M. Shahid Alam, are reprinted from Intimations of Ghalb (Orison Books, 2018) by permission of Orison Books, Inc.