Laughing in the Silk of Our Sorrowed Stumbling

Posted: January 23, 2007 in Poetry Endorsements
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Taha Muhammad Ali
“So What; New and Selected Poems, 1971 – 2005”
(Buy)

As burdensome as reading translations can be, knowing that you’re not getting the genuine article, but, rather, the genuine article through a filtered medium, reading Peter Cole’s translations of Taha Muhammad Ali’s poems seems a dictation of original voice. That is to say, it flows freely. Not surprising, seeing as I’m reading the words of an American. But the previous statement was meant more to convey that nothing seems forced or out of place in any of the poems in this book. Whether it is due to Cole’s dualistic language skills or the fluidity between Arabic and English, the flow and sound of every poem in this collection seems … right.

The very first thing that I will say about Taha Muhammad Ali is one that should make you laugh, that made me laugh, that should incur great scorn from critics and fellow poets alike for being mentioned before all else. Taha Muhammad Ali operates a souvenir shop in Nazareth. This is the gist of the About the Author section. I hold this in as great as praise as I do scorn, because, while I, too, do not believe in About the Author sections as a relay of mounted accomplishments, I also note the marginalization taking place. A marginalization most ill-deserved, seeing as all his translators get more lines per page on the bio than the actual author.

Taha Muhammad Ali’s poems carry what I love most about poets, a sense of humour. Not an overwhelming one, but a humour of reflection: a humility not only towards one’s self, but towards the world’s lack thereof. In a time and region that seems to be inundated with religious rhetoric for the sake of religious rhetoric and sheepish following for the same sake, he is a dissenting beacon amongst the gathered crowds at prayer. And his readers love him for it. With his reflections, Ali brings connectivity to a people disconnected from themselves, ourselves, a humanity all-encompassing.

Inciting self-reflection and inwardly directed healing/understanding, Ali’s poems have raised the poet himself to the status of Pablo Neruda, not only in the land he calls home but also in the hearts of those in visited lands that have bothered to discover and listen to his words. He is both outsider and confidant, threat and cure. There are as many diverse topics as there are definable human minutia in this book to enjoy by just as many readers, but, as example, I leave you with an Eastern/Western combination that manages a potent balance of both modern and classic themes:

“Meeting at an Airport”

You asked me once,
on our way back
from the midmorning
trip to the spring:
“What do you hate,
and who do you love?”

And I answered,
from behind the eyelashes
of my surprise,
my blood rushing
like the shadow
cast by a cloud of starlings:
“I hate departure…
I love the spring
and the path to the spring,
and I worship the middle
hours of morning.”
And you laughed…
and the almond trees blossomed
and the thicket grew loud with nightingales.

…A question
now four decades old:
I salute that question’s answer;
an old answer
as old as your departure;
I salute that answer’s question…

And today,
it’s preposterous,
he we are at a friendly airport
by the slimmest of chances,
and we meet.
Ah, Lord!
we meet.
And here you are
asking–again,
it’s absolutely preposterous –
I recognized you
but you didn’t recognize me.
“Is it you?!”
But you wouldn’t believe it.
And suddenly
you burst out and asked:
“If you’re really you,
What do you hate
and who do you love?!”

And I answered –
my blood
fleeing the hall,
rushing in me
like the shadow
cast by a cloud of starlings:
“I hate departure,
and I love the spring,
and the path to the spring,
and I worship the middle
hours of morning.”

And you wept,
and the flowers bowed their heads,
and doves in the silk of their sorrow stumbled.

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