Kazim Ali

Kazim Ali

The day before his poetry reading at Napa Valley College, Kazim Ali won an Ohioana Book Award for his excellent  poetry book: Sky Ward. I went to Napa to hear him read. I am deeply affected by this man’s writing. I feel like I experience his poetry far below and above the words.

On Tuesday Kazim began his craft talk at The Napa Valley Writers’ Conference with breathing practice. I loved that. Breathe and be present. “Poetry involves bodies,” he said… “bring the body into poetry.” From his poem Promisekeeper: You built a tower to god out of bricks and mud/ when you should have built it with breath… Your own body is the only mosque you need…

As he introduced The Plaint of Marah, Woman of Sodom, a poem about Lot’s Wife turning to a pillar of salt, he playfully threw out the name “Vicki Vale.” Being a Batman fan, I couldn’t resist the reference.

From Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman: “the most awkward dinner in movie history:” Bruce Wayne —AKA Batman— and Vicki Vale, (invited to the huge mansion with the longest dinner table for a meal.)

 

“How’s the soup” (Vicki shouting)
“What?” Bruce said
“I asked how the soup was,” Vicki asked, louder
“Oh, it’s good,” said Bruce
“Can you please pass the salt?” (very loud).
“Sure.” Bruce got up, picked up the salt shaker and walked to the other end of the table.
“Do you eat here every night?” Vicki asked.
“No, I don’t think we ever have,” Bruce said as he sat back down at his table.
On a more serious note, Kazim speaks of the poem in an interview: We are talking about Biblical times, and salt is like gold. It’s currency. The word “salary” comes from the Latin word for salt; it was a euphemism for what we would call a “paycheck.” She wasn’t turned into a pillar of coal or a pillar of shit. She was transformed into a pillar of one of the most valuable substances on the earth at that time. So, to me, it was obvious she wasn’t being punished. It’s not that radical of a supposition.   http://14hills.net/node/660
 

 Some lines from The Plaint of Marah, Woman of Sodom

Sundered and sinful, caught in a rain of fire
Nearly devoured, now inch by inch turning to salt…
 
Who was I before the thorn of my birth pierced me,
Before the thread of my death drew me through?…
 
Before the fire stitched me in salt to the ground, who was I?

 This kind of writing catches me, not only for the choice of words, but here is a biblical woman, her story sticky with the honey of possibilities! Where can we go with this? If I were her, how would the dramatic moment taste? She carries the sweet with the bitter. (Marah means bitter.) It’s all wound together and he lets us taste it, and adds water— couplet by couplet.

The last prophets boarded the ark for departure,
But this time amid fire, I am the water—
 
 You are ahead of me fifty-one paces,
Leaning on our daughters, hoping they’ll hold you…
 
…This time I look back to the city that’s burning,
 
And yes, in that moment, doubting believer,
I was transformed into the most precious of matter

I had recently found this meaning as I was brushing up on my Arabic. The three letter root in Arabic: MaLaHa means — to be beautiful, to salt, preserve with salt, to be witty. The meaning depends on the vowels. A “salty” woman is smart and funny and that contributes to a kind of beauty the Arabs appreciate.

You can hear him read this poem in this clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M0q22HDg0s4

He mentions poet, Scott Cairns, whose final stanzas of the poem: The Turning of Lot’s Wife, are given below.

                                                               …She looked
ahead briefly to the flat expanse, seeing her tall
daughters, whose strong legs and churning arms
were taking them safely to the hills; she saw,
farther ahead, the old man whom she had served
and comforted for twenty years. In the impossible
interval where she stood, Marah saw that she could
not turn her back on even one doomed child of the
city, but must turn her back instead upon the
saved.
 
OK, I appreciate thoughtful consideration of this historical interpretation. Instead of seeing Lot’s Wife as someone longing for the sinfulness of Sodom, she is more than a “wife,” she’s a woman with a first name, a woman pulled toward tragedy, as we are toward Gaza, heartbroken from the suffering of the people there, helpless to stop it. As Kazim mentioned at the beginning of his reading: …Remember the innocent people who need protection. Like Marah, we can’t turn our backs on them.
 

The last lines of  The Plaint of Marah, Woman of Sodom:

I became one with the ground in the night of great fire
Given eternal life as a priceless pillar
 
Slowly disappearing into the infinity of matter,
Not curse nor condemnation but salt into water, my endless reward—
 
 
Brenda Hillman, Annie Finch, and Kazim Ali: three of my favorite poets!

Brenda Hillman, Annie Finch, and Kazim Ali: three of my favorite poets!

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