The end of a tabla and Kanjira drum duet (Zakir Hussain and Selvaganesh in Berkeley three days ago)—that last moment of eight beats played at light-speed—that moment linking heaven and earth was pure delight! I dedicated it to you, Art Buehler, right then just 6 hours before you passed away, April 1, 2019.
When I remember this I’m not so downhearted with loss from all that connects us, the years of back-and–forth translation and critique of 7thcentury stories that made up two of my books and one of yours—just finished. Gone is the coaxing of beings from writings of another time, and the accuracy of the charting. The disagreements and the places I was unable to climb in the tower of refined scholarship, how your stern German roots showed themselves only to move into laughter; your laughter, then my smile of relief.
About the time you started getting ill I took on plant-sitting for my friend Malik. He had six African Violets he brought me in a box. A table was made for them under the window and I began to water the little white trays once a week. When I began to spray and feed them with a brown plant food they bloomed into delicate flowers of purple and several shades of pink. I re-potted them and then had eleven. They thrived. Malik returned and took back six. Then came the fading; the leaves and flowers turned brown. There is no return to the full green leaves. I inhabit the world of loss.
I especially mean loss that is connected to the flowers that words make. First Master Poet Bill Merwin leaving this world and his palm forest slope in Maui on March 15th, and now you, Art Buehler at a hospice in Tucson. William and Arthur—kings of their craft, translators par-excellence, poet and consummate scholar—mentors to me for all that I have written in the last decades.
At a workshop in Mexico in the nineties I asked Bill Merwin a question I worked on for two hours:
How can we tell what needs to be told? What can you say about the vital shift from personal self-involved writing to a beneficial service to others through the poetic form?
He answered: “There is no poetry in the Absolute! Poetry is relational. It starts by being the attempt to say what cannot be said, while prose is something we can say.”
Then he looked at me and recited Shakespeare’s sonnet #18:
Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s Day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate……
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Merwin continued: “You can’t change a word of it. When you get to that kind of intensity, the poet must bear witness to the aspect of life from which poetry comes. It is beyond Shakespeare’s experience. A hologram. Because it is complete it can tell you something of the whole world.” Life-changing answer.
In that time I had linked my poems together in a rough text that would—years later—become my book Untold, A History of the Wives of Prophet Muhammad. In 2005 at the San Francisco Sufi Symposium I introduced myself to you, Art. I had read that you taught Philosophy and Religious Studies at Louisiana State University, and had lived in Yemen and with the Naqshbandis of Afghanistan. Plus you received a PhD from Harvard and wrote several scholarly books. I mentioned my writing on The Prophet’s Wives. Could we make time to discuss it?
You just sat down with a pen and began to edit my work. You told me to look for the oldest sources, not contemporary and 20thcentury historians, but the early ones, and continued over the next couple of years to send me crucial information on that. Less than a decade later you graciously invited me to contribute to a book you were writing on Fatima, Daughter of Prophet Muhammad. I flew to Amman, Jordan where you had just moved with your wonderful, beloved wife, Josemi. We spent a week with a twenty-five volume biography of Fatima. You’d ask what part of her life I wanted to explore, then open that volume and translate from the Arabic, while I wrote down every word.
Me and Josemi on the roof of the apartment in Amman, Jordan, 2014 where she and Art lived. She worked in the Brazilian Embassy
There was the story of Fatima grieving for her father after his death. The door opened there were three houris (female heavenly beings) who told her—we’re from paradise and have brought you blue date cake. Your father: you were longing for him. We know. ) From Shia Hadith: Musnad Fatima al-Tuyya Sirukani, #252, translated by Dr. Arthur Buehler). I made a poem “Blue Date Cake” published in Women’s Voices for Change November, 2017, and is in my book Fatima’s Touch—which I put out on my own as your work was far from finished in 2015.
Here’s some lines from one of the rough drafts you sent for me to edit: “A note to the reader:” My goal in writing this book is to provide an opportunity for more people to appreciate Fatima… By honoring Fatima, everyone gets honored. When I started out ignorant of Fatima there was no way to know how much I would end up loving her. If only one person comes to love Fatima after reading this book, I will be happy. May that one person be you. (March, 2015.) This poem brought you to mind recently:
…There was no arrogance about him
No vanity, only the strong backs
Of his words pressed against
The tonnage of a page
His suggestion to me was that hard work
Was the order of each day…
I drank deeply from his knowledge
A cup he gave me again and again
Filled with water, clear river water
He was never old, and never grew older
Though the days passed…
from: Mine Own Phil Levine by Dorianne Laux
In my last conversation with you, that phone call when you gently let me know about the incurable cancer, I had just been walking in a bird reserve, and offered to take you with me on my next outings, and that I’d send my husband Shabda’s bird pictures on email. Isn’t it strange, I said, that both of us were very healthy before the Fatima books. After I finished, right when it came out in the fall of 2016 I became ill for two and a half years, and am just now recovering; that you completed Fatima the Resplendent: The Prophet’s Daughter—as your new book was called as of January 30—that you may join her… as I would like to when it is my time!
poem from Fatima’s Touch by Tamam Kahn
Fatima is described in elaborate detail, in Shia history, crossing the bridge to paradise. On the Day of Resurrection, a herald will call from the middle of the throne: O people of the Resurrection, lower your gaze, for Fatima the daughter of Muhammad is crossing… reference: Suyuti, Musnad Fatima (courtesy of A. Buehler)
Fatima rides with the emerald houris,
maidens — immortals with transcendent eyes.
High on that she-camel known as al-Adba,
dressed in a thousand sheer garments of heaven,
with beautiful greetings inscribed on each hem.
Five thousand angels go with her as escort
on sapphire horses with pearls in their manes,
joining this liminal moment of glory:
she’s crossing death’s bridge, but it’s wide as a hair.
Gabriel guides her into God’s throne room.
Here, like a bride, she is light-crowned and perfect,
while star-marked galaxies gleam in her hair.
She’s known as the doorway to life-everlasting.
Calling and crying for help, people beg her:
Please help us, lift us right over the gap.
<> <> <> <> <> <> <> <> <> <> <> <>
Thank you Habibi, for your friendship, bold spirit of adventure, and support. May the way open before you, Ya Fattah! I dedicate this to Josemi Sawczuk
with love, Tamam