So Starve: Between Sustenance and Desire with Kazim Ali, a 2017 Massachusetts Poetry Festival Headliner

by Hannah Larrabee | March 2017

The opening poem of The Far Mosque is, for me, a shared moment with a stranger -- a head nod, a wink. “Gallery” begins:

You came to the desert, illiterate, spirit-ridden,
intending to starve

then moves to the surreal drawing, “The Man Who Taught William Blake Painting in His Dreams,” then to the disparate thoughts of two people standing side-by-side looking at the drawing:

You’re thinking: I am ready to be touched now, ready to be found.
He’s thinking: How lost, how endless I feel this afternoon.

Isn’t that the way, really? Even the same image can’t steer our thoughts to the same place, and this is just as true of the poetic image. The culminating line of the poem sets another idea in motion for me:

You came to the desert intending to starve      so starve

How often do I come to a poem with the same intention? It is never really to satisfy a hunger; it is more to sustain a hunger.

In Kazim Ali’s The Far Mosque, journey seems to be a recurring theme. It is as though the poet is on a pilgrimage -- following his own questions through various landscapes, striking up conversations with people he meets along the way (both dead and alive).

I won’t pretend to analyze any underlying themes related to Islam in his work, as if some comparative religions class could ever equip me with the understanding of a sacred infrastructure foreign to my own… no, that’s not possible.

But, as a poet, there is a direct line to the fragmentary, transient, lustful (but constrained) directive to speak some kind of meaning in this life, as difficult as that is, and I feel that throughout these poems.

I also admire Kazim’s artful rendering of the idea that it is impossible to access the interiority of another human being, and there is a perfect image for this in the context of worship (and art, a recurring theme):

I love this painting of the cathedral by Van Gogh, says Catherine. There is no door, no way to get in.

In other poems, Rumi is in mourning. Emily Dickinson is a breeze inside her own home. Where then is our poet in this strange landscape? Exactly here: My work is my prayer.

Life is too rich, too mysterious, to adhere to the rigors of self-denial, the sanctification of the flesh. Far too often, we inflict this on ourselves already. For Kazim, even Rumi must understand that

the farthest mosque is the one within,

and that to follow a spiritual path does not require mourning. You must allow yourself to be lifted, to be remade instead:

Dear Shams-e-Tabriz, I do not mourn.

You spindle me, sun-thorn, to the sky.

That’s how I see it, anyway. And, yes, Kazim Ali’s lines are fragmentary in terms of iterations on the page, but the page cannot contain the lines so why bother? There is a sense he is reframing ancient fragments, or perhaps he has a penchant for things left unsaid. Each line allows us to contemplate silence and space, but each line also seems linked by a tangible thread of desire.

So, I pull the thread.

And I continue to pull throughout The Far Mosque, joining Kazim Ali in some far-off dreamscape, in a kind of call to prayer that is universal in poetry.

It is fitting that the opening lines of this collection invoke the reader to starve, while the final lines draw even more from parched lips:

Green in the names and trees went up to join gray in the sky.

Then the gray-green sky came down in breaths to my lips and
sipped me.

In the midst of this epic journey, in the perpetual movement of the poems, Kazim Ali states very clearly that he does not want to return home without that which he came for
but we always do, don’t we?

I thank him for The Far Mosque, for this reminder of our pervasive desire.

Hannah Larrabee is the author of Murmuration (forthcoming: Seven Kitchens Press), Sufjan (Finishing Line Press 2017), and Virgo (FLP). She was recently selected by NASA to write poems in celebration of the James Webb Space Telescope, allowing her to see the JWST in person before it launches in 2018. Her poems are on display at Goddard Space Center. She’s had poems in: The Harpoon Review, Rock & Sling, The Fourth River, Printer’s Devil Review, among others. Hannah teaches writing and works for a technology company in Boston.