For the poet writing is an act of selfdisclosure as well as self-discovery. The forceful restraints and demands of poetry – its distillation of language, its relentless dependence upon sound and rhythm – drive the writer to execute leaps and turns not always demanded of the prose writer. In the process of wrestling with language, the poet must keep in touch with a very immediate and fleeting impulse and be willing to follow its labyrinth windings, to produce living poetry that catches the ear and the emotions of the listener.
For the reader, real poetry awakens a sense of violation. A sense that someone else has crept in our minds and put into charged language what we ourselves could not A good poem is a mirror that reflects the reader, providing images and phrasing that he can take to heart and make his own. If the poet is not honest such alchemy fails to take place. The difficulty is in finding that middle ground where poetry can communicate its very personal message without lapsing into self-absorbed and maudlin egotism. On this count at least, Ms Kahf succeeds where many have not To read her E-mails from Scheherzadis to be violated; to discover that some of those private thoughts and personal hang-ups and unspoken rages have been articulated.
Contrary to popular belief, for the critic, writing is not a process of raising oneself up by putting others down, nor is it the art of savaging the hard work of others with scintillating bon mots and erudite references. The critic’s job is – or should be – to keep the writing honest As a writer, I applaud Ms Kahf ‘s work. As a critic, I am obliged to temper my enthusiasm with a few niggling comments.
Having spent several months to read and digest John Ashberry’s small volume entitled April Galleons,and having admittedly read Eliot’s Portrait of a Lady with some degree of awakened comprehension for die first time since I began reading it many years ago, I found Ms Kahfs work to be a quick read. In poetry that is not always a good thing. In a collection of over fifty poems one hopes to be forced to linger longer. In trying to find the source of my discontent I stumbled on a critic’s blurb on the back of the book:
Kahfs ultimate message (is) that religion and ethnicity and color and nationality are as nothing in the face of simple humanity; that spirituality and life are beyond all of these; that no creed or ideology may be taken as a justification for harm.
Is that all? One is reminded of Lilly Tomlin’s brilliant tongue in cheek title for one of her one- woman shows: Life, the Universe and Everything. To be general is to be easy and ultimately facile. What the above quoted critic found to be cause for praise I find cause for alarm. The canvas is too broad and the banquet is prepared too quickly. A good editor would have found two or even three books in here and the poet should recall the celebrated advice to writers to ” kill your darlings’, i.e. be able to ditch those favorite turns of a phrase and beloved epigrams in order to keep the work honest. A nightmarish vision for any poet must be the publication after death of every jotting, half finished verse and abandoned work in the name of publishing The Complete Poems of editions. The greatest poets of the modern age have always had sheaves of paper to keep the fireplace going. Sheaves of disjecta they would not want published. In such an otherwise delightful and thought provoking collection, a litüe discretion; a Utile restraint would have gone a long way. Here is a clear cut case of less being a whole lot more.
It’s not that I accuse the poet of downright dishonesty. It’s simply, that by spreading oneself too tiiin, one can lose focus and intensity. That the poet is an Arab American woman living in the States does provide a large palette of colors to choose from. The problem is a large number of poems reiterate the same themes and those themes themselves may be considered easy targets and convenient hobby horses. Most notable is the “if this is religious faith, if belief is the root cause of so much bloodshed and injustice then I am an unbeliever” riff. An easy and over simplistic hyperbole to avoid contemplating the deeper questions. Ibsen once said that the writer’s job was to provoke questions, not to provide answers. To provide such an easy and ultimately egocentric answer does bring the writer to the edge of a dishonest abyss. Or a seriously irresponsible one; I’m not sure which.
Another favorite theme is one that no doubt made Nabakov so unabashedly homosexual in his literary tastes: an obsession with breasts. Is it truly freeing to promote one’s breasts, and at such length? It soon becomes a tired image/metaphor for all that is feminist and feminine. True, some men have written at equal length about their own erogenous zones and biological functions but it is often die bane of what otherwise would be a fine corpus of work. Images and motifs that are overused not only lose the power to shock or jolt or refresh; they lose the power to communicate anything at all. The late Alan Ginsberg comes to mind. Then too, we are no longer in Ginsberg’s age when such frank obscenity served a purpose. Ms Kahf is clearly influenced not only by classical Arabic poetry but by the likes of Walt Whitman (with his “catalogue arias”) and perhaps even Ginsberg. This overrides die twentieth century dictum of Ezra Pound to “make it new” and leaves the reader with a taste that it’s j ust all too easy to translate all of one’s visions to verse.
Unless you are an Arab American woman perhaps. The difficulty of being caught in two often diametrically opposed cultures might cause someone to find Ms KahPs work liberating. But this then begs the question, what is being liberated? Is the freedom being offered a break from centuries of cultural misogyny disguised as orthodoxy or simply the illusionary freedom of new age, DIY spirituality? Is ita freedom to say what must finally be said, or the roaring of a woman who heard that women should roar? There are times in this volume when it seems a bit of both. The work contains some beautifully rendered and unabashedly passionate celebrations of love, eroticand otherwise. It also contains a great deal of imagery that is unique to the American Muslim experience and is refreshing because of its ability to capture the humor, pathos and yearning of a growing population. Make no mistake. This is a collection of poems by someone who is living the life of a western Muslim. Perhaps westernized would be more appropriate here; with no disrespect intended. It is not endless sermonizing and bilingual catch phrases. It is not pseudo Rumi. It is a collection of images from someone questioning their past their future, themselves and their faith, and the answers are not always comfortable, orthodox, or pious. I just hoped that such impieties would not come so easy, with such flippant abandon. It’s what gives the overly large collection that tang of fast food and easy versifying. Our job, according to Rilke, is to live the questions. As it stands with this work, Ms Kahf has some more living to do.
It is only because die poet has attained to such impressive heights already that one feels it necessary to mention the flaws. Some of the gems in this volume include: die exuberantly anarchic Thawra des Odalisques at the Malusse Retrospective, We Will Continue Like Twin Towers, the joyous homegrown funk of Lateefa and the sensuous and celebratory / Can Scent an Arab Man a Mile Away. This last piece in particular handles an earthy frankness alongside compassionate poignancy with enviable dexterity. A willingness to jettison the cliché (Scheherazad? Again?!) and to linger longer over what amount to throwaway prosaic thumbnail sketches like Hijab Scenes /-7 would make all the difference. At its best her poetry is startling, provocative and humane. At its worst it is sdii a cut above most of what is out there in the English speaking Muslim world In addition, much of it has a power and an accessibility that should ensure an equally large non-Muslim readership.
What is good in dus collection, and there is a considerable amount that is good, makes us look forward to hearing what the poet will discover on the road ahead.
I cannot recommend this book to all and sundry in the Muslim world mat are looking for “Modern Islamic Poetry”, because that is not the author’s concern. I can recommend this collection to serious readers who enjoy watching a soul developing and sharing its discoveries through the medium of verse.
One senses, ultimately, that Mohja Kahf has the makings of a major poet. She understands full well how harsh a taskmaster verse can be and is prepared to battle for a place in its pantheon. Aware too of the pitfalls and possibilities of failure that only make the struggle more worthwhile, she is determined to forge ahead with a courage that is too often lacking. Or, as she says herself:
Come with me, come with poetry
Jump on this wild chariot, hurry
Help me with these wayward,
Together we will pull across die sky
the sun that will make the earth
or burn in its terrible brilliance,
and that is a good way to die
Like it or not, Mohja Kahf lays it on the line. And that is a good way to write.