Inquisition, by Kazim Ali
Review by Dan Alter
Extravagance is one way to talk about the sensibility animating Kazim Ali’s new collection. These are lush, wild poems, overflowing with sonic, verbal and formal play. Even when a particular poem is muted or restrained, it adds to the breadth of modes the book encompasses, another aspect of its “yes-and” approach. Diction, metaphor, form, sound are all deployed with an ebullient excess. This luxury, or extravagance, took me some getting used to: I found it both exciting and disorienting, at least in part because it runs counter to my training in the reading and writing of poems.
It happens that Ali teaches at Oberlin College, an incubator of tender souls where in the 1980s I arrived, one of many young, earnest would-be writers. My professors were for the most part earnest white Protestant men who set out to initiate us into the ancient art by teaching us to restrain our vatic impulses. It was the Midwest. It was the height of the “plain style:” a poem was meant to be something you’d say to someone in a bar. William Stafford or perhaps Sandra McPherson were held up as models. Laura Jensen, on the more unruly end of my professors’ canon, still boxed her unsettled surrealities in orderly stanzas. Only a murmur could be heard of the Language Poets’ dismantling of narrative and subjectivity, to say nothing of their avant-garde forerunners.
So I’m fascinated that Ali’s new book of poems, some of which was surely written in that same quiet Ohio town, launches:
In the earthquake days I could not hear you over the din or it might have been
the diner bell but that’s odd
because I’m usually the one
cooking up if not dinner then
a plan to build new fault lines…
from (“The Earthquake Days”)
William Stafford this isn’t. Din, been, dinner: this is a territory like hip-hop, with its hyper-rhyme, and its long syllable-piled lines next to lines that pull up short. And its boasts, the more extravagant the better, such as the next stanza where Ali strikes this pose: I’m late for my resurrection/ the one where I step into my angel offices and fuck/ the sun delirious. (Characteristically Ali’s religious position involves apostasy, on a grand scale. Frustrated, fierce wrestling with the languages and mythologies of gods is a central pre-occupation of this book.)
The long first poem propels forward, without periods, enjambing line to line and stanza to stanza, flooding with energy, interconnectivity, multiple meanings. I want to call this Ali’s “flow” (as in the hip-hop term for how rhythm and rhyme move a rap across its beats). A number of poems work in this mode.
But Ali’s restless, expansive poetics doesn’t hold still in any mode for long. Thus the “flows” of “The Earthquake Days,” “Phenomenal Survival of Death in the Mountains,” and “Origin Story,” just to pick out a few from the first section, are punctuated with measured poems like “Light House” in crisp quatrains and syllabics, or the luminous, mysterious “John” with a series of floating singlets, each complete in itself in a system that recalls the ghazal’s loose linkages.
Inquisition also approaches content from multiple positions. The poems are largely written in the first person. This “I,” even when it adopts personas, tends to have recognizable concerns such as fraught relationships between parents and children, or a struggle with ruptured faith. Frequently subjectivity is foregrounded but situation is backgrounded to a dense play of sound and form. Some poems lean more toward abstraction. Others go in the opposite direction, the confessional tradition: for example “Origin Story,” which describes a trip home to see the poet’s mother after a stroke, the travelogue “Saraswati Puja,” or the Ohara-esque “Marie’s Crisis” which kinetically recounts a night in a gay bar.
Inquisition is likewise omnivorous formally. To list only a few forms Ali adopts or invents: variation on theme, mathematical, ghazal, syllabic, golden shovel, stanzaic. Ali seems to delight in various constraints, and the formal poems tend to be precise in following their particular rules. Yet the formal poems too are not careful or neat: in any form his poetics is embracing, rough, accepting of wide possibilities.
“Text Cloud Anthology” is a striking example of Ali’s formal inventiveness: it is not only an abecedarian poem but drawn completely from a found text. Our attention dances between the performance of this exacting form, which is luxuriant and surprising, and the threads of feeling woven into it.
Limited himself to matter
His memoir of morning
Mother mountain mouth
Never night this orifice open
from “Text Cloud Anthology”
At roughly the center of the book, two consecutive three page poems stretch toward two of its poles. “Sacrifice” is on the formal end, a kind of double-ghazal, with two alternating radifs (stanza end-words). It braids a story of protecting a budding peach tree from frost with meditations on versions of the binding of Isaac/Ishmael in the Muslim and Jewish traditions and pulls these strands compellingly into our current political landscape (Israel/Palestine, the ground of the narrative), and into the speaker’s own story:
I know something about going by different names and even switching bodies since my body too is said by some
to be against god. But how can what God utters fit into human ears, His languages are never learned fast
Or this, towards the end:
And what is it that you unbibled but not released are supposed to do when your small god-sized father asks you
to come. He looks at you with love but has a knife in his hand. Decide fast.
While “Sacrifice” takes liberties with some of the ghazal’s strictures–it eschews rhyme and syllable count–the resonances gathered between strands on faith, bodies, sacrifice and protection or its absence make their own dense kind of rhyming.
“Amerika the Beautiful,” a poem that the epigraph tells us is after “Bush’s War” by Robert Hass, is another center of the book. Following Hass’ template the poem employs a loose descendant of blank verse, occasioned by the poet typing the words “Trump’s America.” This leads to a recollection of the speaker’s religious shaming by an uncle in his home in India, after which he stays up all night conversing on-line with a cousin’s American wife. She is a convert to Islam who is facing a trauma of her own. This narrative is intermingled with bursts of unbridled lyric flight, as in this signature moment of lavish apostasy:
My body has never belonged in the world.
God and I were secret lovers hiding in the closet from my friends
and his. When he put his tongue in my mouth my body
came alive as a beast…..
“Amerika the Beautiful”
We are introduced to Imam Reza, the speaker’s “favorite imam” who fled repression in the Arab world, and then a catalogue of brutalities of the America premised at the beginning. The poem spirals through these materials, wrapping around the never-resolved personal story and the larger unresolvabilities that become its context. The final third of the poem is an extended associative flight (in “flow”) that builds great momentum, as in:
Our surface now roils with the unreal, wind through wheel,
does not god want to win and flout the unspoken? At Hussein Sagar
a sand crab crawls to the lake’s skimpy wrack line. Water meets earth
in the form of the broken. Body is where fire and air enter
among earth and water. A painting is the meeting of eye
and touch. River is sculpture unfolding in time. Such a quick turn
then, unmoving, my body so cruelly useless. Bodies now being beaten…
“Amerika the Beautiful”
The narrative thread keeps weaving back to the speaker’s cousin-in-law, anchoring the poem with an increasing tenderness. In its last lines one of her chosen names is revealed to be related to Reza: “you remember him? –Reza. The imam who wandered. Here, as often in the book, Ali’s line feels rich in the mouth, humming with its internal rhymes and m, i and ah sounds. In this way a poem about “Amerika,” much of which is set in India, ends with someone in motion across borders.
“Amerika the Beautiful” accumulates a layered mapping of heartbreak, displacement and spiritual longing. This summer I heard Ali speak about the exponentially increasing displacements we are living through. He proposed a poetics of border crossings, of multiple “homes” and of the multiple, intersecting identities they create. In the end, the extravagance of Inquisition, its restless, inclusive, fast-moving modes and methods, is in the service of an exploration of how poetry can work when more and more people come from many places at the same time.
Inquisition is available now through Wesleyan University Press.
Dan Alter has had poems recently published in Burnside Review, Field, Fourteen Hills, Pank, and Zyzzyva among others. Dan holds an MFA from Saint Mary’s College of California. He lives with his wife and daughter in Berkeley and makes his living as an electrician. He can be found online (including links to other reviews) at danalter.net