Review by Jeffrey Ethan Lee
There is an intricate interweaving of themes, symbols, and allusions and leitmotifs that make Kazim Ali’s first full-length poetry book, The Far Mosque, resonate with a sense of great drama. One follows the lyric voice through mostly short, self-contained lyrics, but their greater strength lies in the continual progress that their speaker makes towards a greater vision. The poet is attuned to beautiful correspondences of outward sounds and inner music. However, Ali’s strength lies in that inner music, where meanings reveal their deeper power.
The book opens with “Gallery,” a poem that throws a fatal challenge the speaker himself: “You came to the desert intending to starve so starve.” It is rare now for any poet to seek vision by way of renunciation, and it is important to differentiate this quest from deprivation for its own sake, as the speaker of “Rouen” makes clear amidst the ruins of a cathedral that was bombed in World War II:
This is not a descent into catacombs, an inevitable combustion,
a darkening into blindness
Rather it is an approach on knees towards true sight
One believes this speaker who chooses great sacrifice for greater insight, and this idea is echoed in “Train Ride” when the speaker mentions “a prophet’s willingness to be blind,” (blind, that is, in a physical sense).
On the other hand, there is something more dangerous going on in the “plot” of this poet’s progress. There is a profound sense of a cosmos that has an unsympathetic chaos as its foundation. In “Night,” finding that the constellation of Orion has inexplicably lost his bow, the poet addresses the great hunter:
I drive miles into the country just to have a look at you.
You are no plagiarist of dusk.
Nothing in the sky equals itself.
All the stars have changed positions.
All the fortunes have been faked.
Charted against a lover who hasn’t existed for a million years.
Feeling as though one of the ancient gods has betrayed him, the poet is hungry-even feverish-for a myth or icon worthy of remembering. For the poet is also pursued by a persistent impulse toward annihilation, which comes to the fore in “Night Boat,” one of the greatest poems in the book.
One thing that may save the poet is another recurrent theme in the book-how he uses art as a form of prayer. He says in “The Cemetery at Montparnasse” near the single grave of Sartre and de Beauvoir, “My work is my prayer.” Sartre and de Beauvoir are fascinating foils for the poet who also professes unbelief in God; their love story-albeit fraught with complexity-represents an enduring intellectual and emotional partnership that was rooted in an understanding of humans as they are rather than as they ought to be. If their lives also were part of their work as philosophers, then their single grave-the final statement of their joint “work”-also could be a kind a kind of (existentialist) prayer. Likewise, the poet calls the “alphabet of stones, / dried flowers, museum tickets” upon their cenotaph “all prayers to our passing.” The solace that is won by visiting their grave brings the poet back to a sense of belonging, albeit in the midst of many disorienting journeys.
The depth of the poet’s struggles to live and to create art animate the entire book, and one may be reminded of other poets whose ardent unbelief showed only more poignantly the necessity of faith. The young T. S. Eliot’s personae in “Gerontion” and other pre-Waste Land poems resonate in Ali’s work, but unlike the studied impersonality and austerity of Eliot, Ali has a vibrant and generous personality that lets one hear the inner music that makes us remember what it is to be human.