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True to Life

All week long I’ve been worried about poetry.

Worried because, on Saturday night, we’re having a poet come to the church where I am the pastor, and I’m afraid people won’t come.

Why? Because it seems that most people, when asked about poetry, say they don’t like it.

I don’t understand this. OK, I guess I understand it if they were force-fed Ezra Pound at an impressionable age. Or if they were required to memorize “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” as part of sophomore English class. (“Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs/Upon the slimy sea.”)

But it just isn’t true that you can substitute a cup of corn syrup for every love poem or that just because it’s called a poem, it’s snooty or dense or both.

Instead, it seems to me a poem is the most reliable place to go to find the truth, if the truth is what you’re after.

I’m not sure why that is, but I think about it a lot. Poetic language just tells more truth than regular words.

In what I do for a living—lead worship services in a local congregation—most of what happens is poetry, in one way or another.

If you’re going to try to talk about what’s in the marrow of the soul, you don’t write up a spec sheet; you try to conjure an honest image with the words at hand.

Last Sunday a woman was telling me about what it felt like when she was a kid to see the blue and red candles flickering through the darkness of her local church. That image alone said more about a sense of the holy than any kind of explanation could.

A good poem is like getting the right correction for astigmatism: Now you can see fearlessly.

The poet who’s coming to Grace [Lutheran Church, in Niskayuna] on Saturday, Taha Muhammad Ali, writes poems like that. They make the reader see fearlessly.

There’s nothing hard to follow about his poetry. They are clean and straightforward, as though he thinks a wasted image is a wasted moment. As though to remind the reader that life only has so many moments.

That’s what I like about his poetry. That and the way he writes about living in Israel as a Palestinian. He was born there. In 1948 his family fled to Lebanon. He came back the following year and has lived in Nazareth ever since. He has made his living for decade selling souvenirs, and still owns a souvenir shop with his sons.

As a poet he is completely self-taught. He doesn’t argue a political position or aspire to personal heroics. He simply writes about living in a place and at a time when intolerable options face everyone. And he writes as if he wants his witness to be understood. Maybe it’s because his lines are short and his images direct, or maybe it’s because, even in Arabic, his style is unencumbered and clean—but Ali speaks truthfully in a world of colliding truths.


Lovers of hunting,

and beginners seeking your prey:

Don’t aim your rifles at my happiness,

which isn’t worth

the price of the bullet

(you’d waste on it).

What seems to you

so nimble and fine

like a fawn,

and flees

every which way,

like a partridge,

isn’t happiness.

Trust me:

my happiness bears

no relation to happiness.

 

This isn’t Ali’s first visit to the area. He was here a year ago, touring with the Hebrew poet, Aharon Shabtai and their translator, Peter Cole.

At that time, Cole’s wife, Adina Hoffman, wrote in The Boston Globe of Ali and Shabtai’s visit to the Robert Frost homestead in Middlebury, Vt.:

 Taha surveyed the isolated expanse and grinned in his lopsided, yet somehow centered way.

“What do you think, Aharon? ‘Good fences make good neighbors’? But there are no fences here and Frost had no neighbors.”

We all laughed, though, for an instant that great green view darkened slightly. In a few days we’d have to go home—back to the land of the fences.

Ali’s translator, Peter Cole, will be with Ali at Grace on Saturday. A poet himself, and a major translator of Hebrew poetry, Cole lives in Jerusalem and runs Ibis Editions, the not-for-profit Israeli publishing company that published Ali’s first book.

Cole’s work translating Ali, as well as his presence with Ali at Grace, is a part of his larger commitment to provide at least a glimpse of hope into the picture of turmoil in the Middle East.

Maybe the obvious question is—can poetry do that? Provide hope, shed light, offer solutions, broadcast pictures of real life? There’s more than a hint of an answer here in these lines about friends meeting unexpectedly after 40 years:

You asked me once,

on our way back

from the midmorning

trip to the spring:

“What do you hate,

and who do you love?”

 

And I answered,

from behind the eyelashes

of my surprise,

my blood rushing

like the shadow

cast by a cloud of starlings:

“I hate departure.

I love the spring

and the path to the spring

and I worship the middle

hours of morning” . . .

 

. . . And here you are

asking—again,

it’s absolutely preposterous—

I recognized you

but you didn’t recognize me.

“Is it you?!”

But you wouldn’t believe it.

And suddenly

you burst out and asked:

“If you’re really you,

What do you hate

and who do you love?!”

 

And I answered—

my blood

fleeing the hall,

rushing in me

like the shadow

cast by a cloud of starlings:

“I hate departure,

and I love the spring,

and the path to the spring,

and I worship the middle

hours of morning.”

And you wept,

and flowers bowed their heads,

and doves in the silk of their sorrow

stumbled.

—Jo Page

For information about Saturday’s reading, call 372-0244 or e-mail jopage@graceniska.org


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