Vespers

These days the metaphors
all seem to describe luminosity:
I am sucking the light
and the marrow straight
from your body.
Ours is the language of desperate stars
gesturing to each other
across centuries of missteps,
playing phone tag.
The words are unrenewable,
imbued with past languages, like
the silent exchange of breath
between movements.
I lost an eye once
to gain the knowledge
that God is just
another sponge like me,
a mirror reflecting the vitality
of others without improving
upon it.
We were alive and burning.
Now our sutured silhouettes
keep tapping away
just to endure this living
we did not choose.

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Sacred Gifts and the Simulacra

The Persian poet Hafiz once remarked, “What we speak becomes the house we live in.”

Memories are constructed in the same way we approach architecture. Instead of functioning like an analog computer, our minds remember and disremember historical events according to the architectural blueprint we have already written for ourselves. In other words, memory is an act of narrative and imagistic invention.

Last year BYU’s Museum of Art presented an exhibit entitled “Sacred Gifts.” The name stems not from the content of the exhibit, which is a rare collection of 1870s religious paintings from various Scandinavian churches, but from a scripture Mormons have reappropriated to represent the alleged miracle of this exhibit. The scripture appears in D&C 6:10 and reads as follows: “thy gift…is sacred and cometh from above.”

The story of how these paintings came to leave the altars and halls of their native Denmark and Sweden and arrive here in Utah is itself a miraculous origin story. The introductory video includes an interview with the curator of a Carl Bloch museum, in which she states that she doesn’t think the paintings will ever be lent out for any other exhibit. We are meant to marvel at our good luck in being the sole recipients of these masterpieces. Perhaps the peculiar and special nature of this exhibit reaffirms to us that we are special and we are peculiar. I don’t know.

By its very existence, the fact that BYU was able to obtain these paintings that have never left their resting place, the exhibit itself is transformed into a symbol. It is evidence of the latitude of God’s love for His community. Is there really any reason to look at the paintings?

Last year, the New Yorker published a piece in which the author compared his native Judaism to the experience of reading the Book of Mormon for the first time. After immersing himself in Mormon scripture, he realized that Judaism and Mormonism were more alike than they were different. The reverence Jews have for the Torah is rooted in the miracle of its existence and not what’s actually inside the Torah. In practice, scripture functions as a heuristic device through which Jews come to understand themselves. The author argues that Mormons reverence their scripture in the same way: regardless of what is explicitly written in the Book of Mormon, LDS faith hinges on Joseph Smith’s story, the restoration, and the miraculous circumstances that produced a tactile book of scripture. The author reminds us that early Mormon missionaries marketed the Book of Mormon as “another testament of Jesus Christ.” Often these missionaries had not even read the book themselves, but were convinced of its veracity because of its origin story that had been transmitted to them. It didn’t matter, though, because their faith was rooted in the Book of Mormon as a symbol, rather than a book of literature.

We are natural pattern-seekers and truth exists only in the retelling of the story. Susan Sontag writes: “The truth is always something that is told, not something that is known.” Not only is Mormonism a story we keep telling and retelling, it is also an origin myth. What I have come to understand is that the origin story is also the whole story. Every attempt we make at reinventing the Mormon narrative will fall short because, as Jean Baudrillard suggests, we are all the subtitled version of someone else’s story anyway.

Baudrillard explains in The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, for instance, that war is just another ritualized narrative through which we re-experience the things that have already happened to others. After all, what is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but a reconstitution of collective Holocaust memory? Am I even experiencing this exhibit? Is anyone else here actually writing a new story? Is this art interrogating my story? Why am I still sitting here staring at this triptych if not to experience something?

I came from a big Mormon family in which we read the scriptures every morning, followed by a family prayer, followed by a cheer in Japanese: “Yosh!” Unity. My parents were obsessed with transmitting our family’s origin story and instilled in us a sense of purpose that I have rarely felt with such clarity since I was a child.

Author Philippa Perry cautions us: “Be careful which stories you expose yourself to…the meanings you find and the stories you hear will have an impact on how optimistic you are: it’s how we evolved.”

Those narratives are the girders we keep constructing, climbing inward from the margins of our semantic borders. We’ll never reach anything close to the center but those of us who are trying will exhaust ourselves before we stop. Once we die, they’ll call the search off and the probes will finally cease and we’ll finally get to be alone, which is what we wanted all along.

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I have no Arabic friends. I hear these words in my car as I drive a trio of young Iraqi girls around Salt Lake City. Asma readjusts her hijab while looking in the vanity mirror of the sun visor, puckering her lips as she applies a new layer of glossy balm. She speaks a fragmentary English but the point is clear: Living in a new country sucks.

The girls, all between the ages of seven and fourteen, have recently immigrated to the United States from Jordan, where their family fled during the tumult of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Granted asylum in Salt Lake, their family lives under the watchful eye of the IRC, an international organization that manages the well being of the refugee population. As an IRC family mentor, I’m in charge of checking in with the family every week and planning activities for the kids.

There are a total of ten mouths to feed in the Habayesh household, with three of the family members earning a meager salary with their jobs at Deseret Industries. Asma is the eldest daughter in the family and at fourteen years old, she’s fully immersed in teen culture. With one foot rooted in American mass culture and another in Arab mass culture, it’s not unusual for her to jump from listening to Katy Perry’s magnum opus Teenage Dream to the soothing strains of Nancy Ajram’s “Ana Masri.” Both are female singers with massive followings in their respective regions and Asma cannot get enough of their music.

Asma and her family are exiles – not just geographic exiles, but also social and cultural exiles. Uprooted from their life in central Iraq, her parents spent the last ten years as refugees in Jordan before finally gaining entrance to the United States. This narrative of exile is a common one across cultures. According to psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, we as human beings are “born into language,” and as we acquire language we discover loss. We rely on language to express ourselves, constantly poised between the risk of being misunderstood and the risk of being known so completely that we are left defenseless.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a cartographic mind. The thrill of categorizing, of grouping, and of mapping has always been important to me. And yet “we are all deterritorialized on some level in the process of language itself,” write Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Broadly speaking, deterritorialization is a weakening of ties between culture and place. My own process of identity formation has required some form of exile, of deterritorialization. It changes every day.

Within the Habayesh family there is also a sense of a deterritorialization of cultural identities. The parents, who are second cousins, recount stories about meeting each other when they were sixteen years old in the Takriti region of Iraq. Their daughters, on the other hand, are quick to identify themselves as Jordanian and even speak Arabic with the soft cadence of Levant women. Faced with the more bewildering and troubling aspects of American culture, the Habayesh family acts as its own tribal unit, with its own behavioral norms and expectations. There are a handful of Arab families in the neighborhood, but Asma voices the dilemma so succinctly: I have no Arabic friends.

What does it mean to belong to a tribe? The word tribe has existed for centuries and describes a group of people who are loosely connected by regional, religious, cultural, or ethnic identity. Tribal identity is arguably one of the most enduring social signifiers that exist in the Middle East today. ‘Asabiyya is a term coined by thirteen-century sociologist Ibn Khaldun to describe the social solidarity that exists within a tribal group. The Khaldunian cycle argues that tribes fit into a historical pattern in which militarily superior tribes united by ‘asabiyya will periodically conquer civilizations, but over time the city urbanizes the tribe, which loses its cohesion and decays. After several generations, a young tribal group will eventually step in and set a new cycle of conquest-decay into motion.

In the Middle East, it was the Ottomans who “turned the camel-breeding chieftains into tax-farmers—the recognized central power, and collected former tributes as tax for the state.” The advent of European colonialism after the fall of the Ottoman Empire also helped break this cyclical pattern of state-tribal interaction. The tribe, as Khaldun defined the term, disappeared from society but maintained their tribal names and identities long after.

I never asked the Habayesh parents why they left Iraq. The timing of their departure suggests that it was connected to the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime but I thought asking about it would be intrusive. Current estimates suggest that the Jordanian population is composed of over 32 percent refugees, families who’ve been forced from their homes due to civil war or political turmoil.

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Jazz cats_1

“It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living.”

I heard those words in a writing class yesterday. No one is going to pin a badge on your chest for getting through the day without a blip. No one is going to reward you for running seven miles in the humidity after a long day. No one is going to say “good job” when you force yourself to sit and listen – really listen – to a jazz band in a forgotten coffee shop on a Saturday morning.

Discipline only counts if it leads to art. Putting pen to paper can be as effortless as you want it to be – it just requires a keen ability to observe. Most good writing begins and ends with attention.

Writing poetry is something like jazz. It’s unprompted, unplanned and messy. It starts with a rhythmic timbre and builds into a plangent roar. It helps humans make sense of the funny and the tragic and gives texture to our lives. It moves independent of us.

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that jazz music is “safe sex of the highest order.” I have no idea what he meant by that but I suspect he’s hinting at the tension that exists within jazz between high culture/low culture impulses. Jazz music has undergone a slow transformation into “safe” music choice despite combative, fuck-you roots. Poetry, like jazz, is perilous. Writing it needs to feel like stepping off the side of a cliff.

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East-Coker-V-florals

“East Coker V” is a selection from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, a copy of which can be found here. The poems were deeply personal to Eliot because his ancestors left East Coker in the fifteenth century to settle in America. It’s one of my favorite poems.

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February-2

February 2014. This is the month of broken resolutions, anxiety about Valentine’s Day, and Black History Month.

The poet Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840-1894) was the granddaughter of author James Fenimore Cooper, who penned several novels including The Last of the Mohicans. Coincidentally JFC was also from my hometown: Scarsdale, NY (!). Constance was best known for her poetry and short stories, which are regarded as “pioneering examples of local color or regionalism.” Most of her short stories are curt travelogues inspired by her trips around the world.

Constance maintained a confusing friendship with novelist Henry James (Washington Square, The Portrait of a Lady, The Turn of the Screw). Biographers have speculated that the two were involved romantically, but some of those arguments rely on anachronism and pretty simplistic interpretations of their respective novels. But who knows?

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The online lit community in the U.S. can be exhausting. Every other day a new quote from DFW appears in my feed, along with admonitions to read The Goldfinch and lots of praise for Zadie Smith. It’s true that a general “flattening” of communications has occurred within online subcultures, but I find myself wishing the online lit community allowed itself more contour and permeability. How many Syrian novelists have I read? Pakistani poets? It’s impossible to understand Greek philosophy, for instance, without acknowledging the chain of transmission through Arab philosophers that would eventually help canonize Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates. The ties that bind writers together may not be as straightforward as we think.

With this thought in mind, I’m interested in the way in which we talk about our literary heroes. How are famous writers memorialized and how does that praise enter our collective memory? In the case of William Butler Yeats, his legacy was assured in an elegy that was translated, revised, and repurposed for different poets at least three different times. His words, to quote Auden, were those “of a dead man…modified in the guts of the living.”

A recent piece in the LA Review of Books attempts to trace the incredible afterlife of a poem W.H. Auden wrote entitled “In Memory of W.B. Yeats.” Auden himself had written a number of elegies for other figures including Freud, Henry James, and JFK, but his poem for Yeats was the one that helped shape Yeats’ transformation into a literary icon. The poem begins:

He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
O all the instruments agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

The first section praises the memory of Yeats, the second teases him for being silly, and the third ends with a redemptive sketch of the poet as “visionary and healer.” At the end of the elegy, Auden remarks that “Poetry makes nothing happen,” a quip that was deemed “the statement of the era” by poet Joseph Brodsky, who translated the poem into Russian. Brodsky took a special interest in Auden’s poem and was so moved by its ingenuity that he aped much of the poem’s structure when he wrote an elegy for T.S. Eliot in 1965 entitled “Verses on the Death of T.S. Eliot.” This poem, copied from Auden’s, begins: “He died in January, the beginning of the year.” When Brodsky died in 1996 on the exact same day of T.S. Eliot’s death, Seamus Heaney wrote an elegy entitled “Audenesque” that read:

Joseph, yes, you know the beat.
Wystan Auden’s metric feet
Marched to it, unstressed and stressed,
Laying William Yeats to rest.

Therefore, Joseph, on this day,
Yeats’s anniversary,
(Double-crossed and death-marched date,
January twenty-eight)

It can be difficult to trace the ideas that tie poets together. After all, Auden barely knew Yeats and Brodsky had never met Eliot. But creatively all of these men are connected to one another in verse, in rhythm, in meter. Who would have known that a poem memorializing Yeats would come to link Auden, Brodsky, and Eliot within our collective memory?

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