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Book Review: Knocking from Inside by Tiel Aisha Ansari

March 5, 2012

This poetry might advertise itself as a cure for post-modernism; it’s mystic without being cryptic, and has a clear moral sentiment without ever feeling like a sermon. We are being asked to unscrew ourselves from the manufactured wants of this contemporary economy of ours, to emerge into a pre-consumerist  world. Perhaps ask is to strong a verb; we are rather being told there is such an option. All we need to realize this possibility, to escape the myopia of bus(y/i)ness and consumption is a universal sympathy. Here’s “The Reed Flute Twelve-Bar Blues:”

They went to the river to cut them some reeds
They went to the river to cut them some reeds
Took a knife to the stalk and they made it bleed.

They put in some holes, the number was nine
They put in some holes, the number was nine
They made it a flute and it sounded so fine.

Ain’t but one tune that flute ever played
Ain’t but one tune that flute ever played
And it cried out to God all through the long day.

Ain’t but one word that flute ever said
Ain’t but one word that flute ever said
“Take me back, take me back to the old riverbed.”

This opens us to one of the volume’s most fundamental tensions: There is horror is disrupting the world as it is – in construction or creation – and yet we should stand in awe of our own creation, as in the poem “Appreciation:”

How can mere clay appreciate the potter
whose hands have shaped it, strong upon the wheel?
How can the fish appreciate the water—
how can mere clay appreciate the potter
how can a wondering soul know God? Oh, daughter,
who’s seeking knowledge, ask this as you kneel:
how can mere clay appreciate the potter
whose hands have shaped it, strong upon the wheel?

This reminds me of Rene Girard’s interpretation of the Gospels: Christ becomes a universal sacrifice, a “scapegoat” for all of our sins so that we no longer have to sacrifice one another. God does it so we don’t have to. Specifically, in this case, God creates so we don’t have to. To reconnect to the Source is to give up trying to be a source ourselves, and Ansari repeatedly tries to convince us that she is not the author of these poems, merely their conduit. The poems come from the Source. I find this sort of humility endearingly self-aggrandizing; her claim of non-authorship simultaneously labels her poetry as divine.

If Nietzsche were still around, all of this might earn her some unwanted admiration from him, as would her advocacy of re-appropriation over refutation. In “Fisherman Dragged to Death by 150-lb. Catfish” she explicitly re-maps the symbols of the story onto concepts that fit her own world-view.

Now what are we to make of this fish story?
We moralize: “He should have let it go,
not thrown away his life for earthly glory.
It wasn’t worth it.” Well, that’s all you know.

Perhaps a kinder metaphor would show
the fisher struggling, valiant but outweighed
by fateful forces, hidden undertows,
the tragic hero overwhelmed by Fate.

She goes on to let us know there is nothing obligating us to accept her interpretation. So if we do, it can only be by the force of its expression. This is all very Nietzschean.

Whoever assembled these words, this mobile army of metaphors, they do build to poetry, language reveling in the idiosyncrasies of language. Ansari exploits the happy coincidences of English, as in these lines from “Depth:”

I’m trying to learn the way
down. Weighed down. Way down.
No longer buoyant.

She also hunts out the what’s dead or dying in our language and shocks it back into life. From the poem “That’s Life:”

You live in a glass house. By all means throw stones.
Break it down from the inside–
any hatching chick does as much.
There’s no room for wings inside that shell.

These lines make me think of Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall.” What we construct divides us, while nature promotes an interdependence. But Ansari’s poem is conceptually a bit more complex. After all, that same chick needs its shell during gestation to grow those wings. Walls brought down too early prove just as disastrous as walls brought down too late.

Ansari is a Sufi poet and that faith gives her poetry ground to stand on, but she’s not confined by that faith; the themes have a more universal resonance. You can purchase this volume on lulu or amazon. Ansari also blogs at knockingfrominside.blogspot.com, where many of her poems are posted under a Creative Commons License.

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