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Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities

Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities

by Kazim Ali


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Eloquent intercultural coming-of-age story

This groundbreaking, transgenre work—part detective story, part literary memoir, part imagined past—is intensely autobiographical and confessional. Proceeding sentence by sentence, city by city, and backwards in time, poet and essayist Kazim Ali details the struggle of coming of age between cultures, overcoming personal and family strictures to talk about private affairs and secrets long held. The text is comprised of sentences that alternate in time, ranging from discursive essay to memoir to prose poetry. Art, history, politics, geography, love, sexuality, writing, and religion, and the role silence plays in each, are its interwoven themes. Bright Felon is literally "autobiography" because the text itself becomes a form of writing the life, revealing secrets, and then, amid the shards and fragments of experience, dealing with the aftermath of such revelations. Bright Felon offers a new and active form of autobiography alongside such texts as Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictee, Lyn Hejinian's My Life, and Etel Adnan's In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country. A reader's companion is available at

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819572769
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 08/15/2012
Series: Wesleyan Poetry Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 112
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.31(d)

About the Author

KAZIM ALI is the author of two books of poetry, The Far Mosque (2004) and The Fortieth Day (2008). He is an assistant professor of creative writing at Oberlin College and teaches in the low-residency MFA program of the University of Southern Maine. He is one of the founding editors of Nightboat Books.

Read an Excerpt



Paradise lies beneath the feet of your mother. A verse I've heard recited so frequently I do not know if it is scripture or hadith.

meaning traditions of the prophet, are always accompanied by a careful oral lineage of who said what to whom, and who heard who say they heard what. Usually back to one of the prophet's wives who heard the prophet say it.

The veil also between what you want to see and cannot see, what you wish to have heard but did not hear.

In butoh the dancers are rendered in white smoke, ghosts traversing the stage-as-womb, moving so slowly you do not even know they are there.

If paradise lies beneath the feet of my mother then how will I find my way inside unless she admits me.

Now I look at each face, each body, as it moves around the subway platform, down the stairs and around the platform, onto trains, off of them.

After my aunt Chand-mumani's death I thought of them each as flames, in each the body is combusting, burning up the fuel of the soul.

Michelle after giving birth walked around the city imagining everyone glistening, bordered in amniotic grit.

But is it really like Fanny writes, the body only a car the soul is driving.

Or something of us sunk into the matter of the body, part of us actually flesh, inseparable from it and upon death, truly dispersed, smoke.

The body of the prophet's wife always between us. Who said what.

In which case there really is something to grieve at death: that the soul is wind, not immortal.

A middle-aged woman, in the seat in front of me on the train, wearing a green puffy winter jacket. Her hair, though pulled back, frizzy and unkempt.

It's the unkempt I feel tenderness towards.

Have always felt about myself a messiness, an awkwardness, an ugliness.

As a child, such an envy of birds, of graceful slopes, of muscular boys.

In the train rushing above ground at 125th Street. Thinking about stumbling.

House by house, walking down this street or the other one. Going into the library, going into the school.

Where every middle-aged woman is my mother.

Waiting to be trusted with the truth.

I have nearly as much silver in my hair as she does.

Any pronoun here can be misread. He can mean you can mean I.

An odd list of things I want to do in the next five years: study butoh. Write an autobiography. Go back to Paris. Get lost somewhere I haven't been.

Also begin to say it.

Marco and I moved to Marble Hill in the summer of 2006.

Let me tell you a story about a city that floats onto the ocean. Opposite of Atlantis which fell into the sea or Cascadia which threatens to rise back out of it.

Marble Hill, a real hill, perched at the northernmost tip of Manhattan Island, a promontory out into the conjunction of the Hudson River and Spuyten Duyvil Creek.

The wind is an instrument, its own section of the sky orchestra.

Today I read of a Turkish mullah who is canceling 800 different hadith regarding treatment of women found now or believed at least to be untrue.

Untrue is it.

Untrue the laws that were graven in fire or graven in stone.

Says the Quran, "This is the Book. In it there is no doubt."

All for a belief that a human animal is a wicked one and requires a law.

Which requires if not actual violence then at least the threat of it.

At least fury.

Here in Marble Hill you are where you aren't.

Orchestral the river that curves and curves north of the island.

Ships bound for the upper east side from Albany have a harder and harder time negotiating the torturous and twisting Spuyten Duyvil.

So a canal is blasted through and what was once the northern tip of Manhattan became an island.

Walking across one of the bridges in Paris I came to a place called Les Mauvais Garçons. Being afraid to enter I crossed the street to another tavern.

I stayed for three hours.

Radiant with traffic, the streets do not remember the gone.

The pillar at the Place de Bastille does not put back brick or bar.

Ten miles out of Chartres nothing but grain across and gray above a dark raven emerges screaming from the fields.

These thoughts are nothing, following one after the other.

Somali lesbians scheduled for their execution. Two boys in Iran convicted of drunken and lewd behavior and hanged for it. Boys. 16 and 18. There was video footage of the actual hanging on the internet.

I watched it myself.

"You wear your fingers down copying sacred texts," sang Lalla, "but still the rage inside you has no way to leave."

The Arabic line "This is the Book. In it there is no doubt" can also be read as "This is, no doubt, the Book ..."

Dear mother, there is a folder of my loose poems lost somewhere during the summer of 2006 when I traveled between Pennsylvania, New York City, Virginia, Maine, and your house in Buffalo. There was a letter inside the folder to you.

Though I've looked and looked and failed to find it, I am sure it is still in the house in Buffalo somewhere. An envelope with a folder inside. Inside the folder loose poems. Tucked into poems, there was a letter.

The veil between what you want to see and what you cannot see.

Emily Dickinson sent her first letter to Thomas Higginson unsigned. She included with the unsigned letter a smaller sealed envelope in which there was a calling card upon which she had written her name.

When Colin Powell spoke at the UN about the invasion of Iraq, workers were asked to hang a black drape over Picasso's Guernica.

Which would have otherwise been in the background, surrounding him, as he spoke.

There is a body and a boy between you and utterance, the boy you were who could never speak.

Bright red bracelet of time.

"Fury," is how Galway Kinnell explained Dickinson's intent in writing her poems.

Poetry and fury in the time of war. Civil War for her.

What is my war? Not the one you think.

I won't say.

Constant state, sure as the white noise on the television after the station has gone off the air.

But who goes off the air any more.

And whose air.

Come to Marble Hill then.

Each night sleep is pierced by someone outside gunning their car engine over and over again before driving off.

A car alarm or two.

There is a streetlight outside the window that shines into the bedroom, bright as the moon but more orange.

Orange like the saffron scarf I wore to Tokudo. — "leaving home." When Ansho became a monk and took a new name.

The day I sat down next to a young man with a sweet smile. A gardener. Name of Marco.

The train runs the next block over. We are on the second floor so hear it if we really pay attention.

By now its rumble on the tracks, the chiming when the doors are about to close, are on the order of background noise.

I have not yet learned how to sleep through the night.

Marble Hill was an island for twenty years before the Spuyten Duyvil Creek, still running, underground below 228th Street, was filled in and joined to the mainland.

The city itself, my life, that first butoh performance I saw.

A man with such slow and intense movements, so internal.

You hardly knew he had moved at all and suddenly he was all the way across the stage, contorted, holding a glass bowl aloft in which a fish swam.

None of which you had even noticed was on the stage.

As I write this, a car alarm. The train.

Then silence.


Because what I think is that this tender beast, brown-skinned animal grotesque and lustful, is me and my immortal soul besides.

In Carlisle I have two writing desks on opposite sides of the room, one the pecan-wood desk with the nicks on the thin legs, the deer legs. The other the butler-desk with grill-covered bookshelves built into the sides.

Both of these I bought with money from my first real job when I moved north of the city to Rhinebeck.

A part of the story I haven't gotten to yet. Though it was already years ago.

Always in the broken story there is more to tell.

Mornings I rise in the cold and walk two blocks down to the old colonial graveyard to read history in the broken stones, names sometimes worn away, the stories of first wives, second wives, dead infants and unmarked whose.

In this way read the history of the place.

The history of any place for me is simple: a route between my home on South Bedford Street, across the main intersection to the coffee shop on the corner of Pitt and High Street.

The other compass points are the independent bookstore, the used bookstore, a house on Hanover Street where Marianne Moore lived, and a strange park that was once a graveyard.

On the north side of town, a place where the land was broken and bones disturbed.

Details on the display plaques in that park are sketchy and will lead me into shadowed places — the town records, rooms I've never been.

But I don't discover this small park near the railroad tracks with its distressing history until I've lived in the town more than seven months.

In the body of a tree I hear a resonance. While out in space between planets lie cores of planets.

An iron fence grows through the heart of the tree; I pass it every day in the morning when I walk.

You were saying something.

You hardly pass a night that winter without sneaking out into the hallway and turning the thermostat up four or five degrees.

Eating baked beans out of a can with couscous for dinner nearly every night. Not because you live alone or don't have the time to take care of yourself better.

But because you like the taste of it.

What I learned is that each asteroid is held in careful place by a partner in space. If such a body didn't exist the orbital patterns of these same can be extrapolated graphically.

A discovery which pleases me almost as much as when I learned that every cubic equation actually has an associated modular form.

But is the reverse true.

And what has all this to do with.

Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Once a frontier town. But constructed at the frontier with specific intent.

To push the boundaries of the state out to Cumberland Pass.

I wrote an autobiography once in letters. To someone. In which I found myself unable to actually say anything so I tried saying it in two or three or four different versions. Eventually leaving all the various versions in.

Called it The Historical Need for Music. Or was that Hysterical Need.

Repeating the chapters in different variations so I could speak out of both sides of my mouth, not because I wanted to evade but because I didn't know what really happened.

The County Jail, gothic, redstone, still stands at the corner of Bedford and High Streets, though is offices now, the insides completely refurbished with industrial grey carpeting, drop ceilings, and fluorescent lights.

You have to squint at it to be fearful, though death it still tells — a white man crushed in riots when he tried to sue for the return of two of his slaves that had escaped north.

Needing to check whether or not he won his case. The question of "law" vs. "morality" being what interests me.

To live in a frontier town at any rate or a town that was built on what was supposed to be the frontier.

Later all the promises were broken and the settlements spread into the territories.

It's always the broken that holds the universe in place.

That's what I would say about poetry and prayer.

That god or audience — the intended direction of both of those — we wish and wish are real.

In the mornings of the late fall when it is cold enough to feel the winter beginning I would leave the house very early and walk south on Bedford Street into the old cemetery.

Here's the closest place you come in America to a city piled on top of a city.

Not like that in Cairo where the city sedimented itself and we walked down the Greek streets themselves, saw the churches hidden underground, accessible only by otherwise unmarked staircases in empty courtyards.

Through the cemetery I read the fate of the village, the deaths, the family trees, the broken headstones. How we will all break.

When I speak about my body's life I know it is brothered and descended from but do not know if blood will descend from my blood.

Does a family break or can it like water evaporate and condense and so will I then be a father in a million different ways.

Leaving the cemetery I walk through the old districts to the north side of town and after crossing the railroad tracks find a park there which is really another cemetery.

Or was — the graves now all dug up, replaced by a small green park.

One grave, surrounded by a small iron fence remains. The granddaughter of this man lived across the street and when the park was planned she battled to have this grave protected and so it was.

The others, descendantless, have disappeared, the headstones, shattered and removed, the ground planted over.

As I walk I realize, likely the bodies and bones remain, deep underground, dissipating.

You know without explanation whose graveyard that was that was torn up. You understand the color of their skin that enabled their desecration and what station they occupied in this community while they lived.

Why should I spell out every little thing.

There are things about a person's body you do not know, the things it craves and loves. All the sordid things we could never tell, the cheap things, tawdry and paltry.

Carlisle where soldiers are trained and Indians were brought to be forced to forget.

Never did I think when I arrived there that it would be the place I would sort myself out and dare actually to speak.

Nothing happened there but time.

Going in the morning to the coffee shop to read or to write.

How ordinary the most important things are.

The green copper roofs of the buildings against the steel blue-gray of the Central Pennsylvania sky. You could look at anything and understand.

In the sky, in the rain-wet street, in the palm of your hand.

Is always what you promised. What you promised is to understand.

Maybe you're never going to get there.

I thought I wouldn't get there unless I spoke, unless I told about the people I loved, the picture I drew against the corner of the room.

I'm trying to tell you how ridiculously hard it was to even try to open my mouth, to make words let alone sentences. How silence can fill every space.

To drown in a river or to lift the water up and let the drowning be your guide.

I trudge along the street unbaptized and criminal according to some religious laws.

Lonely brother, middle child, only son.

Is it written on my skin, my friend asks. Is that why you could never go on pilgrimage, never go to Mecca.

Why is it I would want go to Mecca. Because there a stone fell from the sky.

But more importantly than that small thing. That is where a mother refused to believe.

A mother refused to believe the obvious: I am alone in the desert with my son.

His breath rattles in his throat.

We have been left here by the patriarch who promised to return.

Sound familiar.

He left us and we were promised by god to safety.

This is the question of faith on the frontier.

You were promised deliverance yet there you are, no water in sight.

Do you sit and wait for the angel to either spell it all out into your ears or perhaps write it onto your skin.

Yet I think it is already written on my face, written into every corner as many times as I could say it.

There must be water around here somewhere.

Yet it isn't panic to leave a baby even then in the moment of dying.

Isn't. Is it.

And that's how it happened. God wouldn't spell it out.

Rather the water came exactly where she put the boy down.

After she risked it all for the impossible: water in the desert.

In the desert the mother was left.

She had to decide.

Do you wait for god to tell you what to do.

Or do you panic.


You wouldn't think I would have wanted a beacon. Rather to find myself in the wilderness on my own.

But I did, I always did.

Could there have been someone else like me, not one thing not another, barely able to choose.

A poet, a Muslim, and of a particular persuasion.

When I knew someone like me I barely knew him and we couldn't bring ourselves to speak of the one thing we needed to speak to each other about.

Silence stretched between us taut as sin.

In 2004 I moved with Marco down the river to Beacon, NY.

Named for the signal fires placed on top of each mountain in a chain running from New York City to Albany.

So if either city fell to the British the insurgents at the other end would know about it.

I placed signal fires up and down each street, so anxious was I to belong somewhere.

When I first arrived I quickly constructed my life, visiting the post office, the bank, the coffee shop, the yoga studio, the used bookstore, all nearly every day.

We lived on the third floor, our apartment overlooking one of the municipal parking lots.

Next to a theater long since abandoned and now colonized by grackles, thousands of them shouting.

It had to be explained to me that the sound of grackles was considered unattractive. I found music in the noise.

Also a badger or some creature would walk over the neighboring rooftops onto our deck to eat Marco's rare succulent plants.

A crowd of carpenter bees arrived in the spring to devour the wooden deck.

I was not content with Marco's explanation that they were not interested in me, so at last he hung deer net around the balcony.

The morning glory and other climbing plants soon made use of the net and we were encased in shadowy green.

Years later I would be stung again and again by a crew of distressed yellowjackets. Marco picked them off me one by one.

I passed Masjid-e-Rashid, the storefront mosque, every day on my way to the post office.

Where an older Arab man, between the age of my mother and my father, worked. He would occasionally ask about my background.

When I told him I was muslim, my name Kazim, he invited me to the mosque.

When I did not appear he would ask me about it when next I went to the post office.

Following one of the Islamic tenets: "enjoin others to good deeds."

Since I went in during working hours he knew I could have made it to the jummah prayers if I preferred to.

Down next to the river I went with Fanny to the Agnes Martin room.

Where suspended in time transfixed, the river turns on itself.

Flowing down to the sea, also up from the sea, an uncertain place.

I wrote it on paper five years before I drove out of the city north.

It was a light place, painted white with the graphite marks on it.

I had been there, the end of time, the place space bends around itself.

Been there looking through a painting like you look through a wall. In this way sometimes people see heaven.

The name of the place was "through."

From the blank that only blank can give, a field without end.

Looking away and then looking back into it you could start to discern the landscape in it, the horizontal.

A little autobiography littered on the surface.

What it would have been like had I at last been able to see.

Bent into the syntax of what comes after what and what did what.

Always you are either the one looking at the painting or you are the one who made the painting.

Listen, hasn't it ever occurred to you.

The ocean gathered together at a place on the horizon you could not discern.

You always wanted to know that actual place.

You could be he or I could be.

Could be that place where the river turns and returns where I quit my metaphor and make me.

Unveiled I want to go into the water, to the place at the horizon, place the gray of the ocean and the gray of the sky could not be separated from one another.

Each are flames on a subway platform getting on and off trains and burning ourselves to the ground.

Staring into a painting you can forget.

What are we then signal fires.

Who are we and when in time, bordered in amniotic grit.

If we are in time then we are events set into motion when and by whom.

Only one room over the white blanketed fields are going to give way to black buttons slipping themselves each into a hole.

Button you up.

My body isn't itself anymore. Streams rush up one arm and down the other leg.

Can you stand with arms overhead for a year or more. You could.

December 13, 1978. March 8, 1983. Continue writing them in white on blank ink. In whatever language or whatever country.

I will bend down and press my forehead to the earth.

A brick went through the storefront window of Masjid-e-Rashid.

God whispers up from the earth and I want to hear it.

And believed I could hear it if I listen closely, if one foot is folded against the other — left on top, right against the earth.

Or only if I pronounced the syllables in the correct way.

Though in Urdu a consonant is one way, in Arabic another.

There is an Arabic consonant in the middle of my name I cannot pronounce. A vowel in my last name my throat cannot manage.

Someone else with my name or my face in an other country in the world, living my life. He managed it without hurting anyone, without lying.

I didn't lie he said. I managed to skirt my way around the truth.

But she asked you once didn't she. She asked you one morning after opening your bedroom door.

No. I only wished she asked me. She never asked me. Not until weeks later did she bring it up by which point I was already too afraid to say anything.

I can't even properly say my own name.

You could set yourself aflame. Your house aflame.

The wire drawn from the streetlamps in upper Manhattan, lamp to lamp to make a house.

What other house can there be, only son.

You are the only son of your father.

How will you say it seven plagues.

Plague him to tell you. The dates that are painted on black ink bracket you.

Remember why Djuna burned her books on the sinking boat: because none of them prepared her for the moment in which she was asked to burn them.

At Dia, after the Agnes Martin room, you walked past ruined continents and upended mountains, walked between gates of yarn to the dark spaces in the ground. Fanny said, this part is like Hell.

Who knows what Hell is.

A brick through the window of a house of worship. How can I care if I never went.

The conflagration in the heart of a son who disappoints his parents.

Scripture or rupture you will never know.

Paradise lies beneath this unsaid.

Blank ink and white paint, ocean and gashing sky.

On our way out of the museum, Fanny said, Well, we should to go back to the Agnes Martin room so we can end it in light.


Excerpted from "Bright Felon"
by .
Copyright © 2009 Kazim Ali.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Marble Hill
New York City
New York City
Washington, DC
Barcelona (an Epilogue)

What People are Saying About This

Juliana Spahr

“Kazim Ali writes in Bright Felon a prose shaped by the various cities he has lived and loved in. This is a book that is so much more than memoir or autobiography. It is embodied and questioning and it carries through its politics a grace and generosity.

Laura Moriarty

"Bright Felon will steal your heart and outrage your poetics. Part memoir, part trip book, part literary discourse, there is in it an urgent sense of a life lived in words. The tale is one of both innocence and experience. Rigorous, romantic, experimental, true, and yet mysterious, it is a book for the ages."
Laura Moriarty, author of A Semblance: Selected and New Poems, 1975-2007

From the Publisher

"Bright Felon will steal your heart and outrage your poetics. Part memoir, part trip book, part literary discourse, there is in it an urgent sense of a life lived in words. The tale is one of both innocence and experience. Rigorous, romantic, experimental, true, and yet mysterious, it is a book for the ages."—Laura Moriarty, author of A Semblance: Selected and New Poems, 1975–2007

"Kazim Ali writes in Bright Felon a prose shaped by the various cities he has lived and loved in. This is a book that is so much more than memoir or autobiography. It is embodied and questioning and it carries through its politics a grace and generosity."—Juliana Spahr, author of Fuck You, Aloha, I Love You

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