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by Kazim Ali


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How we answer to love beneath the lash of history

During the 1982 air strikes on Beirut, Faiz Ahmed Faiz asked his friend Mahmoud Darwish "Why aren't the poets writing this war on the walls of the city?" Darwish responded, "Can't you see the walls falling down?" Queer, Muslim, American, Kazim Ali has always navigated complex intersections and interstices on order to make a life. In this scintillating mixture of lyrics, narrative, fragments, prose poem, and spoken word, he answers longstanding questions about the role of the poet or artist in times of political or social upheaval, although he answers under duress. An inquisition is dangerous, after all, especially to Muslims whose poetry and art and spiritual life has always depended not on the Western ideal of a known God or definitive text but on the concepts of abstraction, geometry, vertigo. "Someone always asks 'where are you from,'" Ali writes, "and I want to say 'a body is a body of matter flung/from the far corners of the universe and I am a patriot/of breath of sin of the endless clamor/out the window.'" Ali engages history, politics, and the dangerous regions of the uncharted heart in this visceral new collection.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819577627
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 03/06/2018
Series: Wesleyan Poetry Series
Pages: 104
Product dimensions: 6.80(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Poet, editor, and prose writer KAZIM ALI was born in the United Kingdom to Muslim parents of Indian descent. He received a BA and MA from the University of Albany-SUNY, and an MFA from New York University. Ali's poetry collections include The Far Mosque, which won Alice James Books' New England/New York Award, The Fortieth Day, and Sky Ward. Ali's poems, both lyric and musical, explore the intersection of faith and daily life. His prose includes The Disappearance of Seth and Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities.

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In the earthquake days I could not hear you over the din or it might have been the dinner bell but that's odd because I'm usually the one cooking up if not dinner then a plan to build new fault lines through the dangerous valley

I can't give you an answer right now because I'm late for my resurrection,
the one where I step into my angel offices and fuck the sun delirious.
That eclipse last week? Because of me You're welcome

The postman rattles up with your counteroffer and I'm off to a yoga class avoiding your call yes like the plague because son you can read in the dark and I have no hiding place left

We walk hand in hand down the hill into the Castro avoiding the nudist protest not because we are afraid but because we already know all about this city, its engineered foundations,
its earthquake-proofed buildings, the sea walls

No tempest will catch us unaware while we claim our share of the province of penumbral affections —
You have no reason to trust me but I swear I lie

down in this metal box as it thunders and looks inside my brain. I am terrified nothing is wrong because otherwise how will I rewrite the maps unmoored a deep sea a moor a cosmonaut

Who needs saving more than the one who forgot how the lazy cartographer mislabeled his birthplace as Loss?
Riding the bus out to the end of the lines and back

I collect trash for art, oil spill, spent forest, the mind is at work and everything is at stake — I demand statehood for my states of mind, senators for my failure, my disappointment, the slander and my brain unmapped reveals no

explanation for danger the ground untamed I make paintings of nothing and stand before them like mirrors I only recently became a man but I do not want to let go of my boy-weakness

instead I want to meet God in heaven and in long psychotropic odes have Him send me again digging in the dirt to unleash tantric animal governors to lay down the orgasmic law twice skewered and miserable in the old photographs, miserable in my body, huddled

next to my mother, recently permed and aglow so unaware of what is about to hit her — that I am the answer to Bhanu's question:
"Who is responsible for the suffering of your mother?" and so sick I considered that sickness could bring us closer and Shahid and Allen in heaven

shake me by the shoulders three times because they want me to know that this world is worth its trembling. At the next table over a mother tries to reconcile her bickering sons I have no brother but the one

I invent has always got my back, he drowns out the mullahs so my mother can finally hear me In a different book Jesus never suffered, never was flogged or died went whole into heaven without passion

Shall I then deny myself passport through the stark places unsalvageable, imagine it, the Mother of Sorrows did never grieve in the new season trees smell of semen and the tectonic plates make their latest explosive move:

to transubstantiate my claim by unraveling this city down to stone Everyone I know wants to douse the fire, flee the endless aftershocks,
untangle every vexing question

You owe me this witness I owe you flames


Edged in petals I affix myself to the gate at every appointed prayer hour

Seed pods scatter in silver dusk Green cypresses minaret the sky

My disobedient body aspires and I when music pierces inland hand in hand

devour this arbor of forgetting and take one last shot at sharing your fiery fate

In the end I am not you Not a garden nor a gate

But just a scruffy hustler, willing to hop the fence and spend himself bare to nothing


Adamant in his argument against winter he plots the distance to the horizon by graphing the shape of a tree against its green,
calculating the sum of the wind when yesterday is taken from it.

His azimuth splendor maps the city twice in time and he feels the drag of the tide pulling him along through millennia into other cities each of which existed here in this same place.

Afternoon in sunlight, he climbs up the mountain and arrives at the flower-gate leading to the garden on the slope,
there being no more resistant surface

upon which eternity could make its useless claim:
that the prayers he learned all his life mean no more to him.

Thrust up from the dark of the earth only to wither,
how are flowers in any way supposed to understand god?
They are no better than a human body that seeds and sprouts and dies.

And even if a body were to remake itself or rename itself as different matter what would it matter? Briefly he wonders: is he a river then,
furiously plotting a course? Or the boat floating down it or the person inside?

No mathematics can plot the path from a body that doesn't exist to a city that doesn't exist. The storm won't abate, its numbers irrational, tempers extreme,
like that of another poet-mathematician who lived a thousand years back or maybe

one who lived a thousand years on, drawing patterns in stone to cut for tiles,
piecing together a map of the universe: seven small planets swinging their cosmography of charlatan destinies. Is that his future or history unmapped?

He remembers that the sage Ali warned the astrologers to cease telling fortunes not on account of potential infidelity but because the book of the stars was impossibly infinite and so many bodies yet unseen and uncharted

that any divination risked planetary imbalance. And so he never knew which of the unknown constellations truly governed his kismet:
Fairy Prince. Lonely Brother. Angry Son.

At any rate, stubborn as a volunteer, he appears in the flower beds.
Annually he clamors to be, along with the hyacinths, tulips and orchids,
gathered and carried to portal adornment.

He broke his way through the glittering dome by guts and calculus,
that science meant to plot the relationship between different objects unspeakable that move through the cosmos at varying speeds.

In the kingdom of heaven the belt of Orion is no belt at all but stars separated by galaxies and light-centuries.
His hands on the bars of the garden gate grow dark in the dimming light.

And suddenly he understands the horizon is not the end of the world but like god and the unfound planets it is only the end of his knowing about the world, like that call to prayer unspooling its rebuke

over silver-leafed olives and cypresses on the way down to make an unresting vow to the blue devastation of the unbound sea.


to Marilyn Hacker

Halfway between the northern and southern sky Hangs the constellation of Abu Nuwas Who drunk and in love knelt at places rivers split To refuse all paths and offer his mosaic prayer Unhinged he peeled from yellow-leafed birches enough paper To fashion a barque and make for the moon Floating in the moment where one wave becomes another Amber driftwood or beach glass or lost unmapped stars reciting We are what produces itself sanded and cast adrift Precisely at the horizon and so eternally unseen One note emerges from the drizzle of sound What finally somehow though endless does wash ashore


When we spoke submerged That smooth wheel of sound Some nonsense did echo A rescue clarion

Siren in scarlet teeming I reach into you ashore Everything hull quivers My name I don't know

To prove unspasmed loyalty I from shipwreck swam With only these clothes on my back Begged anchorless through the town

For one who knows the way A body floats in death Salt drunk I stumbled Swaying down the path

I never-know the way to you For "a grid is halfway between"
Hidden and returning
"a rectangular system and a veil"

Someone I never yet knew Haunts me through the streets
"Technique is hazard"
to lonely evangelists

Opon night resound the impossible Empty cello case or drunk text Then every form happens An anarchy of sense

Salt and air your name Body's borders quiver Always still a gale Scattering intention

Whose inside voice recruits A scribe to grind a lens Where could silence sound a note to its incandescence spend


Who was I when I was writing this name Copper oxidizes to green Air packs itself tight in the seed Seed unspools in the ground writing the biography of dirt A little down the road another tower is going up A man holds his briefcase over his head like an umbrella In the rain bodies are soft and disappear into sound On John Street almost choking on loneliness And the waters of the river nothing so much as the air around us and ash What would outlive us drifts sparkling into the October air When you ask who am I past this storm-tossed vessel The one you're always bailing out It is just another way to ignore this constant unraveling This always reaching for an end when clearly there's no end in sight


to David Young

Rockward rubble. Violin that slices through Time's wound

Look then at the limit Clock runs down You stay the same Daphne-like I ditch you

For nothing but an always-reaching

Rock word rumble. Rumble the earth that thunders A drum a sound the stand-alone landscape

Deep inside I As in the earth do move Frozen in the frame Picture of my youthful smile

Light writes me down to the bone

Landslide Nothing but sound No letter to tell anyone I'm safe

I'm in it Beneath the surface of the earth waiting Days without rescue I wed the stone

What's left over. A broken sound that offers A flickering piece to limn

The look that passes between us Out of time Fix you in time I could hold you But would it Last

Earth comes after. Sound of a vessel breaking And what's inside pours out

Seeds have a mission too Cast an eye over the landscape You think what changes doesn't change Human body in the earth Tree growing over it

That's how it goes


after Louise Glück

Jacketed by mountains does the self of sulfur Send itself to rock or vapor Cleft do You breathe my surface Beneath or above the earth's surface When in the valley I trafficked in sound I dreamt of a man his hands bound By shafts of sun and cloud Saying, "I am Saint Everyone.
In my pocket a spool of piano wire."
Awake in the predawn I will fill this coffin of stone

Awake I unchime Tickets to heaven all validated, declined On the third night thrust The monsoon, my Saint Everyone lust Played out and the cloud-craft Unloosed from the rock pier, reft By thunder. Abandoned by death And sun I wild and stunned Wandered the unmarked road Where my bones still lie in the earth Amid yarrow and madder and woad

If you press your ear to solid stone Will you hear the body's hard equation Turn solvent as it quivers Monsoon a doorway to forever Took oars away and promised Saint Everyone carried only orchids You are not buried, have no money Body hold fire, hold water and loam Practice early primal tunes Night long fled but aloft unseen Pierced I am by moon-stunned noon

Acres of sky condense to cobalt blue In my pocket tides of dirt spill new Outward I am borne To myself sworn and inside worn

From this shore I windward grow And thorny border cross My first body built sturdy from loss My second from spans of cloud and snow


Fossil mortar me Holding the world up with my breath Its shoulders seem

Wood to dust Body of time spilling must I again be born as ravine

Or revenant I am ravenous to remain No world wheels raining To spy on god thunder

Spring I unravel down and now How the earth lifts up off me How lightly lies what I think I know


Trial by magnolia You never understand

Sane and unchanged Strip down to rain

Cross examined by Northern lights

My wont was to know you Uncovered cup of sulfured sun

Struck my bell of breath Unreachable this ruin of effort

Muttered perfumed profanity Unsolvable these equations

Unanswerable these letters Of despair this air that errs


Quiver thin Ash wind

Sudden tear Hold you in

Season turn Ash and I

Unbelieve Tempest limb

Lidless vessel Errant sin

To the self No system


Lost in your outbox collecting dust are all the messages you wanted to send to Night the silent whisperer asking over and over "brother do you believe in god"

I sent the river and now lie down for the part where you split me from the banks one silver minute before vision when Death crashes every system and you emigrate to the city that isn't on any maps

The roads which once led there have forests planted across them and still burning beneath the surface I believe even now in the body as a spiritual solution believe that maps in error still lead somewhere

I wait for your answer our chat window still open huddling in the dark because some drunk late-night hooligan is banging at the door insisting he's you says he's come back he still lives here he won't take no for an answer


Someone always asks me "where are you from"
And I want to say a body is a body of matter flung From all corners of the universe and I am a patriot Of breath of sin of the endless clamor out the window But what I say is I am from nowhere Which is also a convenience a kind of lie

When I was sitting in the Mumbai airport this January On a forty-hour layover rushing home because My mother had had a stroke and was not yet verbal I wondered about my words Perhaps I am from my words Because the basic biography is ordinary

Born in Croydon to a mother and a father who On different sides of a national border Were married in wartime and had to reunite in England The only place they could both get to Born at home — 76 Bingham Street Midwived and not doctored into the world

Taken back to India when the war was over Where I came into language and of the seven That were spoken in the house I began speaking four as the same Then to the cold Canadian north we went to a town that no longer exists On the other side of Cross Lake from the Indians Who lost everything because of the dam my father was helping to build

Then to Winnipeg then to New York City Then to Buffalo Which I can claim I can say I am from Buffalo because It is a city of poets The city of Lucille Clifton

I arrive there in cold January to find my mother A little slowed down but still self-possessed enough To cook meals for everyone Even if she didn't remember the names for all the spices she was using She talks by the time I arrive but slowly and deliberately And she has to listen very carefully to be able to respond

She pauses while she talks and cocks her head while she thinks She does not criticize me nor say anything about my wild hair Our ordinary silence does not seem as suffocating Because I wait patiently while she strains to find each word And what on earth does it mean that I almost like my mother better this way

When she goes to her medical appointment I get out my copy of good woman and comb through its lines To find the addresses where Lucille Clifton grew up and lived I climb into the car with a map and a journal and drive Through the snow to find those places and take photographs Of the empty lots where the houses once stood

I have no answer to your question I am not kidding when I tell you:
I earned my own voice The shape it makes in the world holds me I have no hometown no mother tongue

I have not been a good son


On the train we knew neither when we would arrive nor the name of any station along the fog-laden way.
The taxi driver lied about our hotel being full, stopping in a dark alley.
I insisted we drive on but the way was blocked by the raving Saraswati Puja.
A street full of men, stripped to the waist, dancing like houses on fire, heading down to the river.
One took my hand and pulled me to him but we pressed on through the rickshaw-mounted speakers,
bass lines of the strobe-sworn mantras thumping.
Our hotel clerk claimed it really was full so the taxi driver found us another.
You leaned out the window of the room, snapping photos of the puja-rave.
I huddled on the bed, the racket of the train on the tracks still hiving in my ear.

On the water in the morning dark shapes emerge Sewn on the surface of god and ardor:
History a hysterical marigold bloom,
Oarsman pulling with beautiful rhythm,
his eyes covered by dark glasses Dismembered reed arms float past, Saraswati comes apart His oar dips in, crushing the floating marigolds At the Jain ghat a huge painted swastika,
symbol unmoored from meaning I want him to take off his glasses, to look at me Open his orange lips, flower-stained and speak to me What do we have to do to own our life Water has no architecture in warm places It will not stay where it is spilled


Excerpted from "Inquisition"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Mohammad 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

The Earthquake Days
Flower Gate
The Astronomer
Abu Nuwas
Light House
Night: A Celan Variation
Phenomenal Survivals of Death in the Mountains
His Mosaic Prayer
System Error
Sent Mail
Origin Story
Saraswati Puja
The Failure of Navigation in the Valley
Messy Drunk
Letter to Zephyr from the Once-Boy Hyacinth
The Labors of Psyche
Letter to Hyacinth from the Once-Wind Zephyr
Persephone as a Boy
Chopping the Birch
The Tornado
Screen Door
The Dress-Maker of Galilee
Amerika the Beautiful
Bird Hospital
Marie's Crisis
Yannis Ritsos
Random Search
Sun Ward
Text Cloud Anthology
Forgotten Equations
The Astronomer's Son
All One's Blue
Door Between You
Son of History
Apasmara Climbs to the Mountain Lake

What People are Saying About This

Ross Gay

“What a gift Kazim Ali’s Inquisition is, what a generosity, in its sustained and sustaining inhabitation of the mystery. That, without ignoring heartbreak or rage, it understands that we are always ‘at the end of knowing,’ and shows us how we might reside there. And from which residence, Inquisition reminds me: love.”

Vandana Khanna

“Ali’s use of the inherent musicality of language gives the poems an incantatory beauty…The poems feel vibrant and effortless, with one sound, one word, blending into the next. The resulting music, that lives in the mind, in the mouth, and the air, offers its own meaning, a sense of understanding on an elemental level that is satisfying and complex.”

From the Publisher

"What a gift Kazim Ali's Inquisition is, what a generosity, in its sustained and sustaining inhabitation of the mystery. That, without ignoring heartbreak or rage, it understands that we are always 'at the end of knowing,' and shows us how we might reside there. And from which residence, Inquisition reminds me: love."—Ross Gay, author of Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude

"What a gift Kazim Ali's Inquisition is, what a generosity, in its sustained and sustaining inhabitation of the mystery. That, without ignoring heartbreak or rage, it understands that we are always 'at the end of knowing,' and shows us how we might reside there. And from which residence, Inquisition reminds me: love."—Ross Gay, author of Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude

"Ali's use of the inherent musicality of language gives the poems an incantatory beautyThe poems feel vibrant and effortless, with one sound, one word, blending into the next. The resulting music, that lives in the mind, in the mouth, and the air, offers its own meaning, a sense of understanding on an elemental level that is satisfying and complex."—Vandana Khanna, author of The Goddess Monologues

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