Review: Shades of Islam by Rafey Habib

Rafey Habib’s reputation in literature is built more in criticism and translations because, until now, he’s been hoarding his own poems to himself. The closest we’ve been able to get to the poetry of Habib is his translations of N.M Rashed, The Dissident Voice. Now in Shades of Islam, he is finally offering up a look at his own work.

First off, I should disclose that Habib was a teacher of mine 20 years ago. I took his Literary Criticism and Non-western Literature classes at Bloomsburg University (he now teaches at Rutgers University). I also credit him (or blame him) for encouraging my own writing back in the day. So while I know Habib as a teacher and friend, it’s a pleasure to get to know him better through these poems.

It would also be disingenuous of me not to comment on the timeliness of this release. As I was reading this book, the furor over Park51 (the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”) was (still is) raging. Right-wing news commentators and politicos were scratching lines in the dust and raising the pitch of Islamophobia while I sat in my backyard reading this book. People who a year ago had never heard the word Sharia, knew what an imam was or what actually happened at Cordoba, were suddenly posturing themselves as experts while calling their bigotry patriotism.

Into this fray drops Habib’s book, a seemingly simple book of mostly lyric poems, many of them devotional, some of the political and all of them irenical. One of the intentions of this book is clearly to present to the Western world a more accurate portrayal of the modern Muslim-American culture than can be gleaned from cable news. It does that, but it also portrays an individual Muslim, one with a multi-layered voice, full of conflict, torn between cultures, allegiances, loyalties and loves. There is great grief, longing, passion and hope in these poems, but no rhetoric or cultural clichés. Unfortunately, the people who most need to read these poems are not likely the hands they’ll fall into.

The opening poem, “Islamic Hymn”, is a straight-forward devotional poem, though with suggestions at separateness the poet can’t overcome, something that is emphasized by the grandiose nature of the language.

The pavilions of Night wear Your perfect Form;

From East and West Your lanterns rise:

Light upon light

Well, of course when put that way God is unattainable. He goes on to say, in another poem:

Many have fainted, hearing aloud these sounds.

Yet he wants to faint too. There’s a lot of searching, struggling with conflict in the religious poems. But what about the speaker’s relationship with God causes so much conflict? It’s not until the poem titled “Prayer” in the book’s second section, that we get a clearer sense of what the speaker’s struggles are all about. Finally, he tells us, by way of asking God:

but please focus on me,

Let the universe, with all its laws

And universal order, somewhow, favor

Me. This is our curse, the rising thought

From below, that will not rise

The biggest struggle then, is not a struggle with God, but a struggle with himself—between selfishness and selfless devotion. It’s fitting then that the sections that follow deal with love (of wife, children, parents) and politics.

In Habib’s poems you won’t find much in the way of contemporary American poetry convention. With a few exceptions, these poems do not rely on the tightly wrapped images, stacked similes or ponderously minute anecdotes that populate the work of today’s mainstream poets writing in English. In fact, Habib’s work is more in line with modern Urdo writers like Faiz Ahamad Faiz or N.M. Rashed. The restraint in the poems, a talent considering the magnitude of the subject matter, seems practiced, and its root is even hinted at in the poem Repression:

I am weighted down

Under centuries of

Prohibition, religion,

Repression; I abide by

The laws, I lower my gaze,

He does veer off this triack a few times, most notably, and successfully, in my two favorite poems in the book: “Tsunami I” and “Tsunami II.” These recount the speaker’s experiences watching a tsunami devastate a landscape. From the vantage “from high stories of hotels,” he manages to escape harm, yet internalizes the might and malevolence of the storm: “Now I know,/All of my life I have been hearing you … One day, I know, you will come for me,/ Tsunami.”

In “Tsunami II”, an even more intimate poem, absent the grand landscape of destruction, we find the poet at the shack of a storm survivor a month after the fact, feeling humbled by a family who has lost everything, though still willing to offer the poet the last things they have.

Curiously, those two poems come at the end of the section Recitation and Revelations, which is filled with very spiritual poems of doubt and inadequacy. Those are two themes the poet struggles through continuously in this book. Many of the poems reveal a speaker grappling with his own faith. The poems are filled with references to uncertainty and unworthiness—ideas that Christian readers will be familiar with. In fact, in a different context, many of these poems could just as easily be recast as Christian faith (or Jewish for that matter) poems with only a few word changes. This religiously generic nature may be intentional, a way to show similarity between cultures, or if not, it still has that effect.

It’s likely the most important poems in this book, the ones that have the greatest chance of reverberating with a larger audience outside either a Muslim readership or a typical poetry readership, are the political poems. In the section subtitled Political Musings, Habib gets right down the meaty subjects: suicide bombers, Iranian protesters, Palestine and even the building of a Mosque in Voorhees, New Jersey. In these poems the language is stronger, more direct and assaulting:

from “To a Suicide Bomber”

Because of you, I am reviled;

Because of you, your own people suffer;

Because of you,

Oppression speaks louder.

Because of you, my religion reels in shame.

These are poems that are both seeking empathy and action. In his elegy of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young Iranian girl who’s death became a symbol in 2009 when she was shot by the militia during the country’s election, Habib accuses Iran of betraying its people, but he also accuses those

who watch from afar,

In fear, who flirt,

With freedom’s name

Who smile unashamed

As tyrants old or new

Play your card for you.

I’m reminded a bit of the poem “To Those Palestinians Martyred in Foreign” Lands by Faiz Ahmad Faiz:

Sweet earth of Palestine,

wherever I went

carrying the burning scars of your humiliation,

nursing in my heart the longing

to make you proud,

your love, your memories went with me,

the fragrance of your orange groves went with me.

Other poems in this section even more directly address the Muslim/American experience. In “The World Does Not Hate America”, “To the Muslims of the Twenty-First Century” and others, Habib tries to both straighten out misconceptions and offer reconciliations to the future. These observation may be a bit overly simplified, but he makes his point that the two different worlds are not really so different.

Here’s a video of Habib reading “To A Suicide Bomber.”

Buy the book here.

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Best Selling Poetry

Really, what’s with all the Mary Oliver? I understand Billy Collins’ popularity–he’s funny, easy to understand, and he’s highly exposed in the media. But Mary Oliver? Hallmark card nature poet.  The Buck (Charles Bukowski) resurgence also makes sense. His birthday got a lot of press over the last few weeks (he would have been 90), and it’s hard not to be at least moderately interested in a writer who says fuck that often, plus his book Sloughing Toward Nirvana has one of the coolest titles in poetry. Here are the top ten contemporary poetry best sellers for the week of August 8. For the the complete list go here.

1 1 The Shadow of Sirius (paperback) by W. S. Merwin (Copper Canyon Press) 50
2 10 The Pleasures of the Damned: Poems, 1951-1993 (paperback) by Charles Bukowski (Ecco) 87
3 7 The Best of It by Kay Ryan (Grove Press) 24
4 2 Ballistics (paperback) by Billy Collins (Random House) 28
5 3 Red Bird (paperback) by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press) 74
5 6 Evidence by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press) 74
6 12 Where I Live: New & Selected Poems 1990-2010 by Maxine W. Kumin (W. W. Norton & Company) 8
6 4 Thirst (paperback) by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press) 153
7 8 Leavings by Wendell Berry (Counterpoint) 46
8 11 The Trouble with Poetry and Other Poems (paperback) by Billy Collins (Random House) 173
9 9 Here, Bullet by Brian Turner (Alice James Books) 119
10 5 New and Selected Poems: Volume Two (paperback) by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press) 173

Vote for Your Favorite Author

As part its National Book Festival, the Library of Congress is sponsoring an online contest for America’s favorite author. You can cast your vote here.

As of this writing Diana Gabaldon is in the lead, with Neil Gaiman coming up second.  The first poet on the list is Pulitzer prize winner Rae Armantrout in the number 10 spot. I love Gaiman’s books, but he’s not even American (he does live in Minnesota).  How about more poets people? On this list there’s Ted Kooser, Dana Gioia, X.J. Kennedy, Li Yung-Lee, Linda Pastan, Molly Peacock, Charles Simic, and a few others. I cast my vote for Kooser.

So far it looks like neither Laura nor Jenna Bush have attracted many votes–but there are still those hanging chads to worry about.

The Midnight Poet Lurks

A mysterious poet is leaving handwritten poems on people’s doorsteps in Morgantown. Is this possibly a new distribution paradigm, a challenge to traditional publishing?

Recipients of the poems don’t seem to mind:

The Goldmans are intrigued by the poems they found at their doorstep. They say they weren’t aren’t offended or upset in any way and do appreciate the form of expression.

“I think it’s very nice for our community to have something like this, it’s delightful,” Irving Goldman said.

While the poems don’t appear to be threatening, they are pretty poorly written:

I begin to grasp

The unbearable lightness of being

As I recognize the inadequacy of language

Pustules of raw emotion

Remain dulled with grammatical confinement

And benevolent features

Harden with the crux of conformity

I really hope the poet isn’t caught or revealed, but I see the makings of flash mob poetry in this.

Story and video here.

Back from the Lowcountry

For any readers (both of you) who noticed I was gone, well, I’m back.  I spent last week vacationing on the Isle of Palms near Charleson, SC. In between wave jumping, shell collecting, marsh kayaking and shrimp eating, I did manage to read and write some poetry, but neglected to posting anything interesting here.  We were only minutes from the Sullivan’s Island home of novelist Mary Alice Monroe, but she ignored our request for a visit–too busy counting turtle eggs I guess.

Because I’m pretty busy catching up, I’ll just leave you with a few lowcountry poety  links.

South Carolina Poet Laureate Marjory Wentworth

Poetry Society of South Carolina

University of South Carolina Press

Spoleto

South Carolina Poetry Initiative

What’s Up With Silliman’s Blog?

First, let me make this clear. I read Ron Silliman’s blog almost daily. I very much appreciate the attention he gives to it, the exposure he gives to poets he admires and the issues he raises–not to mention to controversies he sometimes contributes to. His poetry blog is probably one of the most popular in today’s scene. He’s especially an enthusiastic proponent of LANGUAGE poets and other experimental ilk.

Also, I often disagree with him. In particular I disagree with what I feel is his unnecessary, polarizing and self-serving attacks on the mythological group of poets he calls the School of Quietude. But he’s welcome to his opinions, and he argues his opinions fairly and with a deserved sense of authority. However, the comments section of his blog can be considerably less equitable.

Jessica Smith, over at looktouchblog, was so disturbed by the warring going on at Silliman’s that, she says, it turned her off poetry completely. Overreaction? Thin-skinned? Maybe. The Internet tends to reject any sort of policing, and anonymous sometimes bring out the ugly in people. She possibly assumes a bit too much when she theorizes that  “Comment boxes are more often frequented by men, and they’re usually angry, aggressive men looking for an argument.” The experience of having her book reviewed by Silliman, and than attacked by readers in the comment section so impacted her that she considers turning away from poetry.  She writes “If you succeed at all, even in one person’s eyes, you’ve unwittingly set yourself up as an object of cruelty. It’s like the cyber-bullying one reads about high schoolers enacting upon each other, but in the case of poetry and Silliman’s blog specifically, the bullies are grown people who, through some lack of ability to empathize, will lash out at anyone who receives attention they think they themselves should be getting.”

I didn’t read the comments on her review (they’ve since been removed), and can’t really imagine how a poetry book review could possibly prompt the kind of bullying she describes, but her experience has had an effect.

Silliman responds on his own blog: “Recognizing this leaves me with few options. I could shut up, although I actually don’t think that’s the goal of most of the comment harpies…” He concludes that his best option to stop whatever seems to be going on over there is to turn off the blog comments. That’s it folks. Party’s over.

So I wonder, is this a loss for the rest of us? I think so, but I recognize his right, and his need, to do so. I rarely checked out the comments, and when I did I’d scan past the wackos to get to the more intelligently argued comments. I’m reminded of the anonymous comment section of my local town paper where petty people will rant about minor injustices or complain about the condition of their neighbor’s lawn without fear of honestly confronting anyone. The Web editor of that newspaper, a friend of mine, has argued that cutting them off, or taking away the anonymity, would also cut out much of the legitimately reasoned posts along with the wackos. Also, the wackos are good for traffic.

I get both sides, but what amazes me more is that poetry contains such aggressively-vocal wackos. I understand wackos on the sports blogs or the political blogs, but poetry? Really? Why?