THE BLIND BEEKEEPER
(Syracuse University Press, 2001)
LAUGHING BUDDHA, WEEPING SUFI
MARS AND BEYOND
(all by The Ecstatic Exchange)
DANIEL ABDAL-HAYY MOORE: A POET FOR ALL SEASONS
Despite Islam’s rich literary history in which poetry has been one of its driving forces, we seem to have emerged from the 20th century with hardly a poet of note among us. I suppose it depends upon one’s definition of poet. In this context, let us say a poet by vocation. Countless are the scribblers, dilettantes and hobbyists when it comes to poetry in an Islamic context. Many of us have gone through phases in which we replace a passion for music or other religiously suspect forms of creativity with the relative safety of the written word. But those kinds of experimentation, those moon /June beginner’s enthusiasms and primitive jottings seldom transform us into poets: The kind of person who thinks and even sees in verse. The kind of eye and tongue that can take the panorama of experience and distill it into the shorthand of the subconscious we call poetry.
A published poet years before he embraced Islam, Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore offers us a unique vision of the modern day American Muslim in stanza and verse. Having paid his dues in the company of such notables as Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, he can provide us a running poetic commentary on the ongoing East/ West divide; a glimpse of the Hajj as seen through the eyes of Altamont and Kent State.
There are echoes to be sure of legends in Moore’s work: Walt Whitman, Ginsberg, Jalal-ad-Din Rumi, Rainer Maria Rilke . . . to name a few. Thanks to the Ecstatic Exchange, we have a chance to view the poet’s work across the span of years in four volumes, and the swings between somber hymns and ecstatic eccentricities, between hope and fear. The fact that the best poetry can mirror the reader’s soul means it has deeper access to hearts and minds than other written texts. This power to move that arises from the deeply inspired and consciousness-altering nature of poeticutterance also means that poetry will always be one of the most subjective of arts. Fortunately for readers of Moore’s poetry, there is a wide range of tone, mood and concern; enough variety to appeal whatever our poetic preferences.
Rest assured, when approaching Moore’s work, that there is plenty on offer for poetasters to revel in. Even in the lighter volumes like Mars and Beyond, we find diamonds in the rough: poems that make you stop reading, stunned for a moment into silent appreciation of some intangible truth made text. Whether you’re looking for spiritual meditation or high art, a suq or a cathedral, Moore’s poetry delivers. Unlike many volumes of verse published, it is rare to come across filler in these collections. This is made more impressive by the fact that the Ecstatic Exchange collections comprise certain time periods, usually several months in the course of a given year. Moore is not holding back, releasing only those texts that have been polished and re-polished. These collections remind one of Whitman in their prolific abandon and freewheeling moods. I confess that the Mars conceit in the latest collection never quite took wing for me; as a choice of heromasks, it is a word and a place that has seen too much trivial traffic, that carries connotations of Ray Bradbury and Bmovies. I tend to feel more at home with poets who grapple with the human heart before going off in search of Martian anatomy. But, even in the Mars collection, there are surprise epiphanies:
It’ll get us nowhere if we don’t set fire to our old tics and darknesses and stand like melting icicles in God’s greater Light . . .
Although dominated by lighter verse detailing life, landscapes and adventures on the red planet, it still has moments that TS. Eliot’s old cats never dreamt of. It is when those “moments” comprise the bulk of a Moore anthology, though, that his books truly shine and demand shelf space next to their worthy ancestors. The Ramadan Sonnets and Salt Prayers are the most sober and unsettling of the lot. In the Ramadan collection, Moore chronicles one Ramadan through the eyes of a seasoned poet in Philadelphia. What catches our attention is the brutal honesty and range of emotion. There are odes of joy here and of communion, but perhaps most importantly, there are headaches from fasting and the sense of constriction, the semblance of death. Presented chronologically, they make a fascinating read for our own fasting months. In Salt Prayers, we find a similar mixture of light and dark, and the overarching sense that beauty is indeed found at the boundaries of terror; that faith is known through doubt. The tough asceticism of this volume, which happens to be the largest collection to date, makes it a welcome companion particularly for Muslim converts in their ongoing struggles to keep the faith in a society intent on keeping spiritual lights under bushels.
What often separates a major poet from a minor one is range. After all, if we only wanted nonstop Sturm und Drang, we could buy a volume of Swinburne and be done with poetry. We want our cats and our wastelands. The two most balanced volumes of the recent offerings – The Blind Beekeeper and Laughing Buddha, Weeping Sufi – are probably the most accessible to the widest audience. As might be deduced from the title of the latter, it is a pitched battle of opposites full of laughter and tears and not always from where you might expect. Chock-full of references to both Islam and Zen, it manages to walk a tightrope between the mind explosions of Buddhism and the heartbreaks of the Sufi’s path of love and longing, offering: “Things maybe not earthshaking or life-changing but which / kind of spell themselves out in sparkling neon or / perhaps come in the form of semi-audible whispers.”
In times like these, with its dearth of living Islamic poets, it will repay us well to visit the writings of Moore and see what it means to write poetry; what it means when poetry is not an affectation but a compulsion. When so many today think their choice of religion is a valid replacement for craft, life-experience and sensibility, it becomes an obligation upon us to heed those who have something to say on a wide range of topics, and who say it bravely, wholeheartedly and well. While the bookshelves continue to fill with collections of New Age epigrams inspired by Rumi, it’s refreshing to find something that is simply . . . inspired.