national poetry month

Thought I’d better get this in before it isn’t April any more. I think next year, the whole month of April’s posts should be in poetry. I’d be pretty proud if I could manage it. This poem I stumbled on searching through my replacement computer after the crash of my favorite but unreliable old one, with all the extra goodies on it that, like a moron, I hadn’t backed up. But no. I found nothing else. My more creative writing was pretty much all gone.

This one, however, was in a very old email that was telling the story of how this poem came to be. It was a curious tale, with no poetic justice. The tale does not end well.

I was heading down from the City to a gallery opening of a friend. My girlfriend at the time was driving about an equal distance up. The plan was to meet in the middle and attend the opening together.

While driving, these words in my head came to me unbidden. I turned the radio up so I could concentrate on NPR. But the words in my head got louder too. After about 30 or 40 miles of this, I got sick of the battle between words, gave up, pulled over to the side of the highway — and wrote the persistent little critters down.

Then they allowed me to go back on my way.

When I got to the gallery, she ran up to me.

“An amazing thing happened on my drive up,” she said. “I heard this indescribable music in my head. I had to pull over and hum it into the recorder. That’s why I’m running late.”

Did I mention she was a musician?

So. I got the words. She got the music.

Eventually, we put them together and she recorded the whole bit. The words go:

i am abd-allah — slave of God
you bring me grace — baraka
when i submit–when i surrender —

sweet bondage — sends me to my knees
head hits the ground, my prayers resound
Allah! when i submit

sweet bondage — i can taste you
in ritual splendor, so hard to give up
Nameless One! for the desert

you take my breath away
send me reeling, in peace suspended
Beloved! between heaven and earth

Mother of the Stormy Night
think that you can make it right
as the blade glides into sight?
eyes grow dim, i see the light
Astarte! when i submit

The gallery opening was pretty feh after that. I’m not sure either of us really registered much of the show. The tape she made of words and music was breathtaking. She was working on an album at the time. Very exciting.

But it was her album. And the idea of giving credit for lyrics not her own just was too much for her to bear. She changed some of the words, kept others — and pit’om! a new song emerged for her album. Still very lovely. To tell the truth, I think my words scared her.

Still. For me this was a powerful moment of creative synchronicity. Such moments are rare enough on planet earth, and worth honoring and preserving.

And there it is in black and white — visible for anyone to see. A few hasty lines, scribbled on the side of the highway heading south. Longing to reach out and join with music emerging exactly the same way on the highway north. A miracle!

May all your Aprils be filled with poetry, music, and yes, collaboration.


By mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She's most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.

10 replies on “national poetry month”

No, that is synchronicity — she didn’t want to collaborate at all! A door opened, and she just couldn’t bring herself to walk through.

This right here is what collaboration is all about. Building something together that’s larger than the sum of its parts. Being present. Continuity. Consistency. Dependability. Trust. Stepping up. Sustainability. And an outrageous amount of hard work! Shall I go on?

Not that anyone’s asking, but I probably should explain the poem above, for the record. Which proves I’m not a real poet. I imagine real poets never explain anything.

I remember it was springtime, and it must have been around Pesach. So the notion of ‘bondage’ was once again upon us. I was thinking of my mother’s charoset — “sweet bondage — I can taste you…” and the name Abdallah —slave of God — hit me at the same time. The notion of Islam being about submission. My research in the dungeons of San Francisco, where women experienced ecstatic states while bound with rope or chain. And this theme of spirituality and submission just flowed through my fingertips right there on the road. I used these ideas in my lecture in class the next day. My own experiences of something similar poured out in the last verse.

It’s possible that it was around then that put me off music. The idea that a writer and a musician could come together in such a powerful, productive moment — only to have it all slip away for all the wrong reasons. I decided that musicians were self-absorbed egotists who could nevertheless ensnare us with the power of their voice or song. Evil, selfish beings who couldn’t see a moment of transcendence if it were staring them in the face. Okay, a little dramatic, I know. But how can you let something so right just slip away?

And now, almost two decades later, I’ve found the match I didn’t have that day. Beshert collaboration. God, I hate long waits — but this is it. A musician who gives and gives and gives — no matter how exhausted, no matter how tough the task. Giving to anyone who needs it — freely, for all to hear. A kaddish a day, for those in need of kaddish.

I feel that incident long ago was ‘put here’ (so to speak) for the contrast to this moment. So that I could really tell the difference loud and clear. Thank you for your tireless, generous gifts — given freely for anyone at all who ventures by and needs it. Collaborator extraordinaire, l’chaim. A kaddish in two-part harmony not just to death, but life! Thank you.

The honor is all mine, Mira. I’m not sure how many people could view the task of listening to these recordings every single day, day in and day out, for a very long year, as something delivered with anything resembling generosity—perverse sadism, more like!

It means the world to me that you’re coming back around to music. As I wrote to you (privately) quite a while ago, my sense was that you had stopped listening to music because it made you feel, and you didn’t like how you were feeling, surrounded by death and dying as you have been. As we’ve both started feeling better, through this shared process of grieving, we’re both feeling more willing to feel again, and music is becoming welcome to us again—for you, listening to it, and for me, the sense of being able to play it decently.

I do feel, however, that feeling really sucks sometimes. And analysis never does. I think the dialectic will remain between the two. On the other hand, there’s no analysis that could ever compare with some feelings. I just didn’t think I had those anymore. I’ve spent so much time thinking about caregivers and hospice, graves, and stones, and inscriptions — taking care of the business of death — that it’s hard to remember just how much I loved my father. We just never talked about it. Almost never said it. It was always about something ‘larger’ and more important. Manuscripts! But it was love, I think. I’m pretty sure it was.

It’s true; feeling really really sucks sometimes, and analysis at its worst just makes us crazy. As for not getting those anymore, we should be so lucky, or so unlucky.

Mixed bag over here in Beit Malkhut East, but it’s true: even the sucky feelings remind us we’re still alive, albeit grieving.

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