Book Review

An early indicator that one is a poet often arrives from self-identification with transgressive acts or behavior—a casual (or not) comfort with viewing the world from outside the lens and values of the norm as mutually shared by the majority of one’s peers. In this way, it may be said that to be different from others, while possessing the capability of registering that difference, goes a long way toward the making of many poets. Kazim Ali’s Resident Alien: On Border-crossing and the Undocumented Divine encompasses his own wayward course pursuing the path of poetry. He describes the comfort he felt as an outsider when as a young adult he was taken up with interests and inclinations that set him on a solitary path: “I wandered—a Muslim of queer disposition and yogic leanings, wandering and wondering between Vedanta and Sufi teachings, always not-knowing, always happily not-found.”

Ali does not necessarily claim this “wandering” made him a poet, yet clearly it didn’t interfere any either. He does frequently mention his interest in “Vedanta and Sufi teachings,” and their influence clearly colors his thought in several of his assertions, such as: “Poems have a linguistic energy but an inner spiritual energy as well. Some people call it breath.” His reflections on poetry and art, culture and society, tend to circle back to the meaningful roles these matters have played in his life, from his earliest experiences with them forward to the present era. Exposure to these alternate sources of information has played an undeniable role in his artistic vocation as a poet. He effortlessly weaves a poetic context into his heightened awareness concerning bodies and sound:

The body has silent spaces inside. Sound resonates through these spaces. The body requires vibration (of the heart for one thing) to continue its existence. That all matter vibrates is a pretty thought but it is borne out by the hardest of hard sciences as well. Quantum physics tells us how the building blocks of the universe exist and what they do is vibrate. Or put it another way, as Gertrude Stein explained it, “Always from the beginning there was to me all living as repeating.”

Through his poetic practice, Ali argues for identifying chief concerns facing humanity and embracing the possibilities inherent in discovering further truths for resolving many current crises.

It seems that we in our contemporary moment of scientific, poetic, erotic knowledge—teetering on the edge of disaster with the real possibility of planetary, spiritual and sexual death—have a chance to taste original knowledge, to move into an actually new understanding: of ourselves, of the universe itself. How does matter hold together and fly apart?

Poetry, after all, is in large part the art of making the ordinary strange and the strange ordinary in order that each thereby be made new to one’s readers. The poet must accomplish two seemingly contradictory states of being: at once stand aside from the crowd while simultaneously immersing her/himself within its sometimes chaotic yet nevertheless mundane flow; that is, to be ever the bit different, and stay separate from others, yet also to be at ease identifying one’s own path among the multitudes, while remaining quite willing to share news of the experience.

For Ali personally, the ever-increasing political repercussions brought about in response to conflicts in the Middle East, which have affected visas and other international travel to and from the United States since 9/11, have brought deep personal impact upon his everyday life. This has in turn intensified his sense of himself as distinctly other. More than once he revisits and reflects upon the uncomfortable interactions he has had with US immigration officers upon reentering the country from his trips abroad. He places himself outside of the experience by referring to himself in the third person:

How does a body, a small one, a South Asian queer body, the body of a poet, with a little blue book in his hand cross borders then? . . . he receives little marks of his legitimacy. A stamp from Uruguay, a stamp from India, and though he doesn’t need them, shouldn’t need them, stamps from the Canadian government too, and from Spain and France, both countries with open-border agreements with the United States that render visa stamps extraneous. He is annoyed when they stamp—no one else needs this stamp—but grateful for it when he comes home, is separated from his traveling companions, taken to the room in back, stands there while a stranger runs his hands all over his body. One he asked to remove his shirt. Another time he is asked to remove his pants.

Ali laments that “here in this place, in every American place, he is less than human. He is reminded that even though he is a citizen, he is—will always be—suspect and a suspect.” It is not at all surprising to learn that the trouble stems from his full name as it appears on his passport. He breaks into the first person to explain and emphasize the powerlessness of his position:

My father’s actual name, Mohammad Asgher Ali Sayeed, wouldn’t tell anything about us, migrants for generations—from Egypt to India, from India to Britain, from Britain to Canada. And in the one place of ultimate rootlessness we are the most fixed into otherness. Every male relative of my father’s shares the same first name and my father chose to drop the family name. “Kazim” and “Ali” are my two middle names, not my first and my last. So who am I? You can’t even begin.

There is no self-pity or nagging complaint in his appeal for reasonable understanding from his fellow citizens in the face of the ridiculousness of the situation. He encapsulates the present error seemingly embedded into the national character of the citizenry of these United States:

Is another part of being “American” this self-orientation toward our own concerns and what happens within our own borders, while still requiring the labor, water, land and mineral resources of every other place in the world? In other words, our material comfort, cultural production and individual human development and betterment does not rely on any reconfigurement of gender-, race-, class-, or nation-based hierarchies, but actually on an institution of them backed up by American military power (easy when more than 50 cents of every tax dollar goes to support that power), and global political and financial institutions.

This is not mere kvetching. Ali takes the public role of his position as a poet quite seriously. He seeks to spread a harmonizing stability to society:

I am alive. Language that moves through one is likewise alive—though it can do fantastically destructive things. One hopes, in an age when the flow of capital and resources from place to place on the globe has become more important than the flow of blood through the circulatory systems and breath through the respiratory systems of the billions of individual human bodies on the planet, that poetry and art can lead back to ourselves from this alienated and disembodied state we have now found ourselves in.

Of course Ali also buckles down and discusses the nitty-gritty of his writing practice. When doing so he’s eloquently clear, driving his point home without excessive waste or flourish, as he does in regard to some of his translation work, lively playing with and around language:

Here is one line of Cristina Peri Rossi’s book-length poem of fragments and scraps, called EVOHE:

Una mujer por poesia poseida

A woman by poetry possessed? As if. Here is the famously “untranslatable,” not just because there is no way to fake the slip of tongue—and it is in the context of this poem a cunnilingual erotic slip of the tongue as well as a very cunning lingual one—but the character of the Spanish labial consonant “p” isn’t sexy in English but crude.

Anyhow, I had enough lost opportunities in other places in Peri Rossi’s book to get at her sauciness and her combining of biblical and pornographic dictions—so I made a quick switch out here and solved my problem:

A woman by poesy possessed.

It’s a cheap shot, to be sure, but it works. Taking the “t” out of “poetry” really smooths the line down to sexy. Poesy may be old fashioned but in context it’s a little dirty. No one said solving translation problems always had to be hard. Sometimes you just have to be a little brazen.

A partial list of the vast variety of writers and thinkers Ali draws upon or is otherwise covering, often more than once in this collection, includes Mahmoud Darwish, Olga Broumas, Anne Carson, Etel Adnan, Bhanu Kapil, and Sohrab Sepehri. As he declares, “I adore the most diverse range of poets—Lucille Clifton, Susan Howe, Olga Broumas, Gertrude Stein, Jean Valentine, Gillian Conoley, Agha Shahid Ali.” His concerns and admirations are distinctly international, multi-genre, and decidedly gender-neutral. His criticism is deeply indwelling. He sits with words of others consistently testing his own thinking. His pleasure is at once critical and distanced, yet revels about with an inviting intimacy.

About the Reviewer

Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works at Gleeson Library for the University of San Francisco. His essays and book reviews appear frequently with a wide number of both online and print publications. His recent books include: “There are people who think that painters shouldn’t talk”: A Gustonbook (Post Apollo), Das Gedichtete (Ugly Duckling), from Book of Kings (Bird & Beckett Books), and Drops of Rain / Drops of Wine (Spuyten Duyvil).