3 things on my mind...

  Here are 3 things that are on my mind:

1) I'd like to apologize to anyone who has tried to post a comment and then never saw it published. I didn't quite realize that I had to moderate the comments, first, in order for them to show up on the blog. I sincerely hope that you are all very patient people, who take a long view of time.

2) The end page on Shambhala Sun magazine is a really nice forum, where writers reflect upon a poem they love. When an editor contacted me to contribute an essay, I thought of all the lovely poems I would like to write about. And then I thought, No, why not use this as an opportunity to learn about a new poem and a new poet? I'd just gotten back from Israel and Palestine, and so I decided to look for a poet from that troubled region. I'd read some Israeli poetry in the past, but I'd never read any Palestinian poets. So I googled around, and quickly discovered Taha Muhammad Ali, an astonishingly wonderful poet who now lives in Nazareth and also operates a souvenir stand at the entrance to the Church of the Annunciation, selling post cards and menorahs and busts of the Virgin Mary to busloads of tourists.

I read what poems I could find of his online, and then I ordered his collection "So What: New & Selected poems, 1971 - 2005." The poem I chose to write about is called Revenge, and I chose it because I found it so deeply moving, and because it expresses, in the most direct and surprising way, ideas like non-separation, forgiveness, refraining, and compassion, all of which are often talked about in a Buddhist context, too. So here's a link to the poem and an excerpt of my essay. (You can find the essay in its entirety in the May, 2010, issue of Shambhala Sun, and maybe they will give me a pdf I can post here at some point, too.)

The problem with writing, especially short essays, is that so much of the information you dig up in your research never gets used. I find this frustrating, because I'm kind of obsessive, and I want to share my enthusiasms, in all their rich and abundant detail. Most of the time, I refrain, but Taha Muhammad Ali is an important poet, and I think everyone should read him, so here are some of the links to his poetry and to other information about him.

Here's a really interesting PBS Newshour show about Palestinian identity, regained through poetry. Jeffrey Brown interviews three Palestinian poets, Samih Al-Qasim, Ghassan Zaqutan and Taha Muhammad Ali. The interview with Taha is so moving, and it's wonderful to see his beautiful face.

Here's a link to a YouTube video of Taha reading Revenge, in 2006, for the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. Taha reads the poem in Arabic, then Peter Cole, his friend and English translator, reads it in English.

Here's his page at the Center for the Art of Translation website, where some of his other poems are published. And a link to the English PEN World Atlas, with more biographical information and a video of a conversation between him and Peter Cole.

Here's his page at poetry dispatch & other notes from the underground with some more poems. It's where I found this astonishing photograph of him, reading, taken by Nina Subin (which I cannot resist republishing here, with thanks).

Here's his page at the Israel - Poetry International Web with more links to poems and to other websites with information about him.

And finally, if you become as enthusiastic and enchanted as I did, you can also order a beautifully written and exquisitely researched biography of him, "My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet's Life in the Palestinian Century," by Adina Hoffman, and published by Yale University Press. Here's a link to a review of the book in The National, entitled, "The Middle Voice." Here's another review on the BADIL Resource Center which is a website for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights.

3) I know I had a third thing on my mind, but now I've forgotten what it is. Oh, well. I'll just go ahead and post this, and if it comes back to me, I'll write again...

4) This is what I want carved on my gravestone:

Oh, well...


Recently I’ve been reading poetry again, something I’d gotten out of the habit of doing. I just got a copy of a wonderful new collection by my friend, Jen Benka, entitled, "a box of longing with fifty drawers.” It’s a poetic deconstruction of the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, consisting of 52 poems, one for each of the 52 words of the document:

We, the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States of America.

Imagine these words, numbered in two long columns and centered on opposing pages, and you get a sense of Jen’s table of contents.

WE          1 THE         2 PEOPLE    3


Thus attenuated, the text acquires a list-like quality (a virtue, since I love lists), which invites a new accounting.

A list-like poem that I love is the excerpt from “Jubilate Agno” that starts “For my Cat Jeoffry,”by Christopher Smart. He wrote the poem sometime between 1756 and 1763, while he was confined to a madhouse for a religious mania, which took the form of accosting people in the street and demanding that they kneel and pray for him. Here's the poem:

excerpt, 'Jubilate Agno'

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry. For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him. For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way. For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness. For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer. For he rolls upon prank to work it in. For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself. For this he performs in ten degrees. For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean. For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there. For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended. For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood. For fifthly he washes himself. For sixthly he rolls upon wash. For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat. For eighthly he rubs himself against a post. For ninthly he looks up for his instructions. For tenthly he goes in quest of food. For having consider'd God and himself he will consider his neighbour. For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness. For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance. For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying. For when his day's work is done his business more properly begins. For he keeps the Lord's watch in the night against the adversary. For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes. For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life. For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him. For he is of the tribe of Tiger. For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger. For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses. For he will not do destruction, if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation. For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he's a good Cat. For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon. For every house is incomplete without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit. For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt. For every family had one cat at least in the bag. For the English Cats are the best in Europe. For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped. For the dexterity of his defence is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly. For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature. For he is tenacious of his point. For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery. For he knows that God is his Saviour. For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest. For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion. For he is of the Lord's poor and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually -- Poor Jeoffry! poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat. For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better. For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in complete cat. For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in music. For he is docile and can learn certain things. For he can set up with gravity which is patience upon approbation. For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment. For he can jump over a stick which is patience upon proof positive. For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command. For he can jump from an eminence into his master's bosom. For he can catch the cork and toss it again. For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser. For the former is afraid of detection. For the latter refuses the charge. For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business. For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly. For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services. For he killed the Ichneumon-rat very pernicious by land. For his ears are so acute that they sting again. For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention. For by stroking of him I have found out electricity. For I perceived God's light about him both wax and fire. For the Electrical fire is the spiritual substance, which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast. For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements. For, tho' he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer. For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped. For he can tread to all the measures upon the music. For he can swim for life. For he can creep.

-- Christopher Smart

Here's a picture of my cat, Weens