Marsha de la O and a New Translation of Rumi

I’ve been reading Marsha de la O’s new collection, Antidote for Night. De la O edits the literary journal Askew and lives and hosts readings in the California seaside town of Ventura. Her book, which won the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award for 2015, is published by BOA Editions.

Two strands come together in de la O’s work: one is edgy and urban, and the other ethereal and—for want of a better word—“moonlit.” The edgy, urban poems always come with a dollop of moonlight, and this gives them strength and depth. On the other hand, the moonlit and more delicate/pastoral pieces live in a realm inhabited by poets since ancient times.

“Antidote for Night” is a poem of the latter kind. And it is very consciously for night, not to night. Nighttime for de la O is not, in and of itself, some malady that she needs a remedy for. It is a time fraught with uncertainty, struggle, speculation; it is a time not to eradicate but to survive and maybe thrive in, when ideas come and go, some gentle, some monstrous. And like any conscientious artist, she is intent on using her nocturnal tossing and turning to feed her art. As a therapist once told me, try not to say “Oh no!” Instead, say “Oh boy!” In a sense her whole art is an antidote for night: she accepts the dark side and allows it to feed into her creative process. Here are some lines from the poem:

There’s the moon, in the high window, her wall-eye
glancing off me, and a few bobbing stars,
every tawdry shining thing.*            [*indentations in the text can’t be reproduced here]

I’ve identified Venus more times
than I can count as an agent for insomnia,
a broad sail that catches the wind and slides away.

This is elegant and understated. De la O never tries to hit the reader over the head with any thoughts or images or words that call too much attention to themselves. (I don’t think there’s one exclamation mark in the whole book!) But the most striking passage comes near the end, when the narrator is momentary startled: her bed-partner seems to stop breathing:

Not even halfway through the hours,
his fitful sleep, wheeze of a saber saw,
waves receding on a rocky shore,

breath whip-snaking down a chute, until his body
forgets—how still, how close the kingdom,
one stalled-gulp away,

and I jostle his dying shoulder—he recoils, yes,
rebels, back now, mouth full of silver,
What? he moans to darkness, what?

I can’t be sure, but this may well be (?) the best description of sleep apnea in literature. I love the way de la O says “how close the kingdom.” And “breath whip-snaking down a chute, / until his body forgets.” It’s all vivid, and at the same time so restrained.

This piece, like so many—if not all—of de la O’s poems, uses a lot of the vocabulary handed down from a well-worn tradition: night, heart, breast, breath, moon, moan, stars, wind, kingdom, silver, darkness. Anyone who’s been with me in workshops knows how I feel about the moon. When I was much younger and still writing short stories (or trying to write them), I disliked reading poems because they were always going on about the moon. That’s why I was excited to discover Auden, one of the first poets to embrace the twentieth century (of course he did slip the moon in on occasion). I liked Auden’s urban, industrial voice, which for me was a way into poetry. So when I come across the well-worn words (usually having a nocturnal or pastoral setting), I tune out a little. “Antidote for Night” is a very strong poem, but there are some in this book that don’t turn me on as much because they linger—for my taste—in a kind of pre-Industrial Revolution atmosphere.

What really works for me is when de la O weds the feminine pastels of poetry’s Ancien Régime with the scuzzy realities of contemporary Southern California. De la O now lives in Ventura but she’s from LA and, I believe, worked there as a teacher for many years. Like most big cities, Los Angeles is a heap of contrasts. There are well-educated, well-heeled whites with glass houses on stilts in the lush hills of South Pasadena; but living at the bottom of the hill are the less fortunate, usually not white, with bars on their windows, attack dogs in their yards, and walls sprayed with graffiti and gang symbols. As a teacher in the public schools, de la O negotiated her way through both worlds, and my favorite poem is one that beautifully braids the two; it’s called “Sanchez.” What a name. Like Smith. How many thousands of Sanchezes are out there? And the name is even more ordinary if we say it with an American accent. Sanchez. A teacher reminisces about a boy who used to be in her fourth-grade class; towards the end of the poem, we learn he died in a drive-by shooting years after he was her student. It begins:

I don’t recall how dark or gold his eyes were. I remember
a darkness that might
not have been iris, something that put me in mind of my dog,
his grateful look

and underneath, a well of grief. Maybe not his eyes, more
the way he bore pain
with dumbfounded dignity, his trouser leg going black with blood,
and Sanchez quiet

and far away as it ran freely down his leg, the fastest
blood in class.

It’s a lovely, understated description. There are the poetry words/expressions: darkness, iris, put me in mind of, well of grief, bore pain. But they serve a purpose. The title is “Sanchez”—connoting immigrants, underclass, danger, manual labor. But the poet’s voice is that of someone from a different socio-economic class. It’s also a feminine voice—nurturing, warm. And this joining of the two realities is what makes the poem: there’s white, female, relatively privileged teacher who narrates, and then there’s the brown, underprivileged, undeveloped but already tragic Sanchez, the subject of the poem. His bleeding wound is a harbinger of things to come. The nicest touch is when the narrator speaks of the boy’s jailed father:

he knew there was nothing
his father could do—
locked up at Rose Valley. I wanted to tell Sanchez only the best
ones go to prison there—

addicts prone to beauty set down in a backcountry clutch
of Quonset huts crouched
beneath their discourse with the wind. Rose Valley didn’t
bother with prison walls,

a six-foot cyclone fence was all there was, each link crying
go if you want to,
but nobody did.

This is magnificent. The sounds are magnificent. I love “only the best / ones go to prison there.” I love “prone to beauty.” The ambiguity and gentleness really work. It’s the gentleness of the voice and at the same time the roughness of the situation that’s unique. And, by the way, why call him by his last name? Not “Joe” or “Peter” or “Pedro”? Sanchez could well have been his nickname, but to call him this all through the piece! His last name makes him into a kind of statistic, a name on a roster, a name in some bureaucrat’s file, or on a mausoleum wall.

It’s poems like “Sanchez” that make this collection worthwhile: to study, to learn from, to show what the heightened language of poetry can accomplish with many unusual touches and never a false note.

***

I’ve also been reading Nesreen Akhtarkhavari and Anthony Lee’s translation of some of the Arabic poems of Rumi, the first time, I think, the Arabic poems have appeared in English. They were written some eight hundred years ago in a language and within a culture and religion light years away from the U.S.A. circa 2016. And yet he’s just about America’s most popular poet. I suspect this could be as much for the wisdom and humanity in the work as for its literary merits. This new book, Love Is My Savior, does not have as many memorable quotes and stories as the Rumi most of us are familiar with. But like that other side of him, this is work that the reader turns to for comfort, for healing, and to get in touch with mystical states.

I note the dictionary definition of mysticism:
1) belief that union with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or the spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect, may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender. 2) belief characterized by self-delusion or dreamy confusion of thought, especially when based on the assumption of occult qualities or mysterious agencies.

Interesting duality, if one can call it that. This isn’t a book to pick up the way one picks up Antidote for Night. This is a book to reach for the way Queen Victoria reached for In Memoriam, which she always kept on her bedside table after she was widowed. These are poems to read for knowledge, comfort, enlightenment, and also to transport the reader to a distant time and place.

This is also work with much moon in it, and on a literary level it doesn’t hold up as well as on a purely human and, yes, mystical level. I was struck by these lines:

If you’re not in love, life has passed you by.
The foundation of life is love’s sweet cry.
On the face of the Beloved holy
verses lie. Blessed be he who will read them.

Love just in the romantic sense? Or does it extend to family, friends, animals, country, God? I believe it does. One needs context to understand these verses and, to an extent, this is provided in the Preface, the translators tell us, “Rumi’s devotion to Shams-e Tabrizi . . . is the central theme of his poetry. Rumi expresses his mystical passions for Shams, his guide and teacher, in joyful lines as a symbol of his love for God. Rumi’s poems virtually pulsate with desire, longing, sensuality, and ecstatic celebration. His experiences of yearning, pain, lust, and joy flow out in timeless verse. These poetic visions move easily between dreams and real events, between internal states of luminosity and encounters with mundane external reality—always in a state of loving. . . . Rumi offers an interpretation of Islam that knows nothing but love. . . . The purpose of faith is to unite all human beings in their quest for the Beloved.”

I was also struck by these lines:

Without a mouth, I drank. With no soul,
I found bliss. With no head, I was proud. No feet,
I walked. Without a nose, I smelled perfume.
With no mind—suddenly—I understood.
Then, with no mouth, I laughed. No eyes, I cried.
God bless the place I found my beloved.

These are poems at once very easy to get through and hard to fully grasp, which makes Rumi at once the easiest and hardest poet, a rare distinction. The Essential Rumi may still be the best place for a novice to start: it has the imagery, the humor, the brilliant parables he is known for. These Arabic poems are more like ecstatic songs, in which the poet is freer, more drunk, if you will, and more sensual than in the better-known Persian texts.

No doubt all the yahoos hell-bent on banning Muslims from the U.S. have never heard of Rumi, let alone picked up one his books. But in our current climate of hate and division, what better sage to turn to than this gentle mystic who lived in medieval times but speaks with as much relevance as if he were still among us?

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