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About this poet

Born in the UK to parents of Indian descent, Kazim Ali emigrated with his family to Canada and then the United States, where he was raised in an Islamic household. He attended SUNY Albany, receiving a BA in 1993 and an MA in 1995. He received an MFA from New York University in 2001. After graduating, Ali worked as an organizer for a statewide organization advocating greater access to public higher education, funding for the SUNY system, and increased need-based grant aid for students.

His first collection of poetry, The Far Mosque (Alice James Books, 2005), won the Alice James Books New England/New York Award. He is also the author of The Fortieth Day (BOA Editions, 2008), Bright Felon (Wesleyan, 2009) and two novels, Quinn's Passage (Blazevox Books, 2004), and The Disappearance of Seth (Etruscan Press, 2009). His critical writings have been collected Orange Alert (University of Michigan Press, 2010) and Fasting for Ramadan (Tupelo Press, 2011).

Ali was a writer-in-residence at the Just Buffalo Literary Center and is co-founder and publisher of the small press Nightboat Books. He has taught in the English Department of Monroe Community College and was an assistant professor of English and Creative Writing at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania.

Currently, he is an assistant professor of Creative Writing at Oberlin College and teaches in the low-residency MFA program at the University of Southern Maine.

Marble Hill

Kazim Ali, 1971

Paradise lies beneath the feet of your mother. A verse I've heard recited so frequently I do not know if it is scripture or hadith.

Hadith, meaning traditions of the prophet, are always accompanied by a careful oral lineage of who said what to whom, and who heard who say they heard what. Usually back to one of the prophet's wives who heard the prophet say it.

The veil also between what you want to see and cannot see, what you wish to have heard but did not hear.

In butoh the dancers are rendered in white smoke, ghosts traversing the stage-as-womb, moving so slowly you do not even know they are there.

If paradise lies beneath the feet of my mother then how will I find my way inside unless she admits me.

Now I look at each face, each body, as it moves around the subway platform, down the stairs and around the platform, onto trains, off of them.

After my aunt Chand-mumani's death I thought of them each as flames, in each the body is combusting, burning up the fuel of the soul.

Michelle after giving birth walked around the city imagining everyone glistening, bordered in amniotic grit.

But is it really like Fanny writes, the body only a car the soul is driving.

Or something of us sunk into the matter of the body, part of us actually flesh, inseparable from it and upon death, truly dispersed, smoke.

The body of the prophet's wife always between us. Who said what.

In which case there really is something to grieve at death: that the soul is wind, not immortal.

A middle-aged woman, in the seat in front of me on the train, wearing a green puffy winter jacket. Her hair, though pulled back, frizzy and unkempt.

It's the unkempt I feel tenderness towards.

Have always felt about myself a messiness, an awkwardness, an ugliness.

As a child, such an envy of birds, of graceful slopes, of muscular boys.

In the train rushing above ground at 125th Street. Thinking about stumbling.

House by house, walking down this street or the other one. Going into the library, going into the school.

Where every middle-aged woman is my mother.

Waiting to be trusted with the truth.

I have nearly as much silver in my hair as she does.

Any pronoun here can be misread. He can mean you can mean I.

An odd list of things I want to do in the next five years: study butoh. Write an autobiography. Go back to Paris. Get lost somewhere I haven't been.

Also begin to say it.

Marco and I moved to Marble Hill in the summer of 2006.

Let me tell you a story about a city that floats onto the ocean. Opposite of Atlantis which fell into the sea or Cascadia which threatens to rise back out of it.

Marble Hill, a real hill, perched at the northernmost tip of Manhattan Island, a promontory out into the conjunction of the Hudson River and Spuyten Duyvil Creek.

The wind is an instrument, its own section of the sky orchestra.

Today I read of a Turkish mullah who is canceling 800 different hadith regarding treatment of women found now or believed at least to be untrue.

Untrue is it.

Untrue the laws that were graven in fire or graven in stone.

Says the Quran, "This is the Book. In it there is no doubt."

All for a belief that a human animal is a wicked one and requires a law.

Which requires if not actual violence then at least the threat of it.

At least fury.

Here in Marble Hill you are where you aren't.

Orchestral the river that curves and curves north of the island.

Ships bound for the upper east side from Albany have a harder and harder time negotiating the torturous and twisting Spuyten Duyvil.

So a canal is blasted through and what was once the northern tip of Manhattan became an island.

Walking across one of the bridges in Paris I came to a place called Les Mauvaises Garçons. Being afraid to enter I crossed the street to another tavern.

I stayed for three hours.

Radiant with traffic, the streets do not remember the gone.

The pillar at the Place de Bastille does not put back brick or bar.

Ten miles out of Chartres nothing but grain across and gray above a dark raven emerges screaming from the fields.

These thoughts are nothing, following one after the other.

Somali lesbians scheduled for their execution. Two boys in Iran convicted of drunken and lewd behavior and hanged for it. Boys. 16 and 18. There was video footage of the actual hanging on the internet.

I watched it myself.

"You wear your fingers down copying sacred texts," sang Lalla, "but still the rage inside you has no way to leave."

The Arabic line "This is the Book. In it there is no doubt" can also be read as "This is, no doubt, the Book . . . "

Dear mother, there is a folder of my loose poems lost somewhere during the summer of 2006 when I traveled between Pennsylvania, New York City, Virginia, Maine, and your house in Buffalo. There was a letter inside the folder to you.

Though I've looked and looked and failed to find it, I am sure it is still in the house in Buffalo somewhere. An envelope with a folder inside. Inside the folder loose poems. Tucked into poems, there was a letter.

The veil between what you want to see and what you cannot see.

Emily Dickinson sent her first letter to Thomas Higginson unsigned. She included with the unsigned letter a smaller sealed envelope in which there was a calling card upon which she had written her name.

When Colin Powell spoke at the UN about the invasion of Iraq, workers were asked to hang a black drape over Picasso's Guernica.

Which would have otherwise been in the background, surrounding him, as he spoke.

There is a body and a boy between you and utterance, the boy you were who could never speak.

Bright red bracelet of time.

"Fury," is how Galway Kinnell explained Dickinson's intent in writing her poems.

Poetry and fury in the time of war. Civil War for her.

What is my war? Not the one you think.

I won't say.

Constant state, sure as the white noise on the television after the station has gone off the air.

But who goes off the air any more.

And whose air.

Come to Marble Hill then.

Each night sleep is pierced by someone outside gunning their car engine over and over again before driving off.

A car alarm or two.

There is a streetlight outside the window that shines into the bedroom, bright as the moon but more orange.

Orange like the saffron scarf I wore to Tokudo.—"leaving home." When Ansho became a monk and took a new name.

The day I sat down next to a young man with a sweet smile. A gardener. Name of Marco.

The train runs the next block over. We are on the second floor so hear it if we really pay attention.

By now its rumble on the tracks, the chiming when the doors are about to close, are on the order of background noise.

I have not yet learned how to sleep through the night.

Marble Hill was an island for twenty years before the Spuyten Duyvil Creek, still running, underground below 228th Street, was filled in and joined to the mainland.

The city itself, my life, that first butoh performance I saw.

A man with such slow and intense movements, so internal.

You hardly knew he had moved at all and suddenly he was all the way across the stage, contorted, holding a glass bowl aloft in which a fish swam.

None of which you had even noticed was on the stage.

As I write this, a car alarm. The train.

Then silence.

From Bright Felon by Kazim Ali. Copyright © 2010 by Kazim Ali. Used by permission of Wesleyan University Press.

From Bright Felon by Kazim Ali. Copyright © 2010 by Kazim Ali. Used by permission of Wesleyan University Press.

Kazim Ali

Kazim Ali

His first collection of poetry, The Far Mosque (Alice James Books, 2005), won the Alice James Books New England/New York Award

by this poet

poem
In the convicted evening I am a victor struck loose and restless,
creeping for the unlocked window.

The family inside at the dinner table is mine.

Listening to the escape story on the radio, my mother's hand freezes
in the air halfway to her mouth.

She realizes it's me they're talking about.

Lightning by
poem

It should be a letter
To the man inside
I could not become

Dressed in yellow
And green, the colors of spring
So I could leave death

In its chamber veined
With deep ore
I’ve no more to tell you

Last winter I climbed
The mountains of Musoorie
To

poem

My father's silence I cannot brook. By now he must know I live and well.

My heart is nickel, unearthed and sent. We are a manmade catastrophe.

Unable to forgive, deeply mine this earthly light that swells sickly inside.

Like wind I drift westward and profane when the doors of ice slide open.