Nanih Waiya

The bones we carried
Were more than the bones that bore.
The long dry plains, then the great fathering water.
The dead cities mounded and the forgotten fields, the forests filling back in.
We brought with us our ancestors’ souls and maize seeds,
The rumor of strange beasts and men behind us.
At the leaning hill we stopped and felt the tannin dark waters
Lapping the cypress knees. Sandhill and bottomland, we spread out
And spread names over the rivers and rises, felt
Our speech along the land’s low and gentle lines. We laid
Our mothers’ and our fathers’ bones to rest under the red clayed earth,
Made ourselves native to the place, spoke the voices out from under the earth.

O Monarch of the Heart

In yesterday’s post I introduced the theme of late medieval and early modern devotion to Muhammad, a ‘movement’ within Islam that became dominant and widespread by the end of the middle ages, especially flourishing in the early modern period. The texts of this devotion were not only written in Arabic: rather, devotion to Muhammad was often expressed in vernaculars. The following translated poem, by an Ottoman sufi şeyh and saint, Muhammed Nasûhî Üsküdarî (d. 1718), is a part of a larger collection of poetry of praise and supplication directed towards Muhammad, written in Ottoman Turkish. It is a good example of this genre of poetic composition, which was common across the Ottoman world and beyond, expressing theological concepts as well as emotional bonding between the poet and his object, Muhammad. I have included footnotes at points to clarify certain references that would have been relatively obvious to a contemporary reader or listener but might not be to my readers here.

Iznik Flower Panel

You are the cure of my sickness, yâ Muhammed Mustafa!
You are the sovereign of my heart, yâ Muhammed Mustafa!

Who am I that I dare to praise you, o monarch of the heart?
You are the light of the moon of Yâ-sin [1] yâ Muhammed Mustafa!

You hold sway over the inner secret of this habitation below, o mirror of the True!
You are the monarch of the throne of If you had not been [2], yâ Muhammed Mustafa!

Without sign, without place, in your inner secret I beheld your essence.
You are the spirits of the passionate lovers, yâ Muhammed Mustafa!

To the crooked-statured, sin-bearing Nasûhî [3] give
Help—you are a remedy, yâ Muhammed Mustafa!

Üsküdarlı Muhammed Nasûhî, [‘Poem 6’], in Üsküdarlı Muhammed Nasûhî ve Dîvânçe-i İlâhiyat’ı, ed. Mustafa Tatcı (Üsküdar, İstanbul: Kaknüs Yayınları, 2004), 166-167.

[1] A reference to the 36th surāh of the Qur’an, Surāh Yā’-Sīn, sometimes referred to as ‘the heart of the Qur’an.’

[2] An allusion to a hadith qudsi– a hadith said to convey God’s speech, though not as part of the Qu’ran- in which God says to Muhammad words to the effect of ‘If you not been I would not have created the universe.’

[3] Including one’s name in the penultimate line is an Ottoman convention, carried over from Persian poetic convention.

Verses From Jerusalem

If I forget thee O Jerusalem—but how much do you, O Jerusalem, forget? Here
Is what you forget: all the lives lived and buried under your warm old stones, and
Stones that lie buried under newer stones, that give way to older cold stones,
Fenced and labeled, dead stones, an inner bark exposed to the air, the sap dried.
You forget too much, and not enough, O Jerusalem. If I forget thee—but how
Could I? You are lodged in me like the new old name of God lodged in the tongue
Of the mystic from Buffalo roaming your streets,
Like the crosses and the names sunk in the threshold of the holy Tomb.
Will you forget me after the dust of my feet has risen up into your air
And fallen east over the ridgetop settlements, over the bright waters of En Prat,
Over the high concrete walls, over dead forgotten cities in the desert,
Over Nabi Musa’s stark domes, over sad black tarps in the nomad camps?
What is the skill of your right hand, O Jerusalem? Gathering stones,
And in another time or in the same time, scattering them. Yet, in your left hand
Is remembering, rising up like scents in Suq al-‘Attarin, all your names
And the names within names in the many tongues
Pooling in your left palm, ephemeral, eternal,
But the right hand, it does not know what the left hand has.

 

September Beside the Potomac

Persimmon fruit hangs sweet and heavy in the air-
Bottomland forest along the Potomac,
First leaf falls whisp in and out, acorns, walnuts
Scatter and plop to the sandied floor, soundings.
Cool breeze washes the warm dense scent of the river
At end of summer up to us, promise of change. Memory’s scent,
Of my own late summer childhood nestling in
The sun-warmed receding pools, focusing the gentle force of drawn-
Down cascades in the Piney River, sniffing in the little river,
Shivering as the sun got low in afternoon
And we got out of the water. Now, my little son
Reaches out to feel the great round bole of a silver maple,
Smiling, two vigors, connecting. Together, we take in the
Touch, the forest and the river’s wafting multiplicities,
Such lines of continuity, untamed worlds, wild rivers,
Seasons in their turns and turns and turns.

Southern Monuments

There our monuments red gritstone grave markers on a low rise
South of the Sipsey River, river where amongst the cypress knees
Whispering trace of baptisms in the tannin water flow silent and slow.
Jesus behind every sacred tree and over every fireant hill.

These our monuments kudzu covered loess hills
Towering above where the River once ran
Some blood bled white there, and the blood of our others went free.
One day we’ll all go free, a hot wind in August says low.

The man who tells you anything is any other than tragedy and transcendence
Is a fool or a liar or both. That is all there is here, that is all there is anywhere.
Here, here it is sharp and bright, engraved.

These our monuments the lilting into earth house our greatgrandfather built,
Where for a few seasons buzzards roosted.
The floorboards splattered white, in spring, the face of the world there renews,
Snowdrops scattered under the oaks the tornado three years back just missed.

These our monuments the burial grounds of ancestors and ancestors’ slaves,
Hollowed bald cypress, an arrowhead cupped in hand,
Concaved thunderheads looming in July longleaf heat.

These our monuments my sharecropper granny’s fingers that
Picked cotton like nobody’s business, coaxed bloom and beauty for
Year and years from the tough soil and the takings of time.

These our monuments on red clay and muddy water, grave and ghost,
Sweat on brows, the thick air filling up our lungs,
Life and death, hate and love, pedestals untoppled and unwreathed.
Memory, we fear and pray, eternal.

A Poem for Bright Monday

Bright Monday. Christ is risen sounds again
In the quiet of the church, and rises, more gently
Than the great eruption in the night. Outside, rain
Falls through the cool grey. After the great drama,
Rest, and the reflection of small spaces,
The garden close, spring leaves make bowers,
Huddled in a room, hands warming in the bright circle
Of a fish-cooking fire, the air still sharp these nights. Home-
Comings, partings, expectation. We will watch the trees
Grow dark and heavy, as the days stretch and fill. The warm
Melancholy of summer, the descent of the Spirit. Trampling
Down death by death, we will strain to hear, and remember.
Maranatha.

Archeology

As a child I would for hours crouch along
The gentle rise of that old refuse pile, its last discarded
Entry from well before the Depression. Rhizomed grass and dropped leaves,
The archivists. I delved gently into the covering soil,
Turned black and loamy with the century past, and worked
Out bits of blue-and-white, medicinal bottles, metal melted back
Into elemental shape, and met the roots
Of the nearby sweetgum piercing the far more ancient sky above.
Beyond the daylilies nodded, following the sun. And so
I began to learn what it is to feel, rough and dark and smooth and giving-way, all,
The traces of the lives of others past, welling, up from the mothering ground.