At the End of the Winter, Southwest Virginia

Here, now
What is keenest
Is the horizon above the barn,
White pines in rank and sharp air spilling down,
The winds off the Blue Ridge. We tramp up the melting snow the pools
The mud to the fence line, admire the red oxen in the pasture,
Auburn bodies of gentle power against the patching white,
Horns curve fierce and ivory, a piece with the lay of the land
And the land’s tongues’ gentle lilt. I know
The gentleness belies the fierceness, too,
And I pray both stay long and lean against the hard times
Building up brilliant store, a slumbering trout lily under the snow.

Two Poems

Lightyears

Stars’ embers on almost endless delay, reach us,
Their light caught in these faded folds of the hills,
Where old oceans rolled, then rivers wound, palimpsests tracing,
Old houseplaces now under ground set round by heavy limbed
Oaks, settling. The waters move on to the living sea.
The stars flame out in the infinite distance.
Somewhere a kettle boils, steam clouds shimmer by the kitchen window
In someone’s eyes for the last time before they will close in death.

Lines for Epiphany

The voice of the Lord is over the waters
And the water’s voice also speaks
Of the hidden mystery of all things in their suchness.
Out of the veil of the six dusts, swirling about the Feet
The Baptizer was not worthy to unshod.
Out of the blood spilled by a brother on the thirsty
Ground, dried, eternally heavy.
His voice rises, warm and steady.
Not with water, but with Fire…

Some Poems

Some poetry of my own composition, for a change. I can’t pretend that these are brilliant verses or anything, but I liked them, even after re-reading them. I hope you do too.

*

I nestle into her back, and close
Ourselves in, this woven little world of ours,
And of others’, of God: so not so small, yet closer
Than our softly throbbing veins.
This place we have made, we have had made
For us, this little land we cultivate,
Is cultivated in us, slowly grows.
We took up crowns,
Not as rulers one of the other,
But as martyrs of the heart and hearth, toiling
At a small new world, taking care
Lest we let the soil go sterile
Or the land be sold and be turned to death
Out from under our tired feet.
But. So long as we warm one another,
And hold close to each other,
In the dark thicket
And in the wide bright plains, in snow
And in fire, wind and wreck, all:
Dying to each other, and resurrecting,
In each sharp moment, and those tender,
We will weather it all, and better,
When we rise together, old, and new.

*

All of a sudden, then—
Sparrows burst
Upon our rose bush

*

Dill seedlings—unbidden,
Sprung up here. Still—
Winter is coming

*

In a flash, the beauty
And the majesty are here
Under this overpass—
A sparrow takes flight

*

But Your light is this place
And all places, no place, the living
Sap within the tree, the all,
And no thing.
Out of the corner of my eye
I see the edge of a glimpse,
And it shivers my blood to my core,
And past.
What would unveiling be?

*

The sunflowers and prairie grasses
Were growing on borrowed time, after all this, all
Our times are borrowed here, waged, time-
Tabled, clocked in and out. The mechanical
Hearts and schedules, the grey men, and the black
Suited men, from worlds that dull and buzz.
They sent the reapers, if anyone can be said
To have sent, all those voices passive.
The slow steady system
Works itself out, an endless tide. Washing
Over everything, scrubbed sterile. Yet
How I relished those patches of sunflowers, changing
With each week, and day, with the sun and clouds
Overhead, also changing  (and they cannot not yet
Scrub those, the further heavens). The strange weave
Of dock and bluestem and aster
With cement interchanges, the hurtling
Engines of our individual deaths,
Whirling, spinning by this patch
Of earth’s own deep flow and interchange.
Still I trust their seeds survive the neatly mown
Fields there. Things must die back, anyway.
And I trust that sunflowers, and prairie dock
Will outlive state, capital, highway, the bitter self
Commanding to evil, and the banal.
When all those things are forgotten ruins
Crumbling into the new prairie, the old
Glacier of those forces long melted,
The face of the earth, again, blooms.

The Beauty and the Sublimity, Winter and Summer

The following is a single discourse from a collection of discourses by the seventeenth century Ottoman Sufi mystic and scholar Ismāʿīl Ḥaḳḳī, featured previously on this blog here: Sufi Concision. It is a rather dense little piece, despite only being a couple paragraphs. I will keep my explication short, in part because I am reluctant to put words in the author’s mouth, and do not fully understand the lineaments and depths of his particularly cosmology and symbolic apparatus.

The central motif of this discourse is the contrast between manifestations of God’s beauty (al-jamāl) and His sublimity (aljalāl), a word that might also be translated as ‘majesty’ or ‘magnificence.’ The concept of a sort of dualism in God’s nature or manifestation of Himself had existed for some time in Sufi thought before Ibn ‘Arabi developed the idea into the form upon which our author here is drawing. The most explicit development of Ibn ‘Arabi’s thought on the beauty and the sublimity can be found in, not surprisingly, a short treatise titled Kitāb alJalāl wal-Jamāl, available in an English translation from the Ibn ‘Arabi Society. Therein Ibn ‘Arabi complicates previous ideas of God’s manifestations of beauty and majesty, arguing against a rather simplistic interpretation of those attributes and the ways in which they might be experienced by humans. Ismāʿīl Ḥaḳḳī picks up this ‘complication’ of the attributes, and extends Ibn ‘Arabi’s original conception into the cosmological interactions of humans, nature, revelation, and God.

There appeared to me regarding [Muhammad’s] words, Winter is the spoils of the believer, that the most important of affairs for the perfect among the believers is the matter of religion, not the matter of this world. And winter aids in the realization of the latter matter, in that days are shorter and nights longer. For the shortening of nights makes fasting easier, while the lengthening of nights makes standing [in prayer] easier—in variance with summer, as the days are longer and the heat stronger, forbidding the aforementioned benefits. Sleep has the ascendency during summer nights due to their shortness and the languor of bodies [due to summer heat].

So know that summer is the site of the manifestation of God’s Beauty (al-jamāl) in deed in regards to outward form (min ḥaythu al-ṣūrah), however, in it is God’s Sublimity (jalāl) in potency in regards to inner meaning (alma’inā). But when earthquakes, violent storms, lightning strikes, and their like, occur in the summer, and as for winter in general, then it is the opposite: the Sublimity is manifest exteriorly, while the Beauty is manifest interiorly. Therefore, there does not occur in it what occurs in the summer as aforementioned. And in the nature of winter is a advantageous benefit which points to the fact that the perfect believer, whenever trial or trouble befalls him in regards to himself, to his possessions, or to his family, he takes advantage of that situation and recoups benefit. For if under every misfortune is another misfortune, on the contrary, the perfect one is he who finds sweetness in the Sublimity like that which he finds in the Beauty. And if not, then he is incomplete [in his mystical realization], because all that occurs is from God, and what is from God is not bitter to the true enraptured lover of God. It is the custom (sunnah) of God to first instruct someone through the Beauty, and if the person does not thus become aware of Him, He instructs him through the Sublimity. And if he does then become aware of Him, He uproots him—we take refuge in God from that and from all which is merely exterior.

The one who seeks ascension finds it in repentance and in the manifestation of his incapacity, not elsewhere. God possesses people who serve Him in hardship and ease equally—so look into what leads to Him: their perfect knowledge and complete tranquility of soul.

Ismāʿīl Ḥaḳḳī (1063/1652-1137/1725)

Blackberry-Picking

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You are the first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk-cans, pea-tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A ray-grey fungus, glutting in our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelled of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

Seamus Heaney, ‘Blackberry-Picking,’ in Death of a Naturalist (1966)

Lions, Pomegranates, and Sufi Saints

The following are more stories from ʻAbd Allāh ibn Asʻad al-Yāfiʻī’s collection of hagiographic tales, Khalāsa al-Mafākhir Fī Manāqib al-Shaykh ʻAbd al-Qādir, which I discussed previously here. The first few stories have to do with different saints, not ‘Abd al-Qādir himself. However, they reflect similar themes in the previously translated stories: the translocational capacity of the true saint, his bodily control, both over himself and over the bodies of others; his penetration of the minds of others; and his ability to manipulate nature for the benefit of his disciples. And while these rather entertaining and often amusing tales probably do not strike us in the modern world as elevated discourse akin to other forms of Sufi writing (say, Ibn ‘Arabī), they do include important Sufic vocabulary and seek to inculcate theological and mystical doctrine. The relationship between ‘interior’ and ‘exterior’ is stressed in them, as peoples’ interior states correlate directly with and indeed determine exterior happenings. The supreme example of this interior-exterior dynamism is the exalted saint, who has mastered his interior states and is therefore able to draw upon divine power in shaping ‘exterior’ events. Of course, it is also plausible that pious tales such as these functioned as much for entertainment as anything else—there being no necessary sharp demarcation between entertaining tales and pious, even pedagogical tales, either in our own age or in previous ones.

Addendum: I have added two more stories, both of which have to do with ‘Abd al-Qadir’s control over the magical forces of the unseen, particularly the jinn. They are pretty self-explanatory: in the first, ‘Abd al-Qadir knows how to manipulate the unseen forces of the world, as his instruction in the making of a magic circle indicates; but this knowledge is predicated upon his own saintly power, and not merely technique. Likewise, his contact with the ‘men of the unseen’ is because of his saintliness, his integral connection with the cosmos. The message of all such stories, besides the obvious intention of emphasizing the saint’s prophylactic power and intercessory worth, is to argue for the deep integration of the divinely-inspired saint with the entirety of the cosmos, seen and unseen. Again, the purification and divinization of the saint’s interior reflects on his relationship to the exterior world (and to the hidden world, which is both interior and exterior at once).

 Ḥikāya 89:

According to Shaykh al-‘Ārif Billah Abū Ḥafṣ ‘Umar ibn Maḥmud al-Maghrabī, God be merciful to him, who said: I was sitting with Shaykh Abū al-Barakāt ibn Ṣukhr in the side of the zāwiya,[1] and the impulsive thought[2] occurred to me of grilled meat in hot wheat bread.[3] So the impulsive thought increased in me; while I was like that suddenly a lion[4] came into our midst, and in his mouth was bread. He sat down by Shaykh Abū al-Barakāt, who said to him: ‘Go and put it in the hands of Shaykh ‘Umar.’ So the lion came and put it down and passed on by. In it was grilled meat and hot bread. Scarcely a moment had passed when a dusty, disheveled man descended to us from the air! As soon as I saw him, the desire for the meat and the bread went from me. The man went to the bread that had been brought by the lion, and ate it and everything wrapped in it. Then he sat down and related something to Abū al-Barakāt, then went back into the air from whence he had come. Shaykh Abū al-Barakāt said to me: ‘O Shaykh ‘Umar! The desire that gripped you was not yours, rather, it belonged to the man whom you saw. The man is among the pampered ones: if any impulsive thought arises in his soul, his impulsive thought does not cease until it is fulfilled. At this moment he is in the land of farthest China.’

Ḥikāya 90:

According to Shaykh al-‘Ālam al-Muqrī’ Abū al-Fataḥ Naṣr, who said: I went out one day in autumn with Shaykh Abū al-Barakāt from the zawīya to the mountain, and with him was a group of Sufis. Then he said: ‘Today we want sweet and sour pomegranates!’ And he had not even finished his words when all sorts of trees in this valley and mountain were filled with pomegranates. So he said to us: ‘Here you are! Pomegranates!’ So we picked from it many [fruits], and and we were picking pomegranates from apple, pear, and apricot trees, and other sorts. And we took from one tree both sweet and sour pomegranates, eating a great deal of it, until we were satisfied. Then we departed, and after an hour we returned, but the shaykh was no longer with us and we did not see a single pomegranate upon the trees!

Ḥikāya 91:

According to Shaykh al-Aṣīl Abū Muḥammad ‘Abdallah ibn Abū Mufraj ‘Abd al-Raḥman ibn al-Nāsik Abū al-Fataḥ Naṣrallah ibn ‘Alī al-Hamawī al-Shībānī, God be merciful to him, who said: I heard my father say: My father was walking along the edge of the mountain on a violently windy day, and a wind caught him and he fell. Shaykh Abū Barakāt was sitting facing the mountain, and he pointed with his finger in [my father’s] direction, so his place was fixed in the air between the summit of the mountain and the ground below, and he did not move to the left or the right, up or down, so that it was as if someone was grasping him and keeping him from moving. And he remained like that for an hour. Then the shaykh said: ‘O wind! Rise with him to the roof [or: surface] of the mountain!’ So the wind rose gently with him, as if someone were carrying him, until he arrived at the roof of the mountain.

Ḥikāya 94:

According to Shaykh al-Ṣalāḥ al-Majd ibn Sa’adān al-Wasṭī, God be merciful to him, who said: I was present in the majlis of Shaykh Isḥāq Ibrāhīm al-‘Azab, God be pleased with him, and he was talking with his companions, saying in one of his discourses: ‘My Lord has given me free disposal concerning everyone who is present to me, so that no one stands, sits, or moves in my presence save that I have governing jurisdiction over him.’ Then I thought to myself: ‘Ha! I will stand if I wish, and sit if I wish.’ Then the shaykh cut off his discourse, pointed at me and said: ‘If you are capable of it, stand!’ So I started to rise in order to stand, but I was incapable of motion—I [remained] as one sitting! So I was carried to my house upon the backs of men. I was incapable of moving about, and this condition remained for a month. I knew that it was because of my opposition to the shaykh. So I contracted repentence with God, and said to my family: ‘Carry me to the shaykh!’ They did so, and I said: ‘O my master! It was but an impulsive thought!’ Then he rose to stand, took me by the hand, and then he walked and I walked with him, and what was in me left.

Ḥikāya 95:

According to Shaykh al-Ṣāliḥ Abū al-Farj ‘Abd al-Ḥamīd Mu’ālī ibn Halāl al-‘Abādānī: I heard from my father a story he related from his father who said: I heard Shaykh al-‘Azab, God be pleased with him, say: ‘No one visits us (yazūrunā: a quasi-technical term for visiting a Sufi shaykh, or the tomb of a saint)  unless we want him to.’ So he [the relator’s grandfather] said: So I intended to visit him one time, and an impulse arose in me of this sort so that I said to myself: ‘Ha! I will visit him if he wants it or not.’ Then when I came to the door of the living-place [of the shaykh], I saw a mighty lion—he frightened me with his gaze! Then he bared his teeth at me, so I turned on my heels and fled! And my impatience had increased—or he [the relator] said, my fear—and I was used to hunting and killing lions, so when I was a ways away I stopped, and watched the lion: people were entering and leaving and he did not oppose them—they didn’t even see him, it seemed to me. The next day I came back, and he was in his same place, acting the same way, and when he saw me he stood up before me, so I fled from him. This was my condition in relation to the lion for a month: I was incapable of entering or even getting close to the door. So I went to one of the shaykhs of the Baṭā’iḥ[5] and complained to him about my condition, so he said: ‘Look within yourself for which sin has brought this about.’ So I mentioned to him my impulsive thought, and he said: ‘It has come from it—and the lion which you saw is the state (ḥāl) of Shaykh Ibrāhīm.’ He [the relator’s grandfather] said: So I sought God’s forgiveness, and intended repentance from my opposition. So I went to the living-quarters, and the lion stood and entered in, going to the shaykh and those mingling around him, and was hidden from me. And when I came before the shaykh, he said to me: ‘Welcome, O penitent one!’

Ḥikāya 96:

According to Shaykh Abū al-Ma’ālī ibn Masu’ūd al-‘Irāqī al-Tājir al-Jawharī, who said: I intended to travel one year to the land of the Persians for business, so [before setting out] I sent a pledge to Shaykh Ibrāhīm, and he said to me: ‘If you fall into hardship, call on my name.’ Then, when we were halfway through the stony wastes of Khurāsān, a band of robbers (literally, a ‘force,’ ḥīl) came out against us, and they seized our goods and carried them off in their hands, and we watched them go.[6] I remembered the words of Shaykh Ibrāhīm, but I was in a group of [mu’tabirīn—Shi’i?] among my companions, so I was embarrassed to mention the name of the shaykh with my tongue, so instead the cry for help from him pervaded me secretly—and my inner thoughts had not concluded when I saw him from afar upon a mountain; in his hand a staff with which he was motioning towards those robbers, so that they came with all our goods and surrendered them to us. And they said to us: ‘Proceed freely, rightly guided ones! We have a piece of information for you.’ We said: ‘What is it?’ They replied: ‘We saw upon the mountain a man, a staff in his hand with which he was motioning towards us to return your goods—and the wide expanses seemed narrow to us out of fear of him, for we perceived destruction for whoever opposed him. And there was one among us who had divided off [for himself] part of your goods, but with his staff [the shaykh] drove him back until he rejoined us—then we perceived him and thought that he must be from heaven!’[7]

Ḥikāya 115

According to Abū Sa’īd ‘Abdallah ibn Aḥmad al-Baghdādī who said: One of my daughters, named Fāṭima, who was a virgin, went up to the roof of our house and was kidnapped; she was then sixteen years old. So I immediately went to Shaykh Muḥya al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Qādir and told him of it. He said to me: ‘Go tonight to the ruins of Karkh (a suburb of Baghdad) and sit upon Khamis Hill, then trace around yourself a circle on the ground, saying as you trace it: In the name of God in accordance with the intention of ‘Abd al-Qādir. Then when the gloom of night comes, there will pass by you groups of jinn in different forms—but do not be frightened of their might. Then, when dawn is nigh[8] there will pass by you their king in the midst of an army of them, and he will ask you: What do you need? So say to him: ‘Abd al-Qādir sent me to you. Then tell him about the affair of your daughter.’ So I went and did as he commanded me. There passed by disquieting forms from among them [the jinn], but none were able to get close to the circle I was in. And troop after troop of them did not cease passing by until their king came, riding his steed, and before him were all his peoples. He stopped opposite the circle and said to me: ‘What do you need?’ I said: ‘‘Abd al-Qādir sent me to you.’ He got down from his steed, kissed the ground, and sat down outside the circle; those with him sat down also. He said: ‘What is your affair?’ So I told him the story of my daughter, and he said to those with him: ‘Who did this?’ But they did not know who did it, until one came with a demon (mārid), and she [the daughter] was with him, and it was said to him: ‘This one is from the demons of China.’ Then [the king of the jinn] said to him: ‘What possessed you to kidnap someone who is a loyal follower of the Pole [of the Saints] (al-quṭb)?!’ He replied: ‘The idea took hold of me.’ So he commanded him to be struck on his neck, and he gave me back my daughter, then I said: ‘Have you ever seen anything like tonight in your obedience to ‘Abd al-Qādir?’ He said, ‘Yes—he looks from his house to the demons that are in the furthest part of the earth. So they flee from fear of him to their dwelling places. Verily, when God raises a Quṭb, He gives him power over man and jinn.’

[Abū al-‘Abbās] said: I was lying up on top of the roof of the madrasa on Saturday night, between dinner and sunset, on the ninth of al-Rabī’ al-Ākhir, the year 552, and it was summertime. Our master Muḥya al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Qādir came before me, facing the qibla. And then I saw in the sky a man flying about in the air like an arrow. Upon his head was a fine turban, with an ‘adhiba [?] between his shoulders, the whitest of clothing upon him, and an apron around his waist. When he drew near to the Shaykh’s head, he dropped like an eagle descending on its prey, until he sat before him and greeted him. Then he went back into the air until he disappear from my sight. So I stood up and asked the Shaykh about him, and he said: ‘You saw him?’ ‘Yes,’ I answered, and he said: ‘He is one of the men of the roving unseen world, upon them be peace.’

ʻAbd Allāh ibn Asʻad al-Yāfiʻī, Khalāsa al-Mafākhir Fī Manāqib al-Shaykh ʻAbd al-Qādir, ed. by Aḥmad Farīd al-Mazīdī (Sirīlānkā: Dār al-Āthār al-Islāmīyah lil-Ṭibāʻah wa-al-Nashr, 2006), 168-169, 172-174, 190-191.


[1] A sort of Sufi retreat or meeting place, sometimes also a shrine.

[2] Khāṭir: In Sufic terminology, a khāṭir is a thought that ‘arises’ in one, without any intention on the person’s part, and often without the person’s control, though a person may choose to act upon the impulsive thought. It often has a negative valence, but not always. In this story, the impulsive thought is apparently linked to mystical, quasi-magical capacities, presumably granted to a supreme saint (here, a Chinese saint of some sort!).

[3] The theme of food, seen here and in several other antecdotes translated below, was already an old one in Sufi lore. Sweets, grilled meat, and bread appear again and again. See for instance several stories of al-Ḥallāj compiled and translated by Massignon: For further instances, see footnote 110 at p. 118, op. cite.; and Abū Ṭalib al-Makkī, Qūt al-Qulūb, Vol. II , 42; and the short Sufi story translated here. Finally, see Shazad Bashir, Sufi Bodies: Religion and Society in Medieval Islam (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011),

[4] This story and another further along feature lions linked to a Sufi saint (or saints, as here); besides the obvious symbolism of a powerful, majestic animal, the lion might also carry ‘Alid symbolism.

[5] ‘The Marshlands’—the area around the ‘Iraqi city of Wasit.

[6] A reminder of the often precarious nature of travel and commerce in the Middle Ages…

[7] The saint who works wonders from afar is a common theme in medieval hagiography the world over; the theme of the saint’s effective power being summoned by mention of his or her name is likewise common. In this story, part of the emphasis would seem to be upon the universal availability of the saint’s summoned power: even though the story-teller is ashamed to publicly invoke the saint, his invocation of the holy man ‘secretly’ (a term that has a double meaning in Sufi discourse, it should be noted) demonstrates both the saint’s awesome power and his clemency.

[8] Waqt al-saḥar; a slight change of vocalization would give waqt al-siḥr, time of magic or sorcery, not incidental I suspect.

And Elderberry I Have Learned to Call It

Soft corrugations in the boortree’s trunk,
Its green young shoots, its rods like freckled solder:
It was our bower as children, a greenish, dank
And snapping memory as I get older.
And elderberry I have learned to call it.
I love its blooms like saucers brimmed with meal,
Its berries a swart caviar of shot,
A buoyant spawn, a light bruised out of purple.
Elderberry? It is shires dreaming wine.
Boortree is bower tree, where I played ‘touching tongues’
And felt another’s texture quick on mine.
So, etymologist of roots and graftings,
I fall back to my tree-house and would crouch
Where small buds shoot and flourish in the hush.

Seamus Heaney, Glanmore Sonnets V