Kazim Ali’s books of poetry include The Far Mosque and The Fortieth Day. He is also the author of two novels, Quinn’s Passage and The Disappearance of Seth, as well as a forthcoming book of lyric prose, Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities. He teaches at Oberlin College and in the Stonecoast MFA program.
A line of poetry by Kazim: “dear god of blankness I pray to dear unerasable/how will I live without you if I am ever given answers”
Why We Need Poetry Now
Poetry, to me, is an art that lives in the body – in its cavities of breath and mechanisms of propelling breath, in the vibrating cords of voice, deep in the skin and blood, and flashing across the axons and dendrites deep in the brain’s neural networks. If it seems political in the extreme it is because throughout what we call human civilization, but at no time more intense than at the present moment, the individual body has been under attack by collective bodies – the body politic, the corporation, various strains of organized religion that all at least agree on one thing: salvation requires the individual to submit his body to the law.
The ability of humans to organize themselves into communities along common identities beyond the national or religious, common ways of thinking, artistic, linguistic, or cultural practices has always been threatened by a hegemonic and centrist element. Witness the recent puzzling backlash against gay marriage in “the land of the free,” which is itself intent on bringing “freedom” to all the dark spaces of the world.
I think about two bodies over and over again, in waking life and in my dreams – the bodies of Layla Al-Attar and Rachel Corrie, women murdered by state violence ten years apart but in the same part of the world.
One of these women was middle-aged, married and a mother, the other was young and idealistic, at the beginning of her life. One woman was an Arab, an internationally known artist, who spent her life creating paintings, curating exhibits and traveling the world to promote art and artistic expression, the other was a college student, fighting and advocating on behalf of the most powerless members of the community she was living in at the time of her death. One of these women put herself – quite literally – in the path of danger, the other slept in the night, with no idea what was burning in the skies above her. One felt the lip of the metal bulldozer against her body, the other drifted in consciousness when the nose of the missile first entered the roof of her house.
Layla Al-Attar’s body evaporated instantly, combusting in fire; Rachel Corrie’s body was first broken and then folded down into soft earth of the construction site.
The war – as an abstract concept, not a local political situation – is still on, though the new administration has changed the vocabulary, and the terror threat level has been lowered to yellow; it will always be on, I’m afraid, so long as the flow of capital is permitted to be more important than the flow of breath in the individual respiratory systems, blood in the individual circulatory systems, food and water through the digestive systems of all the billions of individual bodies on the planet.
Poetry is the smallest way – it is a small, small way, but it is a way indeed – that the individual body can express its own personhood and value in the face of faceless systems. They are called faceless because in becoming collective they believe they are “embodying” – i.e. becoming a “corporation” or a “body politic” – but really they are disembodying, disemboweling themselves, dehumanizing themselves. Thus having become inhuman, they have no other choice but subvert anything human to the bottom line of dollar, God, or pure power.
I do not know if I will ever be as brave as Rachel Corrie, shouting in the very face – literally – of the driver of the bulldozer which knocked her down. Layla Al-Attar’s death, on the other hand, was karmic coincidence, she could no more avoid it than Rachel could avoid her own, though Layla was killed by surprise, in the dark hours of early morning, her house destroyed, her paintings in flames.
In poetry, in community action in solidarity with the disempowered, unhomed, dehumanized, in the trust of a human expression in a human mouth, we might start moving towards a consciousness beyond the individual that is grounded in selfless action and not selfishness, greed, and acquisition.
The water on the planet is being used at an unsustainable rate. Much of the fresh drinkable water is being used to feed animals raised solely for consumption; much more of it used for the production of silicone chips necessary for production of electronics. The global food distribution system and its dependence on dwindling fossil fuels is in danger of imminent collapse.
We need new solutions.
Of what use poetry in a time of multiple collapses? Every use. We need to construct a new value system, one that prizes the individual and human, that eschews needless desire and has a view of interconnectedness of all living things, not based on the flow of money, but based on mutual interest and yes, kindness.