Tuesday, August 15, 2023

The Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse: 110 Poets on the Divine, ed. Kaveh Akbar


            The earliest attributable author in all of human literature is an ancient Sumerian priestess named Enheduanna. The daughter of King Sargon, Enheduanna wrote sensual, desperate hymns to the goddess Inanna: ‘My beautiful mouth knows only confusion. / Even my sex is dust.’ Written around 2300 BCE, Enheduanna’s poems were the bedrock upon which much of ancient poetics was built. And her obsession? The precipitating subject of all our species’ written word? Inanna, an ecstatic awe at the divine.
            A year after I got sober, I learned from a routine physical that my liver was behaving abnormally, teetering on the precipice of pre-cirrhosis. This was after a year of excruciating recovery, a year in which nothing harder than Ibuprofen passed through my body. If it’s this bad after a year of healing, a nurse told me, imagine how bad it must have been a year ago when you quit.
            My earliest formulating of prayer was in Arabic, that beautiful, mysterious language of my childhood. I’d be called away from whatever trivia book I was reading or Simpsons episode I was watching to join my family in our ritual of collectively pushing these enigmatic sounds through our mouths. Moving through the postures of devotion in our kitchen, watching my older brother, my mother, my father, I had no idea what any of it meant, but I knew it all meant intensely. (“Introduction”)

The biggest reason I requested a copy of the new anthology The Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse: 110 Poets on the Divine (Penguin Random House UK, 2023) was due to the book’s editor, Tehran-born American poet and editor Kaveh Akbar. If you know anything about Akbar’s work, whether his bestselling full-length poetry debut Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Farmington ME: Alice James Books, 2017) [see my review of such here] or follow-up, Pilgrim Bell: Poems (Minneapolis MN: Graywolf Press, 2021) [see my review of such here], it would be fair to suggest that anything he does is very much worth paying attention to (and honestly, his introduction to this collection is worth the price of admission alone). The range of writing that Akbar includes here is breathtaking, moving across and beyond canonical poets from a purely Western tradition and perspective—one poem per author, given there are one hundred and ten contributors, with a short summary-sketch to accompany each contribution, composed by Akbar—into an array of multiple cultures and languages, expanding not only the lyric sense of the divine, but of poetry and literature itself. As Iraq poet Rabi’a al-Basri (c. 717-801) writes in an untitled piece included in the collection, as translated by Charles Upton:

O my Lord,
the stars glitter
and the eyes of men are closed.
Kings have locked their doors
and each lover is alone with his love.

Here, I am alone with You.

As Akbar’s note to accompany writes: “Freed from slavery at a young age, when her master saw her praying alone surrounded by celestial light, Rabi’a became an early Muslim ascetic, spiritual leader and poet. Late in her life, when asked about the origin of her wisdom, she replied: ‘You know of the how, I know of the how-less.’” Akbar includes works by Virgil, King David, Sappho and Li Po, and by Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, W.B. Yeats and Constantine Cavafy, but also from Patacara (Sixth century BCE, India), Shenoute (c. 360-c. 450 CE, Egypt), Kakinomoto Hitomaro (c. 653-c. 707, Japan), Uvavnuk (Nineteenth century, Igloolik), Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1920-1993, Australia) and Toronto poet M. NourbeSe Philip, among a wealth of others. As Akbar writes of the poet Uvavnuk, from Igloolik, an Inuit hamlet in Nunavut, Northern Canada: “The great Inuit poet and spiritual healer Uvavnuk was said to have been struck by a meteor that bestowed her with visionary powers. The movement of the divines celebrated in this poem – the sea and the wind – feel in her language like ecstatic occasions for great celebration.” And her short poem, as translated by Jane Hirshfield:

The Great Sea

The great sea
frees me, moves me,
as a strong river carries a weed.
Earth and her strong winds
move me, take me away,
and my soul is swept up in joy.

My own sense of the spiritual, of the divine, has always remained at a distance: I was raised attending religion but never garnered a faith (I write poems for a living, so I don’t think I can claim to live without faith), growing up amongst the dour, stoic and unspoken ripples of old-style Scottish Protestantism. It was years before I understood my father’s own devotion, let alone the depth of it, attending weekly services as far more than a matter of routine or cultural habit, always appearing to me as a matter of custom, gesture and rote. I’ve long repeated that I’m somewhere between atheist and agnostic – I’m not sure what I don’t believe – but hold an admiration for those who carry spirituality as a matter of good faith, instead of, say, those who believe uncritically (including a refusal to question, which seems unsettling), or use any of their beliefs as bludgeon, or as a false sense of entitlement or superiority. Listen to Stephen Colbert, for example, speak of his Catholicism: an interview he did with Jim Gaffigan a couple of years back on The Late Show I thought quite compelling, in which they spoke of their shared faith. There are ways to be positive, and through this collection, Akbar not only finds it, but seeks it out, and embraces it.

There is such a lightness, a delicate touch to the poems assembled here, one that broadcasts a sense of song and a sense of praise to the notion of finding that single spark of light in the dark. “Somehow eternity / almost seems possible / as you embrace.” writes Ranier Maria Rilke, as part of ‘The Second Duino Elegy’ (as translated by David Young), “And yet / when you’ve got past / the fear in that first / exchange of glances / the mooning at the window / and that first walk / together in the garden / one time: / lovers, are you the same?” There is such a sense of joy, and hope, and celebration across this collection of lyrics, traditions, cultures, languages and faiths. If there is a thread that connects us all together, might it be the very notion of hope? If this collection is anything to go by, that might just be the case. Whether spiritual or otherwise, this is an impressive and wonderfully-expansive collection that can only strengthen the heart.

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