Wake Up!

August 31, 2015

Contributor’s Marginalia: Anna Lena Phillips Bell on “Adhan” by Zeina Hashem Beck

In Zeina Hashem Beck’s “Adhan,” the morning call to prayer, which can be heard thanks to the loudspeakers of many mosques, moves through a city. The speaker of the poem hears the adhan and offers a message from it: Prayer is better than sleep.

Having heard calls to prayer during frequent stays in Maharashtra State, India, on reading the poem I felt an immediate nostalgia for their crackly, grainy intonations. The calls are public ones, but they reach the poem’s speaker in an intensely private place—sleep—and then in perhaps the secondmost private place, bed. How delicious it is to be asleep and yet know that someone is trying to roust you, not with a shaken arm or an alarm clock but something bigger and less personal and therefore, somehow, more kind.

The deliberate rhythm of the poem’s anaphoric phrases echoes perfectly the speaker’s in-between state—it feels at once like the breathing of sleep and the insistence of a wake-up call. “There is something about the adhan at dawn,” Beck begins,

how it lifts
your head from your pillow; how it pulls
you from sleep like a bucket from a dark
well . . .

These phrases are interrupted by smart tangents: “(and there’s something Shakespearean / about it, and something modern).” The speaker’s contemplative, but not ceremonious. She repeats the rendering of the adhan too, but introduces a feeling of contingency:

. . . as if
The world is beautiful and full of sunrises, prayer
is better than sleep . . .

With “as if,” we’re made to remember that what the speaker hears those speakers saying is a translation of sorts. In the phrase there is also a question—that of whether the call’s assertion is correct. Any lover of sleeping might have such a question. (I do, every morning.)

But as the poem reaches its close, the speaker tips simile toward fact, the question toward affirmation. With another as if, her answer is translated too:

. . . so you grip
your lover’s arm, the book on your bedside table,
your cigarette pack, your blanket, as if
Yes, I heard you. Hallelujah. Amen. Amen.

In the past-tense “I heard you” it’s possible to hear a note of frustration. But we also hear, and say with the poem, a response to the call. Yes: prayer is better than sleep, and being awake in a particular body and self, in a particular life, responding in one’s particular way—partaking, individually and in private, in a bigger social practice—is prayer, or can be.

This is what I love about this poem: the way the grumpiness of a wakened sleeper continues on to Amen. The way the grip of a hand on a blanket is prayer. Beck asserts the speaker’s and the reader’s—everyone’s—access to spiritual experience. Both grump and praise are valid responses to such a call, the poem suggests—and it calls us to live in both. As, being human, we inevitably do. We may as well wake up, at least for a minute. At least long enough for Hallelujah.

Anna Lena Phillips Bell’s work appears or is forthcoming in Southern Review, Colorado Review, Raintown Review, Southern Poetry Review, Canary, and other journals. Her projects include a fine-press poetry guidebook, A Pocket Book of Forms. The recipient of a 2015 North Carolina Arts Council Literature Fellowship, she is editor of Ecotone and Lookout Books, and teaches in the creative writing department at UNC Wilmington. More about her work can be found at todointhenewyear.net.


Sharpened Sticks

August 24, 2015

Contributor’s Marginalia: David Yezzi on “Upon News of the Important Fossil” by Brett Foster

What get’s me first about this poem is the tone. The tone is sly. Take the word “important” in the title, for example; it makes me smile, as I wonder how exactly we are to take it. The fossil is surely an important discovery (“the best we have”), but, set up in capitals that way, the phrase “important fossil” strikes me as possibly ironic. (I hear the echo of Auden’s “important failure”—“The ploughman may / Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, / But for him it was not an important failure. . . .”)

The poem sets up an extended comparison between humans and our earliest apelike ancestors. Sometimes the connection is straightforward, sometimes oblique. The fossil displays human features. Like us, our progenitor is a maker of tools; like us, it discovers methods. It may have even traveled “close to upright.” But there are differences as well: this not-yet-human “could not yet tear / itself from trees.” I love “not ready for firmer earth / always,” with its striking and poignant enjambment. There is a delicacy and aptness to the diction throughout. I particularly admire the choice of “breathless” (which, of course, the fossil is, as are we at this groundbreaking discovery).

Foster then suggests that the fossil has something to tell us about “all / remaining ahead,” with the future’s green zones and smart phones. But aren’t these just updated versions of the primitive tools created by ape-men eons ago? As cool as the iPhone seems to us, it will seem like a sharpened stick to future humans. And so here, for me, is the irony: how little distance we have traveled from our apelike beginnings. Your arms are not substantially different from the ones once used to hang from trees. Our real discoveries—the ones ours alone—are our “charred craters of conscience” and our “newer loneliness.”

Does the poem turn primitivism on its head? Are we the more advanced species—with our fluorocarbons and new technologically enhanced solipsism—or were they? The poem makes me long a bit for an “adapted twig” and a quiet perch among the higher boughs.

David Yezzi’s most recent collection of poems is Birds of the Air. His verse play On the Rocks premiered this summer at the Kaaterskill Actors Theatre in Upstate New York, directed by Jim Milton. He teaches at Johns Hopkins.


Prose Feature: “Carbon Based: An Interview with David Tomas Martinez” by Emilia Phillips

August 14, 2015

David Tomas Martinez’s work has been published or is forthcoming in Poetry Magazine, Ploughshares, Boston Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Oxford American, Forklift, Ohio, Poetry International, Gulf Coast, Crab Orchard Review, Drunken Boat, Academy of American Poet’s Poem-A-Day, Poetry Foundation’s PoetryNow, Poetry Daily, Spork Press, Split This Rock, RHINO, Ampersand Review, Caldera Review, Verse […]

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Prose Feature: The Nature of the Oracle: A Review of Katie Ford’s BLOOD LYRICS (Graywolf Press, 2014), by Colleen Abel

July 31, 2015

In her third full-length collection, Blood Lyrics, Katie Ford has proven herself the master of poetry that balances the interior with the exterior, the personal with the historical. Her debut volume, the stunning Deposition, juxtaposed violent experiences with the Christian passion story. Her next book, Colosseum, set an evacuation from New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina […]

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Prose Feature: “Double Life: An Interview with Sarah Blake” by Emilia Phillips

July 17, 2015

Sarah Blake is the author of Mr. West, an unauthorized lyric biography of Kanye West, out with Wesleyan University Press. Named After Death is the title of her chapbook, forthcoming from Banango Editions. Her poems have appeared, or will soon, in The Kenyon Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Threepenny Review, and many […]

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