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.

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