Poetry and Silence

When one speaks, who answers back? What is a question in a poem? Sometimes I think there should be no answer—not that silence is the answer, but the gesture of the question is the point.

God’s silence ceases to be troubling—spiritually or politically—if one views wondering this way. It’s not reassuring. It’s a changing of the usual “Why is God silent?” to “There is a God who is silent—now what?”

Here’s one of the poems titled “Praying” from Cynthia Cruz’s forthcoming book, Ruin:

Then, the great machinery begins.
The last time anybody saw you, the fawn
Walked into the field, the edge
Of night coming on like so many black wings.

Saint Francis, when he broke the wolf,
Leaned into the stinking sea of wine and blood that was
That animal’s body. I am
The wolf. God is the night

I must not creep into.

Into this, then, the world:

I ask for a ship
And then, no ship comes.


At the Folger Library in January, Katie Ford, Eve Grubin and I did a reading together called “Young Poets and Faith,” followed by a discussion moderated by Jorie Graham. During the discussion period I spoke about my preference for confusion and doubt as a way of approaching spiritual questions—that once we fell back on the paragraphs of received wisdom we ceased to be engaged.

In the Quraan, after a cryptic story or pronouncement, you often find the verse “Surely there are signs in this for those of you who reflect.” It’s my favorite verse, not because I am naturally contrary and want to believe the opposite of what the commentators or religious establishment declares—though there is that—but more because it is the book’s invitation to me to try to make sense out of my life, to reconcile the material facts of my life with spiritual values.

When I spoke at the Folger about the idea that there are revelations everywhere, that the sky speaks, stones speak, that there is no silence of God, a speaker from the audience challenged me by reminding me that it is this kind of thinking that has gotten us into a lot of trouble. People who believe they understand what the sky or the stones or God is saying can make a lot of trouble for everyone else. Especially if there is more than one group who believes they have heard it and they have heard different things.

To me it is beautiful that God could speak out of both sides of his Mouth. It makes perfect sense that different kinds of people would require different kinds of religion. Yoga makes allowances for this—certain people do hatha practice (of which the postures—asana—and breathing—pranayama—are a part), others practice bhakhti or jnana or karma yoga. They are all valid spiritual paths.

As Vivekananda and Hafez both wrote (and my grandfather Sajjad Sayeed was fond of quoting), “All rivers go into the ocean.”

Being at an empty beach, looking at the end of the world, listening to the roaring in an out of the waters, is a version of silence, answerless silence.

As I read back through the journals I have written this week I notice see how often I have swerved away from actual content—in either music, painting, or dance—and towards the idea of “silence”: Rothko’s monochrome fields, Martin’s white paintings, Chandra’s drones, the stillness of butoh. Even poetry, I prefer the small, the fraught, the nearly silent.

So once again I ask myself, is it just because I don’t want to be shown things? That I prefer art to be an empty mirror—just pure potential energy to let me fill which whatever occupies me emotionally at the moment?

Is art merely that—a gateway through to the divine or to happiness or whatever is on the other side?

Tonight we begin our performances of “Dancing on Water.” Susan has been working with all the various dancers individually and last night was the first full dress rehearsal where she stitched all the pieces together. It is exciting, dynamic, that we are just going to begin performing tonight together as an ensemble group.

Although earlier I had talked about the idea that dance depends on being seen, last night as I performed my part—the dance and recitation of poems—I was left in darkness, lights shining on me from every direction. I could see no one, hear no one. I was very much alone there, on the stage, declaiming to darkness.

If prayer is like this, then poetry—and this journal— also is like this. In loneliness we wonder about human connection, what happens when or if someone will read a poem. This is the central drama of Lucille Clifton’s poetic sequence “brothers,” in which Lucifer speaks seven times to God, each time waiting for—and not hearing—God’s answer. Louise Glück’s book-length sequence The Wild Iris likewise presents a gardener who believes she is not heard by God, and in turn is hearing neither God nor the flowers of her garden, both of which are speaking.

Here lies the difference between what I was talking about the Folger Library and what my respondent was saying. In one sequence, the speaker comes to accept that silence of God as part of God, in the other the speaker never stops looking for signs, but is never able to see.

As Geri Doran writes in “Beyond the 45th Parallel” from her book Resin:

Like alchemy, endlessness is a fiction.
We are always halfway to somewhere.
I want more than transmutation:
I want the god I pray to to be real.


In the dance I empty myself first and concentrate on the brown earth. Then slowly as I breathe, I visualize sky blue streaming into me and filling me, then my arms slowly rise as wings. There is a mystical process in the physical dance.

If a tree falls in the forest.

Partially it is what beneath the surface or what threatens to break free that is engaging. An art that has had previous lives or perhaps future lives is radioactive, always on the verge of becoming something else in the hands or eyes or ears of a real recipient. The idea that we might know fully what we are doing means there might be something more at work. In an Agnes Martin painting it is the space between her carefully sketched lines and the anarchy of the surface, a quiet anarchy. In Chandra, it is the universe that is to be found in a single tone.

As far as true spiritual music goes, de-centered and reflective in all the ways I have spoken about, Alice Coltrane comes closest than anything I’ve heard. I love myself and lose myself in the visceral immediate sound of Coltrane’s insistent movements against the subtle and eternal wash of the background sounds. Coltrane is a yogi and a swami—is this music supposed to be a literal depiction of the individual spirit against the Divine?

Eve, Katie and I had read once before at a similar event, this one organized by the Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City. We were each to read work that we felt was spiritually inflected or dealt with God and religion, and then there was to be a discussion with the students following the event. It was Eve’s first reading after the publication of her first book of poetry Morning Prayer. She read several poems in keeping with the theme of the evening and then apologized, saying, “This next poem has nothing to do with God, but I would like to read it anyway.” Upon conclusion of the very beautiful poem, there was a moment of silence and then the rabbi sitting next me called out, “but that poem is completely about God!”

Here’s “Nineteen Century Novel II” by Eve Grubin:

I am the heroine
in a novel, and there are twenty pages left.
Someone is reading the novel, holding
the numbered pages in their hands, almost finished.
Every night, in bed, they read my story
with the novel propped up on their chest.
I want them to read quickly, but they read
a page a night, without
urgency, as if there is no rush
before to turning off the light.


I read the scriptures. Instead of reciting back to them the prescribed answers, I wrote my letter on twelve pages from the sky and folded it into little boats to float away on the stream at midnight.

There was no answer.

Somewhere now, between missive and maelstrom, I am getting ready to write back.

Originally Published: April 7th, 2006

Poet, editor, and prose writer Kazim Ali was born in the United Kingdom to Muslim parents of Indian descent. He received a BA and MA from the University of Albany-SUNY, and an MFA from New York University. Ali’s poetry collections include The Far Mosque (2005), which won Alice James Books’ New...