Poetry and Dance

Saturday evening I sat on the train platform of the Marble Hill station, looking out at the river, Inwood Forest beyond it, the sun setting behind the rocks. A long time ago, on the eve of the war, Marco and his sangha from the Village Zendo buried an Earth Treasure somewhere in the forest as part of a prayer for peace.

It reminds me of Maya Lin’s “Peace Chapel” installation at Juniata College in Central Pennsylvania, not so far from Shippensburg, where I live part of each week. Lin’s chapel has two elements—the public chapel, a circular gathering place made of big uncarved granite blocks, and then a private reflection point, on the ridge above the chapel, a small metal disk set into the forest floor.

There is a secret place buried deep in the forest, the hillside, the body. The secret place is the prayer for peace.

A cool wind, a warm early spring evening—it was a version of heaven there, on the train platform. I had just come from a day-long meeting, much debate, a lot of emotion. I was feeling tense, distracted, wrung out. What I suddenly wanted to do was unclench, and stretch myself open. I’ve done yoga in public places before—in transit lounges, in parks, in hotel conference rooms—but that evening on the concrete, in the darkening, it seemed perhaps the river was enough yoga.

On Sunday—yesterday—I went to work with the choreographer Susan Osberg, who is putting together an entire evening of work called “Dancing on Water.” Her show, premiering at the end of this week will have modern dancers, ballet dancers, and a step troupe. I will be reading poems and performing a solo dance. It’s been nearly two years since I danced on stage, but I am really excited to be working with Susan whose approach to dance is very intuitive, rooted in emotional response, and is a poetry-lover besides.

She is choreographing dances from two of my poems and I will read a third. We start by turning on some Sufi trance music and just moving in space, trying to feel the essence of liquid or water. Since my poems deal with rain, I move with that. Susan has me read one poem several times and we settle on three words from the poem to work with. She breaks the words down into a movement vocabulary and we improvise the phrases. Soon, slowly the amorphous movements begin to coalesce and Susan moves to one side, observe my body’s movements and directing me.

The process is not unlike that of writing a poem with a key difference. In dance there is always an audience. Perhaps sometimes only the choreographer or teacher, or even more radically, perhaps only a mirror. But a dance really does depend on “being seen.” That is not the case, at least for me, in the writing process.

In the writing process there is always a secret that is being kept, a disk embedded in the forest floor from which one observes the phenomenal world.

Rumi, one of my spirit-guides, did create his works in dialogue with a community. Many other writers and artists I admire very much also do this. I have never thought to do this.

Susan structured a dance from my poem “Rain,” and had me rehearse it over and over while she gave me directions, ideas for tightening the physical phrase, demonstrating to me the moves. It turns out that after feeling the poem in my body in such a way, it moved in the world through me completely differently. This is not a poem I often perform at readings, yet I myself understand the architecture of it now in a purely physical way. In the second poem we work from whole phrases rather than words, but rather than increase in complexity, the dance stills even more into slower movements, held positions.

“There is a wind that does not die,” writes Yoko Ono, and there is energy that moves through art in its creation that the art approximates but is mere record of. To bury a pot in the forest is a long hope for peace—an understanding of erosion and the slow moving of water through the biosphere. This is the physical part of dance that poetry dreams about.

There are other parts of body-practice, of course, that can inform poetry, beyond this mystical idea, in purely actual ways. My yoga practice taught me an evening and restraint of breath that has helped me understand the rhythm of a line. Understanding the syntax of the body has helped me appreciate and adore poetry of great heart that uses a joyful undoing of syntax. I’m thinking of Olga Broumas or Susan Howe or Jean Valentine—a physical bodying of language. Thinking about the choreography of the body in space has taught me a real appreciation for physical spaces and silences in the page itself. And my favorite form of dancing, butoh, with its restraints and stillness has taught me a love for the pared down, the evocative and provocative barely there.

And the body is alive—warm and muscular and kinetic, but also tender, loving, and vulnerable. When I write poems I am always either writing backwards—in my case, to Rumi, to Lalla, to Emily Dickinson, to Agha Shahid Ali—or perhaps forwards to “posterity.” It is hard to write to this minute. But the body is a lovely, temporary temple—subject to aging, promised to die. Dance cannot help but be tied to this direct moment, to this day only.

At the end of the dance I am doing for Susan, I will approach a book on the stage and read from it one of my own poems. The poem is about the Hudson River and its curious phenomenon: though the river flows from its source out to the sea, the ocean water rushes back up. There is place where the ocean-water eddies, and returns.

I’m turning thirty-five on Thursday. I want to be in this world and write to this world. Death was promised to me at my birth. My promise back was my peaceful life.

In every dance there should be a secret place where promises are made.

Originally Published: April 3rd, 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...