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If Time and Space Both Bend Then Who am I


January is a month with two faces.

In 1953 Yoko Ono wrote her first score, called SECRET PIECE. It consisted of one line of typescript: “Decide on the one note you want to play. Play to the following accompaniment: The woods from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. in summer.” Below, on a musical staff along with two quarter notes was handwritten, “with the accompaniment of the birds singing at dawn.”

One could talk about it endlessly (others have) but instead of infinite thoughts here are three (three being as plausible a metaphor for infinity as any other): There is a marriage between technology and the body in the combination of typescript and handwriting. Second, art depends not on rules or learning but on the willful perception of the lonely listener. And finally and most importantly of course is the fact that the score contradicts itself. Conceptual art, at least for Ono—one of its progenitors—was not idea-based but just an excuse.

I live in an old house built in 1911. It has not been updated or refurbished. It is obviously an old house, with old-style doors, fixtures, radiators and design. You cannot come into and not feel its temporal remove. Yet it does not have that blank anonymity of contemporary spaces. Because we bought it from people who lived in it for fifty years who bought it from the people who built it in 1911 we know its full history. When I sit on the landing of the staircase which splits in two directions down to the first floor I know that I hunch down in the same place that the two daughters hid to listen to the funeral of their father, the house’s first owner, which was held in the first floor parlor. When I go up to the yoga practice room on the third floor of the house I remember that it used to be one of the dormitories for the students who roomed here in the early part of the century.

In this way we are always in context. Charles Olson said he took the central fact of America to be SPACE, but I think the central fact of America is ERASURE—erasure of both space and time.

For a long time I have dreamt of Ono’s piece. What is one note I could play at any given moment? Poetry, body practices of yoga, dance or running, the mountain, the ocean, the moon lonely moon which does not itself illuminate but reveals illumination. They are all practices that allow one, a human body which lives and dies at devastating speed you will have to agree, to actually see what locality means, how time unravels. You know you are a body that exists in the physical universe, in a context of matter and energy.

In the houses of my extended family I have no context. I am neither professor nor poet nor lover of anyone. My partner’s name is known but nobody has met him. My house, that great yellow and blue oasis on the eastern side of Oberlin, Ohio is unvisited. When I go home for holidays or visits I feel like a spirit somehow, detached from everything, floating through. But time will cruelly divest us of our contexts throughout our lives and we are constantly supposed to invent new ones or see the relationships which once exists in both past and future tenses.

So my queerness does not make me a two-spirited person or reveal to me any magic available from a person made invisible (spiritual?), rather it only reveals better that latent quality of loneliness or aloneness shared by any mortal thing.

Time is ordinary, invented and defined by poets and scientists. But any poet and any scientist, the really good ones, the ones that know their arts to the core, will tell you it is a fiction, that it is not real. In Iran the new year is the first day of spring. The Jewish new year happens in the autumn. The Muslim new year is purely lunar and floats throughout the year ungoverned by the sun. I prefer this one of course, because it leads the individual into Ono’s conundrum: to choose your note, a note which can shift and change throughout the course of one’s own life.

Our new year, the Roman one, is devoted to Janus, the god who could look in two directions, to the past and to the future. Of course, if time bends then there are a million directions at once and fate is not a line or thread but a tapestry, a web, endless and infinite.

In other words, the score always contradicts itself. Neither body nor spirit is absolute concept or actuality. Nothing is. Even considering that, I do not want to forget myself, I do not want to erase the physical in favor of the spirit nor the spirit in favor the actual world. I want to live in time and space since if in the actual universe there is neither then this one minute might be my only chance.

You can choose to exist, you can choose not to be a ghost. I learned at a very young age the myth of Abraham and his son whom God asked him to sacrifice. But I never knew which role was mine to play of Isaac the traumatized son (“but father, where is the ram?”) or Ishmael the compliant son (“do what you are commanded father, you will find me steadfast”).

There was another myth I dreamed of, all those days as a discontented young man, not yet a poet at all, lingering by the chain-link fence clutching my copy of D’Aulaire’s Greek Mythology, imagining that of all the youths on Earth Zeus the King of the Sky would see me and find me most beautiful, that he would soar down not in the shape of a swan or a bull or a god but as a man.

So there I was, a two-faced supplicant, the unwritten son, the one shocked between wolftongue and thunder, eternally alarmed and never ameliorated, committed beyond reason to the actual world and all the while praying to be abducted curly-locked and fabulous into Heaven.

Originally Published: January 2nd, 2014

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...