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My Letter to the World Is a Body but What Is It Made of and How Does It Sound


When you wrote a letter—out by hand—you pressed your pen into the page, you hoped some energy into it. You folded it, you put it in an envelope, you sealed it. You stamped it and you sent it. And who knows who will respond.

In Urdu time is weirdly ambiguous and flexible: the day for “yesterday” and the day for “tomorrow” is the same word—kal—and the listener only knows which you mean by the accompanying verb tense; also one would say “the other day” meaning anything from “the day before yesterday” to “last year.” So how do you know who you are in a world of instantaneity? Now you write a letter and if you don’t hear at once or within minutes or an hour that silence freights itself with all kinds of meaning.

Sometimes I pick up a book of poems and read something that feels immediate, like I am being spoken to directly—in the same room even. I remain sure somehow—irrationally but firmly sure—that Olga Broumas and T Begley were writing about me in the following verse from their book Sappho’s Gymnasium, though they knew nothing of me; I wouldn’t meet Broumas until the fall of 2001, nearly eight years after the verse was copied down:

Justice missed hyperventilates poet
Buddha vowel in Mohammed child dared cross
far from mother olivegroves father almonds
lyric sap of maple far from Lesvos

I had a similar feeling when in St. Mark’s Bookshop—that temple of a bookstore, it was my church and my gymnasium for all the years I lived in New York City—when I picked up a little pink and orange chapbook called New Waves by Ben Fama. It was full of poems so ordinary but alarming. Reminded of Michael Burkard, Jean Valentine or Fanny Howe, I read lines like these:

Reach into the cloud
architecture, almost to the stars.
I lived where they are made

The reason these poems read me so deeply is that they live in the world, they wonder, they are confused. And when they wonder they wonder with wonder:

Today I would only
take advice from an angel.

She says soon you will grow
into a beautiful girl.

Soon you will become a planet,
moons and everything.

Sometimes I feel so happy
I forget I'm going to die…

So yesterday remembering that book I read last year I wrote to Ben Fama about my cold childhood. I said:

It's cold here you know. With piles of snow on the ground like I remember from my cold childhood in the Canadian north. There would be so much snow on the ground by Halloween that we would have to shovel before going out. Of course it was a small trailer park town with dirt roads and no side walks. How did we survive the long winters? It was full dark at 4:30pm, we'd all trudge home from school in the bluing dark, snow up to our knees. It was worse for the high schoolers because the school in town went only up to 8th grade. They had to go to boarding school in Woboden, 88 miles away—

There was so much more to tell but it felt like a story: my father an engineer for a hydroelectric project that would dam the river to the chagrin and economic dismay of the local Cross Lake Indians, my family the only non-white people in the town of 400 or 500 people. None of it feels real when I explain it to other people and the town itself, Jenpeg Manitoba, doesn’t exist any more except as a Facebook group for people who used to live there.

But there is where I discovered the sky. More than 500 miles north of Winnipeg, lost amid the hundred-foot-tall pines, enveloped in the Canadian taiga with no other town anywhere nearby at night, the place was pitch dark and you could see every constellation perfectly, the Milky Way in a bolt of white silk across the apex of the sky, the occasional shimmer of Aurora Borealis along the rim of the northern horizon. My father started me from the beginning: a good telescope and blank star charts. I learned by reading the star charts from the Winnipeg newspapers and then we would look at the sky that night and plot out the stars as they appeared to us. With some luck and my dad’s stellar math skills we would aim the telescope in a different direction each night: Jupiter, the moons of Saturn, Arcturus, the belt of Orion; we had a different quarry each night. If there was a particularly interesting phenomonen or confluence then the neighbors would come over and we would all gaze skyward.

Now scientists are trying to explain that everything in the universe may be a preprogrammed simulation, not even real. But that’s been known for a long time—it’s spelled out in the Vedas, and in more or less the same terms that the physicists are using now. You would know it too had you stared deep into the dark of Nothing and seen what I saw those cold evenings thirty years ago.

It’s what Melville’s Pip saw in Moby-Dick looking at the infinity of the horizon, what Dickinson saw too perhaps, that gorgeous nothing. First she wrote a letter to Higginson, praying for what, who knows, leaving it unsigned but including with it a card with her signature sealed into a second smaller envelope. You must open me, she thought at him. Then she wrote poems on the inside of envelopes. Now Marta Werner and Jen Bervin have collected all the writing Dickinson did on those envelopes, arguing that she chose the form, it was not a mere form of utilitarian reuse.

Dickinson too was obsessed with time and eternity. On one ragged triangular scrap, at its delta limned by glue, she wrote “In this short life/ that only lasts an hour/ merely/ How much—how/ little—is/ within our/ power.” “Eternity will/ be/ Velocity” she writes elsewhere, to me reminiscent of the way the light and matter of stars traverse the universe, or the way sound vibration travels from source to ear. All matter is vibration after all, meaning sound.

In the ancient yogic teachings, the ones which tell about the nature of the physical universe as a manifestation of consciousness, Sound is described as its source. In the mystical traditions of South Asia—both in Hinduism and Islam—music is used as a form of worship, a way of understanding the actual physically manifested universe. And with sound as its spirit, the instrument becomes a body. The yogi settles into his posture and breathes deeply to channel the energetic flow of all matter. A musician uses an actual instrument to channel breath.

I think this is why I found such great tragedy in the recent confiscation and destruction of bamboo ney flutes by the TSA. A Canadian musician was traveling back through JFK from a tour in Morocco when the incident happened. The instruments were his handmade collection, each of the 13 for a different key, each seasoned by years of playing.

How does one answer back to such a violation?

Far away in the north country, and years and years ago, my mother and father, planet-makers in the snow, mail-ordered Styrofoam balls of varying sizes. With colored markers they designed each surface, one blue-green for Venus, another with the outlines of the continents for Earth, another milky-red for Mars, another with stripes and a red storm for Jupiter. My mother somehow fashioned rings for Saturn from an oatmeal box, each of the nine planets pierced with twine and hung from the ceiling of my room around the central light fixture.

Around such a sun they spin eternal while I the littlest astronomer sought to see—

Originally Published: January 6th, 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...