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Silver Road of Devotion So Shorely Shown

Ink drawing by Liz Morrison.

Thinking about the long winters of my childhood in the Canadian North reminds me of how much we loved the summers, spent every minute on the playground outside the school. For some reason we would pour sand down the slide making it more slippery and then after sliding down, rather than running around to the ladder to climb up again we would try to wriggle up the chute against gravity. The body wants what’s difficult.

Maybe that’s why Jason Schneiderman and I somehow managed every morning during graduate school to make it the 7:00am yoga class taught at the time by Julie Carr. It was harder for Jason than me; he had to catch a train from Brooklyn while I just jumped out of bed and ran across Bleecker Street.

Still it was there, in a fantastic astanga class taught by Julie, a former dancer turned poet, that I learned how to breathe and not just how to breathe but how to use my breath to experience my body and the external world with deeper focus and deliberation.

And maybe the road of devotion is all of it at once—the breath that goes in and out of the body, the white bolt of stars across the northern sky, and the actual road, the one I follow every day into and around the world. In December of 2011 I found myself in Varkala, a town on the southern tip of India, perched on a cliff overlooking the Arabian Sea.

In the morning paper I read about a woman named Saraswati who climbed the nineteen steps of the Ayappan Temple and made puja.

Ayappan: who was born of two men—Shiva who impregnated Vishnu while he was in the form of Mohini the Enchantress. Vishnu remained as Mohini to carry the child to term. Ayappan has become the patron god of a men’s movement in India. Born of two men, rather than become the symbol of the fluidity of gender, he has become the symbol of the ultimate masculine principle. And women are not permitted in his temples.

I’m stuck on the grammar of the seventh Ananda Devi poem I am trying to translate. What I ought to do is press forward with the energy of the poem and not worry about the grammar. Portals of energy—like the locks between energy chakras in the body.

I see with an empty frame. The lens of loneliness has clicked back and I feel everywhere at once, everywhere I have traveled in order to feel this weird pure loneliness, in Cassis, in Corti, in Ramallah, in Seville, in Portland: I could be anywhere.

But also not: here sings the brilliant ocean and this one, savage and magnificent, there isn’t another like it. All places are only themselves. A friend invites me to Bangalore. Should I go there or stay here for two more weeks?

We only want to be each other. The sea is pearly white with sunlight, sparkling like the little diamonds on the surface of marble or granite. I can’t bear the—what?—empty days or the end of the empty days? When what I want is to go down to the beach or go back to my room and lie down in the darkness and be still.

I think of Saraswati’s tracks up the temple stairs like the silver trickle of a snail, one of the images that appears in the Ananda Devi poem I am translating. I found her small book of poems at the bookstore in Paris but it wasn’t until I arrived in Pondicherry, the French city on India’s southeastern coast, that I began reading it and not until I arrived here on the white-waved Arabian that I began seeing the poems in English. Translating is experiential.

I sit in a café on the cliff, facing out to the endless ocean.

I would paint this place in savage wide strokes of yellow and white—the glistening water, the sky that’s almost nothing, the constant breeze that blows through, a caress, a flaque, pooling and dissipating, veils of sand, of air and light, the mosquito nets over the beds, the pendulous banana flower that hangs next to the second floor landing to the stone staircase that climbs up the side of the building leading to my room on the third floor, the sounds of crows manically arguing their points with the darkness.

Now I traffic in the edge of melancholy and drift from it into centuries of light. Decades of rosaries. One begins to think in the rhythm of the ocean in the little seaside town perched up on the cliffs.

And why shouldn’t a boy who plummeted from the sky into the ocean have the courage to hold his breath, rise again to the surface, and allow the ocean to wash him ashore?

“Burrow into the chaos that buries you,” wrote Christian Wiman. For a few years after school I lost touch with both Julie, who moved to California to enter a graduate program, and Jason, who stayed behind in New York when I moved up the river to Rhinebeck. Jason wrote chillingly about the body, in particular about his mother’s death, in a series of poems that appear in his second book, Striking Surface: “She had never/ been the axis my world turned on, but suddenly/ everything seemed to revolve around her. No./ Not an axis. A skewer. A spit.”

How brave can be to go so deep inside, to be willing, in fact, to be impaled on the pain of one’s material? How else do you earn god (whatever that word may mean)?

Translating Devi’s poems has been excruciating—she’s plainspoken where I weave and dodge, her emotions lie close to the surface whether grief or rage and mine, oh mine they just drift every which way, so fraught is every feeling for me. But walking deep inside her words trained me, trained me so well to “strain to hear/ The voices of those absent/ Until the night at last/ agrees to speak to you.”

Devi showed me that not only the light and pure and breath-filled side but the dark and vexed and painful part must also find its beauty in poetry.

On the Tamil Nadu coast just north of Pondicherry, there is a temple that was reclaimed from the ocean. The guide tells me there were once seven temples along the shore, the other six still submerged under waters. During the tsunami, the water drew back and people could see the outlines of them, there still, exposed to air after a thousand watery years.

And in Kerala, Saraswati begins to climb the eighteen sacred steps to the Ayappan Temple.

So, having outlived Lorca in the unlit olive trees I rip fruit from each dark pit. I walk from the sea inside a mouth pronouncing echoless voices. What was the bail for the sun-bird set at? How does he plead to the crime of harnessing the wind and traveling the acres of sky?

It is not enough to redraw the maps of nation or body but one must also parcel up the streams to send to the parched valleys. The oceans greed is endless. During the long fasting month we draw fantasies of liberation on our side of the long tough wall.

The day after she offered puja, Saraswati stands at the foot of the temple watching the priests purify the altar and re-sanctify the building.

When I open my mouth it fills with dirt.

I stand at the bottom of the temple steps, looking up at Saraswati’s silver tracks, the ones leading up the temple stairs, defiling and divine.

They lead to heaven so impurely shone.

Originally Published: January 15th, 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...