Marigolds in My Mouth

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

By Kazim Ali

Some Muslims believe that you can use books—the Qur’an specifically—for divination. You dream of your problem and then open the book, and the verse you open to will tell you what you need. When, after ten years of a friend begging me to read Robert Duncan, I first opened a book of his poems, I opened it to this line: “What songs my mother taught me. Not to sing.”

My mother taught me many songs, including poems and Muslim prayers, mostly in Arabic but sometimes in Urdu and once in a while in English. However, I have a hard time explaining what my relation to religion and spirituality is, not because I am not sure if I believe or not but because “belief” for me is—has always been—a dynamic network of thoughts, feeding one into the other, moving backward and forward and sideways.

The other reason I can’t settle on a relationship with God is because I am not sure what the analogy between body and spirit or the existent world and the so-called afterlife (though maybe “other-life” would be more accurate?) is. This may be at least in part due to what my physical body learned about gender and its physical responses to the bodies around it. In other words, even as a young boy I had no interest in what young boys were supposed to be like, and then, as a young man, I knew my body was not a heteronormative body. Desire for human love and desire for connection with God seemed, at least according to the teachings I received, to exclude one another. And I was not about to be caught between myself and my Self. I knew this a long time before I had either vocabulary or inclination to explain it.

So it took me a long time to learn how to sing and a long time more before I could talk to God beyond mere ventriloquism—the prayers I and others have been taught to repeat, syllable for syllable, hoping to breathe our own individual desires into them.


This past summer I went to Israel and Palestine to learn more about the political situation and to meet peace activists (both Israeli and Palestinian). When I was in Israel I had the fortune of meeting the poet Rivka Miriam. Rivka told me about two different trips she had taken to India. On the first trip she fell in love with Indian spirituality and the concept of God as part of every moment of the day and every piece of matter in the world. She loved that each human held a piece of God and that our life was a long task of trying to take the piece back for a reunion. On her second trip, the same concept made her despair. She realized that she loved the uniqueness of each human spirit, that it was our uniqueness that made us worthy of God in the first place, so what would it mean to surrender that? The second experience is not the answer to the first, nor is it the other way around. The whole story is the story of both trips together, the crux of blessed matter.

Anyhow, why pray at all? God is not going to answer you in words you can understand, and, depending on what you believe, God may not be going to answer you at all. I think of prayer as being a verbal ritual to access or give shape to the divine formless and unstable energy not collected and coalesced, incarnated. If religion and ritual are meant either to prepare one’s own self or to access the further beyond, it seems a rough and arbitrary operation.

After all, like poetry—supposedly—the language of prayer is important to the last syllable, isn’t it? It has to be in Sanskrit, Arabic, Latin, or whatever, doesn’t it? We killed each other over the question, killed each other over translating sacred books, over mistranslating them, mistreating them.

And if all the many tongues are roads inside, to the spirit or Spirit or whatever you prefer, then are we left with an anarchy of thought, a babble of contested words? That poem of Duncan’s, “New Tidings,” begins:

In the book of the birds he reads letters
of an alphabet he does not understand.

And ends:

One of the words standing before
Babel fell into tongues was a bird there
which was the sun there and he sounded
as a letter he could not read.

This is what I want to know—that there are mysteries in the world unknowable for us to use this lifetime to know. It is hard because so much knowledge has gone before and so many scriptures exist. In the United States, Israel, Iran, and other places, people use these scriptures and draw on centuries of interpretation of them to make laws, laws meant to govern the actions of human bodies. These are laws that explain how to control and manipulate human bodies, and sometimes provide the justification, means, and methods for punishing and killing them.

If it is true that there are alphabets we don’t understand, letters we cannot read, then I feel as if we have a shot at something new.

There are letters you cannot read scattered all through the Qur’an. They have no purpose for the lay reader; according to the commentators, they are private, coded messages meant for the prophet Muhammad himself. It doesn’t make sense, if you think about it. And the Qur’an begs a reader to think about it. Begs over and over again in a repeated verse that goes, “Surely there are signs here for those of you who would think about it.”

I like that: a book that has its own desires. It seems that we in our contemporary moment of scientific, poetic, erotic knowledge—teetering on the edge of disaster with the real possibility of planetary, spiritual, and sexual death—have a chance to taste original knowledge, to move into a new understanding of ourselves, of the universe itself. How does matter hold together and fly apart?

In which case, Babel—the multiplicity of tongues and scattering of nations—was not a curse or punishment for trying to reach God, but was instead, perhaps, a pat on the back for good effort: it was a high tower after all. “But try this instead,” a good teacher might say, stuffing a daffodil in one mouth, a chrysanthemum in another, a rose in the third.


When I was in India myself a few years ago, I felt similarly entranced. I saw divine potential everywhere I went—in the Ganges River, in the half-mile-wide great banyan tree at the Indian Botanic Garden in Kolkata, in the massive five-story-high rocks pressed up out of the ancient volcano range under the Deccan Plateau. “It’s a form of laziness,” one of the critics there told me. “You Americans indulge in spirituality the way you shop for groceries—just picking things off the shelf.”

And here’s me with a marigold in my mouth.

It’s hard enough to explain anything in ordinary speech, but imagine trying to do something practical (like laying mortar or installing an arch) while speaking the language of flowers. Dana Levin, in her new book, Sky Burial, says in “Letter to GC”:

I would be disingenuous if I said “being understood” were not important to me
Between the ceiling of private dream and the floor of public speech
Between the coin and the hand it crosses

God might be there, lurking somewhere between the public speech of bricklaying and the private whispering of a poem. And if metaphor flies because it fails at accurate description, then it would be similar to money that had no value-equivalent, currency of a nation which doesn’t exist.

Coins—with their precise equivalences of denomination and yield—are the exact opposite of the tenuous relationship between signifier and meaning implicit in poetry and God, when you never know what you mean when you write it and never know what is meant when you read it. It’s this drama Levin might be writing to G. C. Waldrep about—this fear of not being understood. Earlier, she confesses: “Adrift in the darkness but readying oars” is “my kind of religion.”


To be found, to be understood, to have our prayers heard—a person will travel around the world to get closer to God. Muslims go to Mecca, Jews may go to the Western Wall, Christians to Rome or to Jerusalem. I think my Pagan friend might have it easiest since all she has to do is go outside. Rachel Tzvia Back says one of the Hebrew names of God is “the Place,” in which case you ought to be able to find him anywhere, not just in a black stone or a remnant of an old retaining wall—and, in fact, localizing that energy to a single physical place, whether a Black Stone, a Western Wall, or an icon or statue, may serve only to limit the boundlessness of that energy. “Don’t pay so much attention to the jug,” Jelaluddin Rumi, the thirteenth-century mystic poet, warns cheerfully, “that you forget to drink the water.”

Back goes on, in her poem “Jerusalem: Couplets” in Azimuth, to say:

A faith that asks
no questions, if fed

by loss.
Keeps its eye

and ears closed
through the telling.

As I crossed and recrossed the Green Line which divides East and West Jerusalem, I became literally dizzy. That city asks a new question every minute. Divided in half and then within the old city divided in quarters, it is governed by written and unwritten rules about who has keys to which door, who might walk where, which streets receive garbage collection on which schedule, and by which name God is called at which hour of the day. It is hard to find God in a place of such compartmentalization, but it is in everyone’s—both those who live there and those who visit—best interests to continue to try.


The Via Dolorosa wends its way from deep inside the Muslim Quarter to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Helena, the mother of Constantine, identified it, through a dream, as the route of Yeshua to the Crucifixion. She might have asked the olive trees in the garden at Gethsemane, at least two of which have been dated back to the time of the ministry of Yeshua. A small metal tablet bearing a Roman numeral indicates each station of the cross. Along the route are souvenir shops, chapels, falafel stands. Occasionally overhead, strands of barbed wire, Israeli flags, and surveillance cameras mark so-called urban settlements, where Jewish Israelis have rented or bought buildings in the Muslim Quarter of the old city and moved in.

Of the contested Rock at the heart of the summit called by Muslims al-Aqsa (“the Far Place”) and by Jews the Temple Mount, Back writes:

The horse flew because the stone
on which he stood was wet.

Under red rugs the stone
still is damp.

The rock—you can’t see much of it, but you can climb down inside into its heart—is said to be the place from which the prophet Muhammad launched himself heavenward, the place Abraham came to sacrifice his son Isaac, the place the Ark of the Covenant rested for a while, even said to be the place Adam and Eve entered the world from the Garden of Eden. If there’s a piece of spiritual real estate to argue over, this is it.

But if Rachel Tzvia Back is right and God’s name is “the Place,” then a rock, a wall, a cathedral, and an oak tree are just that—objects, not holy; or at least not holy in the way we think about it.


For pilgrims walking the stations of the cross—the literal places in Jerusalem or the metaphorical representations in churches around the world—(kissing each marker as they pass), at least the journey is experiential, interactive.

Michael Dickman writes about the first station of the cross in his book Flies:

You have to listen carefully like dirt
You have to fold back their wings with your wings
Dig yourself out with your fingers
Your teeth
You’re going to die anyway and not because it’s natural but because they want you to
They hand you your death they say here it is

As a human body, I have the privilege to be like dirt listening. And I know, because my partner is a farmer, that dirt is a breathing, living universe of organisms, a galaxy of richness unto itself. And it’s the human with wings who has to turn his back on the received knowledge of scripture, the whispering revelations of angelic beings, in order to find his own path to liberation—to dig his way out of his own grave.

It’s a yogic course of action, but it’s the heart of the story of the Crucifixion too, isn’t it? That God had to become human in order to liberate himself.


Dickman’s poem talks about the cross as well: “The little cross is somewhere in my room not doing imitations of birds.” There are thirteen more stations in Dickman’s poem, and by the end of it,

The little cross is so small that it can fit in the palm of my hand
It can fit in my brain
I didn’t think there was room for it anymore on earth but there is room.

Maybe why I drift from text to text, scripture to scripture, name of God to name of God is not “spiritual laziness,” but an idea that one should be “unhomed” from one’s own body, or understanding, or language—in Babel—in order to know anything at all. The Ganges at Varanasi is full of people who came to walk into the river, to experience the flow of its waters. I did not walk in, but was rowed in a boat through the mist. The surface of the water was studded with floating marigold garlands, remnants of the Saraswati Puja that had taken place the night before.

The puja was nothing so much as crowds of young men dancing in the streets to throbbing club-mixes of the goddess’s mantra, pounding out from giant portable speakers strapped to cycle rickshaws. The sound was still thumping in my eardrums through the mist and chilly silence the next morning. In my hand was a book by Meena Alexander, Quickly Changing River, and in between the pages of the book, crushed marigolds. Even today, when I open that book flower fragments sprinkle out. In it I read:

What will love do to us?
No one can answer this.

The moment of transformation can be a moment of fear. We want to live our lives, and sometimes this means holding on to certain ideas about ourselves. Knowledge, as it is in the story of Eden, is a frightening thing, can lead to disaster. We could be, as Alexander writes in another poem, “struck dumb by the burden of heaven.”

I was in the checkout line of a grocery store in Portland, Oregon, when someone behind me suddenly asked, “Are you Kazim Ali?” Am I, I wondered, for a fleeting moment, turning and panicking. The questioner was a young man, a stock boy, his green apron wrapped around his waist, a crate of purple cabbages in his arms. And if I was “Kazim Ali,” was I the one he was thinking of?

When I fessed up to the crime, he told me he was a poet and that his name was Andrew Michael Roberts. We talked for a short while and then I left him, hurrying home with my Thai basil and coconut milk to prepare a curry for my hosts. But the next day at the bookstore, looking for a new book by Donald Revell, what should I see on the shelf but my friend Andrew Michael Roberts. And I opened his book something has to happen next to the poem “what i know of the moon”:

i am only half myself
the other side’s
a dark idea
i like to believe in

So it is true that I wander from idea to idea, from site to site, from the river to the banyan, wondering if each place might have its own meaning, its own tongue, its own strange tune I was never taught to understand. If I have an attraction to the poetry of indeterminacy, disjunction, or fragment and conjecture, it is not necessarily an aesthetic interest (though it is that too). It is because I believe the “self” is a risky conjecture itself, a weird coalition of celestial and spiritual matter, a wobbly and wild thing that quivers through life the way a needle on an old-fashioned radio quivers at its frequency or the way a compass needle quivers as it searches for the “real” magnetic north, which a scientist will explain to you is a floating and not fixed point.

You are half yourself and the other part is just a set of notions—some of them brilliant, some of them ridiculous, but in any case you will have to think hard in order to sort yourself out and sometimes it will take a stranger in the middle of another city to explain something to you.

Andrew Michael Roberts and I met in Whole Foods. I was on my way somewhere and he was on the clock. We haven’t spoken since the meeting, yet the words I read in his book the next day haunted me down the street, across the country, to my own door, and up the stairs. As he wrote in another poem, “god touches you and you are it.”

Kazim Ali (www.kazimali.com), Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Oberlin College, has published three books of poetry. His two most recent books are Fasting for Ramadan (Tupelo Press, 2011) and a translation of poems by Sohrab Sepehri, Water’s Footfall (Omnidawn Press, 2011).

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