Tag Archives: poetry

Beautiful Grammar(?) — Sura Ya-Sin 36:37

Two words that should probably never go together:  beautiful and grammar.

However, one of my courses this semester, called “The Language of the Quran,” aims at just that very thing, connecting the two.  And today, at least in some small measure, it succeeded to awe, if not (quite yet) to make the music of the particular grammatical point ring in my mind.  The Quran is known to be an evocative text, imbued with a magic in its tone and a particular depth of meaning that leads men to devote their lives to its study.  Some small glimpse into the mechanisms behind that power is all I ask of this course, or of myself, with what Arabic I possess.  To capture some idea, in English, of one example from among many covered already in two days of class, will be something of a challenge, but hopefully worthwhile, removing the taint of NQR from this link between beauty and grammar.

Today we were looking into metaphor, the various types of it.  As we disected the following example, posted on the blackboard by Professor Hisham Mahmoud, the complexity and multivalent functioning of the metaphorical devices suddenly sprang into stark relief.  I will outline them.

First, the verse itself:

Tranliterated into something vaguely pronouncable in English, this script may be rendered:

Waayatun lahumu allaylu naslakhuminhu alnnahara fa-itha hum muthlimoona

This may be translated, in its words but not in the depth of its meaning, as:  “A sign for them is the Night.  We skin from it the day and, behold, they are darkened.”

On the first functional level the type of metaphor exemplied by this Sura is one in which an unstated object receives a comparison.  Here the unstated object is an animal’s body from which God peels back, or flays, the skin.  This action is related back to the Night and the Day as a sign of the power of God.  In itself, the metaphor presents a powerful, primordial image, the idea of Day being peeled back from the heavens (each and every day) so that Night shines through, showing man a substance more base and more fundamental than the veiling brightness of the sun, an image that evokes, for me, a particular gloaming beauty when the raw heavens transcend or reveal themselves lucidly through what, at first, seemed substantial (the sky) but suddenly and magically dissolved into insubstantiality.

This works, this image.  It grabs me by the guts, just as if I am the one being flayed or as if I am sitting on a hill in childhood idyll watching the sunset, a Shel Silverstein moment.  But the use of metaphor doesn’t stop at this single comparison.  As the class looked at this example, we realized a second level of metaphor fills the verse, a very intentional deepening.  Both the terms Day and Night are, themselves, metaphorical, a different type of metaphor, or an allusion, a type called kinaya in Arabic. Here, Day refers to the believing man’s understanding or grace or God’s mercy and compassion therein, His plan and His foreknowledge to bring man toward enlightenment.  The Night represents the reverse, or the fundamental state of ignorance in which man begins and to which he returns if he should not accept the guidance of day, if he should not accept the revelation of his base substance via the hand at work, which is, in the Quran’s parlance, the Word of God.

Dismissing, not even yet thinking about the elements of poetry in the sound of the Arabic words themselves, assonance, consonance and the like, the allusion and the mutliplicity of metaphor here, in this one single example from among many, should convey some of the power (and some of the difficulty) inherent in reading and comprehending the Quran.  To hear it chanted, or spoken, recited by an expert, the mind attuned to such sounds can slip away, letting the metaphor operate subliminally and the words flow.

Beauty + grammar = a deep operation on the psyche and the Id, a powerful insight into one among many ways in which the Quran serves as a self-sufficient example, or sign, of its own holiness.


13 Stares – Deconstruction Season

In honor of winter weather finally hitting the part of the USA from where my family and I hail, this next in the series of 13 Stares poems has a special NQR seasonality to it.  Plus, I love the long evening light across the desert that strikes these highway overpass poles.

For anyone who might have read my novel “One Hundred and One Nights”  the image of this light slanting through the overpass, then striking Abu Saheeh’s little market shack, should certainly be familiar . . .

Rebar eroded on a support column, overpass located between Baghdad and the port of Umm Qasr.

Deconstruction Season

Joke home that
the only two seasons are
winter and construction
well joke here if you can
stomach such humor the seasons
are an immemorial building up
and building down of mud
rising into its mortal forms
man, machine, block on block
and in the very hope of rising
eventual declension roots
entropic, that which is Ur-old
opens into the blossoming
of melon vines in mixed mortar
mudbrick, new rodents have nested
lining rebar with litter
Western peculiar: shoelaces, say
sandwich wrappers, or Gatorade
o-rings, age, to the ageless
is permeable
each goldfish proud
of the obdurate splendor
in passing around or thorugh
the castled cage

13 Stares – Alabama

This might be my favorite from among the litter of these poems, or — at least — the one I think about most.

Whenever I search for an analogy for what war in Iraq was largely like, I often bring up this comparison:  imagine Russia invading the deep south of the US.  There’d be a lot of resistance on the local level.  In fact, it’s not hard to imagine our redneck youth taking potshots with their ‘possum rifles from behind the local filling station.  That’s what I noticed in far southern Iraq.  Not so much armed resistance but a lot of street crime and a lot of kids throwing rocks, clods of dirt, that sort of thing.  So, our NQR moment here goes out to Alabama.

Wave on, Dixie, wave on.

One of our interpreters, "Willy" (Wael), playing soccer with local boys in Safwan. Note destroyed tank in background.


If they ever invade
or say perhaps
like Caesar across the Rubicon
or Potomac
armies turn messianic
I’d lay odds on Alabama as the last
bastion of freedom
the sound of copper
dropping in the spittoon
the bloodhound rocking chair howl
the kudzu, Alabama! butternut!
while in Connecticut
or Nevada, Alaska, new kings
will come naked as the old
to play similar games on the hardscrabble
seeking oil, the woodman’s workglove
now a mark of terror, a black-headband
toothless jihad
of secrethandshake, insignia
perhaps neighborhood meetings
cellar celebrations, Rotary
as the guise of insurrection
graffiti coded on the T-72
to commemorate old ways
while our children ask
the soldiers guarding Wal-Mart
and McDonald’s
to play baseball
or give them water
bic lighters

13 Stares – Dirt Joe

Here’s the next in this series of NQR poems . . .

The shadow of my kevlar-clad head looms over the little girl.


U.S. Education

Statistics show U.S. schools fail for fourth
consecutive quarter teaching
the fine art of beggardry
for the sympathy of dirt, Dirt Joe
unwashed, within 2.5
minutes of the HUMVEE’s arrival
barefoot across the expanse of day
bleached desert with two sisters, Fatima, Farina
skipping from syringe to PVC pipe
with a handful of Saddam dinars
gimme water mister, A+, kept dirty
candy, cute, please, 98th percentile
on the standardized response of some
hard-bitten team leader who believed
in the smell of napalm in the morning
before he arrived here
and in red white ‘n blue
before tan
and in Sunday school
before touching death and beauty
in the same sunset
then, after, after which, this girl
smiling, bewitched him
so he smuggles her beanie babies
each Tuesday at noon, unable
to explain at his homecoming picnic
a sudden disgust with tickertape
and the PTA.

13 Stares — No God

Here is the next in this series of NQR poems — all of which are based on photos and thoughts dredged from the year I spent in the town of Safwan, Iraq.  While this particular poem branches off in a different direction, speaking more about the smirk on this British soldier’s face as he stands on the far side of the wall of an all-girls’ school in Safwan . . . the oddest thing is the word ‘God’ written below Sadaam.  We might not remember it, or might view it through the haze of our own convoluted political justifications (or lack thereof) for having gone to war in Iraq, but the people, especially the Shi’a in southern Iraq, were very happy to be rid of Sadaam.  This graffiti provides a weird, mute testimony to that fact, a testimony underlined (as all things in Iraq seem to be) by the evocation of God.

These poems appear in my chapbook “13 Stares.”

A Squaddie stands guard outside an Iraqi girls' school. Graffiti captured by coincidence.


No God

The place to find God is not
never has been, in the set
of stacked Pentecostal folding chairs
where the organ dustcover
and orange jellybeans at Easter
or cleanliness, sidewalk router suburbia
clipped, fertilized lawns and sprinklers
conservative Oldsmobiles for gentle coffee
and the body of Christ flat
on the same tongue as adultery
Lo, beat the stolen hubcap
of the Minister of Agriculture’s Mercedes
into a birdbath, there He is, find
the Kuwaiti coin from the year of your anniversary
as if, striking in sunlight, the mold
fits the one thing that ever fit you
and grass seeded on the lee of the dune
swept, root bare, smiling outside
the girls’ school where accidentally the squaddie
hears them screaming at recess.

Thirteen Stares

Looking back on the time I spent in the Iraqi village of Safwan, on the border of Kuwait (which is the setting for my novel ONE HUNDRED AND ONE NIGHTS) I realize that a series of poems I wrote at the time comprise a body of really perfect subject matter for this investigation of things that are Not Quite Right.  In their convoluted, stream-of-conciousness way, these poems try to do the same thing as all the prose-postings I’ve put up:  take what seems, at first, to be an odd scene from the Middle East and turn it on its head, hopefully to expose an underlying bit of America’s own abnormality.

The next few items that I’ll post here will all be culled from a chapbook called “13 Stares” that was published by Magic Helicopter Press.

It’s a little something different than the usual, here at NQR.  But maybe, as a means of cultural commentary, the poem surpasses dry, boring old prose and description.

For what it’s worth:  enjoy!

The first of several NQR poems commenting on life in Safwan, Iraq, as a way to comment on absurdly pristine life we lead over here in the West:

Count 'em: thirteen people in Safwan's "Friday" Market gaze into the lens of my camera.

13 Stares

Mallrat munching cinnabon
in striped toe socks giggling your girlfriend
to walk the potted palm length like hopscotch
from Vicky’s Secret to The Buckle and thereby
avoid stepping on the break your mother’s
back of the schoolnight eyelash aglitter
kissing boys with folded triangular notes, O
what do you remember from before your
incarnations in Sicily and Kermanshah?
Long, long to be looked at, girl, long giggling
in your unsatisfied splendor, your quarterly
reportdcards, your healthcare, xBox, jitterfinger,
make toast and cut the crust off, walk to school
unlooked-at and hankering for somehow to escape
suburbanity. Know this: what you want in your secret
heart of notice-me hearts is not what you might
expect it to be, these thirteen stares and the wildboys
who would flee from embarrassment at your growing
ghost, such rapine beauty, America.