Old moons now are dried and crusty
Brittle and as uninteresting as history is
To my fingers and lips.
And yet also, it cannot be denied
That each man
King of his home-throne
Misses something of eternity
When he chomps down on lamb chops
(Which are his reward
For winning the bread)
Each of us misplace the universe
And lose the word
When we get our desires
On plates before us.
There is a grain of rice on the table.
Around it, oil has bled
In this way does our egodeath
Halo around us
And puncture the beauty
- Yusuf Misdaq
Two years ago this month, I highlighted the poet, musician, artist, and author Yusuf Misdaq's Palace Prayers project. August 21st - September 19th, 2009, was Ramadhan, and Misdaq, a practicing Muslim who, as I noted at the time, "shares my universalistic mystical inclination," created a new work of art for every day of the month-long fast and period of Muslim introspection.
Some months later, Misdaq invited me to contribute a forward to a book of his poetry, prose, and lyrics. That book, The Beautiful / Palace Prayers, was published this year. Visit Misdaq's website for more information.
"Dissolution Is The Whole Show"
When Yusuf invited me to contribute a foreword to The Beautiful / Palace Prayers, I was at first surprised. Although I enjoy reading poetry, my education in literature is wanting, and my tastes run to work that most "serious" critics and scholars deem pedestrian. Who am I to comment on this young artist's latest collection? With characteristic enthusiasm, however, Yusuf's invitation quelled my self-doubt, insisting that The Beautiful is made up of poems "for normal people who do not normally read poetry." Well, in that case, it is a privilege and a joy for this normal person to introduce a collection of poems, verse, and prose written "for normal people"!
They are a good species.
Clean and caring;
Made mostly of water and forgiveness
- from "The Beautiful"
Normal people are very much in need of poetry, and perhaps especially so today, when the art is generally neglected. Words are powerful entities, every one an invocation, yet we too often use them carelessly. Poetry, like prayer, can serve as a corrective, reminding us that words conjure meaning and that they have a felt, physical component. As critic and philosopher George Steiner writes, "the meanings of poetry and the music of those meanings...are also of the human body." Appropriately, Yusuf refers to the italicized and apparently random words that he includes in some of his poems as "body echoes." "Carbunkle. Crellis. / Pulse-if. peaces." or "Que Que" are not intelligible formulations but, when read aloud, they aren’t exactly jibberish either. They supply somatic meaning, as do the poems’ rhythms. Yusuf's strongest poetry or verse has a perceptible pulse; in some cases, I notice my head slowly bobbing as I read. This is not insignificant. Beat and rhythm are primal properties, manifestations of the infinite, unfathomable being within which we reside and of which we are composed.
of the original
From the original
- from "Ramadhan 26"
Ludwig Wittgenstein insisted that earnest philosophers should "descend into primeval chaos and feel at home there" if they expect to produce worthy work. I extend the same requisite to artists. Yusuf draws pictures, makes films, and writes poems, novels, and songs, but he is, above all, a mystic. And mysticism, in its quest to directly experience elemental truths, necessitates Wittgenstein's appreciation of the primeval and the chaotic; ancient disorder is at the root of everything. In most cases, the mystical perspective is merely an uncommon one; mystics survey and respond to the same earthly, material realm that the rest of us do. But they disregard accepted classifications and train themselves to mindfully observe and reinterpret their surroundings. They locate the extraordinary in the mundane. As Henry David Thoreau, a 19th century mystic, lamented, "All this [splendor] is perfectly distinct to an observant eye and yet could easily pass unnoticed by most." Mystics reawaken their capacity for reflective wonder and, in doing so, experience a kind of rebirth into a vaster dimension of human experience.
On perfect Spring mornings
God puts a clear blue sky in our pockets
Pats us a few times and says
'On your way!'
- from "The Merciful Cheerful"
So reborn into sublime beauty, mystics strive toward the transcendent. Both Wittgenstein and Thoreau can be described as transcendentalists; Yusuf qualifies, too. Like the two philosophers, he finds in his observations of the world cause for a fundamental optimism. Unlike them, his writing is generally informal and devoid of pretension. His poems give readers the impression of a devout Sufi Muslim happy at play in our waking, sensual dream. In the collection's title poem, Yusuf writes "Awake in this dream / Where abstract clouds calmly keep us. / Where birds secretly make love in public and / Give voice to the current of joy which / Slices through us in a day." Again, in "Back Amongst Men (Drowned)," he references this dreamed life: "Or as I have also interpreted it / .God is a laughing dream." No doubt, the poems’ author, laughing, singing, eyes wide and sparkling, would appear mad to many of his fellows. This is to their discredit. They have forgotten (or failed to learn) how to look. Mystics, like many philosophers and artists, are too easily dismissed as lunatic or eccentric. Yusuf's ability to see through the veil of our cultural forgetfulness informs his aesthetic imagination and invigorates his art.
Silk veils, dark and weightless
Are being removed from her countenance
Time after Time
Each day I ready myself to know her better
Each day, closer
- from "Wahad"
But not all that Yusuf observes is felicitous. The most biting poem included in The Beautiful, "Ramadhan 23: Only To Be With You And No-one Else," is a reaction against the politicization of Islam and a celebration of his intimate relationship with Allah. After rejecting the "bloody bridge builders / Shmoozers or politicians" and others who "come to the Mosque smiling in your suit," Yusuf writes, "I wish to be alone / And serious / And deeper in love / With the only one who ever matters." The striking seriousness of his personal communion with G-d is important; discipline is one of the central currents running through the poems included in The Beautiful. In “Waiting (A Song for Guitar),” Yusuf writes, “I do believe in magic but first you gotta work at it.” Hope and love, he reminds readers, are nurtured through dedicated ritual and practice.
That tenderness comes not of softness
But of a firmness
And of a discipline
Understand that of discipline
-Say, the discipline of prayer-
Comes an enjoyment of that same thing.
Discipline to run breeds a love for running
Discipline to practice ones instrument brings forth a love
for playing it
Discipline to speak good breeds a love of horses
And love of all refined things
Whatever you may find them to be.
- from "Ramadhan 12: The Vows Revolve"
A visual artist, I appreciate the centrality of discipline in a life committed to aesthetics. Like Yusuf, though, I am also mystically inclined. Paintings, sculptures, and other hand-crafted objects are among my adored icons but, if I work at it, I can find occasion for worship in every place, in every form, in every moment. The European starling that paraded on the sidewalk in front of me this morning warranted exaltation. In his iridescent dream coat and brilliant yellow bill, I see cause for startling, smiling celebration. For some other pedestrians, the bird, a representative of a despised species, may be ignorable or irrelevant. For others, my viewing the starling as a manifestation of the Divine amounts to idolatry. So, too, might the dirty, discolored Queens sidewalk be deemed a cement calf by unimaginative or close-minded "believers." Yet, striding on such a sidewalk today, my thoughts range through eons of geologic time to consider the ancient rock and mud, precursors to and components of the concrete that I now tread upon, from which our kind eventually emerged on crude limbs as a gasping, fish-reptile thing.
The salt-pepper sugar mills on this table look like planets.
I want to know the word for planet in as many different
languages as possible.
- from "Celestial"
Doubtless some of those who consider themselves religious don't share my enthusiasm for our scaled, long-snouted ancestors. But I'm not concerned with narrow definitions of religion. I believe that humility, wonder, gratitude, and communion are the four pillars of genuine religious practice, and the mental stretching engendered by the work of scientists, philosophers, and artists is an integral part of any intellectually rigorous, honest religious life. And, love, too, is a bit like religion. The same four pillars are fundamental to it. As Douglas Thorpe writes, "[love] demands of us a new way of being in our old world." Religious mysticism is a love affair with The All. It's not always easy, but religious attunement can turn each day, each hour, or each instant, into "a new way of being." Reading Yusuf's poetry, I'm reminded that every step is a psalm, every directed gaze is a prayer.
Dot-Dot-Purple and Palaces
Says the starling in approximate translation.
Bread on the wind-ind-ind.
- from "The Beautiful"
I'm also reminded that we both enjoy watching starlings.
- Christopher Reiger, May 1, 2010