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“Let there be”: Abdul Ali’s “Holy”

Abdul Ali’s poem “Holy” from his 2015 debut collection Trouble Sleeping has me thinking about poems and prayers, poems as prayers. “Always, they begin / as units of prayer,” Ali’s poem starts.

“They,” in this poem, are never named, though the speaker “thirsts to remember // the names of all the faces / hidden behind the barrel of a gun,” and the italicized The New York Times headline from 1999 that comprises the poem’s fifth couplet (“Officers in Bronx Fire 41 Shots, / And an Unarmed Man Is Killed”) refers to Amadou Diallo, of course. The reader can (and must) fill in Diallo’s name and the names of other black lives taken by the State; I imagine readers can immediately name others who might “crowd together / in a headline”: Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, and earlier — Clifford Glover, George Stinney, and earlier….

Within the poem, this “they” is so specific and so urgent, but in the first couplet on a first read through, the as-yet-unclear antecedent could be referring to poems themselves– “Always, they begin / as units of prayer.”

Ali’s poem posits names as prayer, poems as prayer, and prayer as moments of silence for the “names of all the faces . . . becoming caesuras” — ruptures and stops in the line and syntax of our “national memory.” Interestingly, in the poem’s 45 short, often-enjambed lines, the only caesura is in the first line. As such, each time I reread the poem, I find myself pausing there to think of names and faces after “Always.” A poem can borrow from its roots in prayer and ritual, but it can also guide us to new modes of attention, new ways to pray.

“Each name is / a body craving / wholeness,” writes Ali. His poem also prays by “imagining // a different script” — a world that values black lives and celebrates blackness and black culture. Ali’s poem ends in litany: “When I wake tomorrow / Let there be a riot of birds,” “Let there be,” . . . “Let there be,” . . . “Let there be,” . . . “Let these words serve / a different master/narrative // Let sound shoot outside this mouth / echoing in every // walk home / dark alley / (neighbor)hood // May this poem / lodge inside your breast.”

In the context of a poem, the reader is asked to consider the dual use and implications of this verb “let.” We can read Ali’s litany as prayer, petition, orison, invocation, plea, supplication — a request to deity or society to effect change. We can also read it as a poignant and powerful willing of a different world — an order or command in the vein of the Biblical “Let there be light,” uttered by the Creator (capital “C”) in the Bible, and the creator (lowercase “c,” but creator nonetheless) in poetry. A poem asks us to be both speaker and addressee, and the construction “let there be” reinforces that tension through its own ambiguity and echoes. Are we, as readers, overhearing a private address to higher powers within a personal meditation, or is this an imperative directed at us?

In its section on non-declarative speech acts, English Grammar: a function based introduction (T. Givón, 1993) describes the “jussive” clause as follows:

the verb-derived marker ‘let’ may . . . be used to signal a peculiar speech act, the jussive, which purports to elicit the action of a third person, rather than of the hearer . . . The origin of this construction is transparently as an imperative form of the manipulative verb ‘let’ . . . But it does not necessarily involve directing the hearer to either take action, make a third person take action, or allow the third person to take action. This is clear from the fact that there may be no hearer present, or that the hearer may have no control over the third-person subject of the exhortative clause . . . The jussive construction seems to be an expression of preference, oath, or resignation toward states or events. This explains the compatibility of stative clauses, non-agentive subjects or even agentless passives with the jussive construction.

But alongside the jussive echoes of generative change (“Let there be light”), we might also be careful to hear an echo of a more direct and unambiguous Biblical imperative: “Let my people go.”

Ali’s litany of “let there be” echoes Langston Hughes’s “Let America Be America Again,” with its painfully ironic use of the word “again,” as Hughes reminds us that “America never was America to me.”

In the introduction to Trouble Sleeping, Thomas Sayers Ellis writes, “Not being able to sleep is a very different call and cry than ‘Wake Up!’ In fact, it is mo kin to the slang variation ‘Stay Woke’ which Ali, without saying, treats as a noble possibility, a confessional challenge from the self to the selves.” It is also a challenge to the status quo, and to “the selves” of Ali’s readers to pay attention and consider our own roles as observers, participants, speakers, listeners, and creators of art and change.

[Abdul Ali’s Trouble Sleeping was selected by Fanny Howe as the 2014 recipient of The New Issues Poetry Prize and published by Western Michigan University Press in 2015. You can read more about it and get your own copy here: http://wmich.edu/newissues/titles/ali-troublesleeping.html]