KR Reviews

Reverberations and Divinations in Kazim Ali’s The Voice of Sheila Chandra

Farmington, ME: Alice James Books, 2020. 59 pages. $17.95.

I went looking for the lyric. For a long time, I’ve been attempting to return to a creative period in 2013 where I woke up each morning, scribbling out a poem, only to realize later that what I had been making was a series, a long play with the lyric, with sound, something beyond earwax dug out of my ear. I called these days a chapbook, Some Birds, never published it, but still consider it a voice to which I’d like to return, akin with poets that write in a series. For some reason, I knew Kazim Ali’s The Voice of Sheila Chandra, too, could take me back there. He didn’t disappoint.

The collection’s title is reflective of a contemporary Indian singer, Sheila Chandra. Have you listened to her? She’s on Spotify. I admittedly don’t care for her music, but because she cupped this poet’s ear, and breathed some song into it, only to have the music poured out into this verse, I’m both curious and thankful.

The collection is bookended with two poems, “Recite,” as a sixteen-line opener, and “Wrong Star,” its twelve-line closer. The opening poem prepares us for Ali’s landscape of sound:

Crassness of calling
A body a corpse
Lawn mower sound
Through the window
The housekeeper singing
Is this body a house
Is this house a body
God’s like you a misfit
You don’t fit he don’t fit

A small ditty, easy to get lost in the sound—the cacophony, the lilt of the question, the repetition, and the nugget of casual speech lumped among the final three rhymes. To lose oneself in the sonic elements and reverberations is common here and throughout the collection. Still, though, we observe a housekeeper, a dead body, a lawnmower, an argument with the divine. The negative capability prepares you for the subsequent pages—three long poems, each bookended with shorter ones.

The first long poem, “Hesperine for David Berger,” may require one to look up David Berger, a US Olympian who immigrated to Israel before he was killed in the Iran Hostage Crisis in Munich. The poem starts with another allusion—one in which Corey Menafee, a Black dishwasher at Yale, broke a stained glass window that depicted slaves: “Begin with the dining room attendant at the ivy-covered university who smashed the stained glass window because now we are actually going to change history.” The poem weaves in and out of history—David Berger, Corey Menafee, quantum mechanics, Amjab Sabri, the Quran—but this scene, juxtaposed with the death of David Berger, provides the narrative organizing principles for this poem. Through fragmenting syntactic cues prior to starting a new thought, Ali returns to this broken glass: “with the long handle of the broom he” and “the universe is made because if we are right we are right but” while many of these sentences never reach completion. Thus, in moving from one thought to the next without syntactic resolve, the reader feels disjointed. Meanwhile, these echoes of people and their stories hold the poem together, in the sense of marginalized athletes who fight for their seats at the table and the shattered glass that accompanies it.

The collection is offset again by a short poem, “Know No Name.” While the breaking of syntax and the braiding of narratives organize the first long poem, here the reader encounters a poem whose operating principle is sound:

Know no name
Why this holy day
Hollow day haul
I lost wind when wooden
I can’t bear to be
Unaided in hunt unhanded
To haunt. . . .

Again, repetition, assonance, alliteration, and consonance collect in a song against what appears to be a slave ship rocking in the wake. Juxtaposed with the previous poem, the thematic impulse of colonialism’s violent aftermath bridges theme and sound as we enter the title poem, “The Voice of Sheila Chandra.” It begins, “Breaks is constant was like / The river light on the river / Riven that remained a rift.” Opening with what appears to be a simile, the poem moves forward with assonance of the short i sound, internal rhyme, cacophony of the k, and alliteration of the r, all within the first three lines of this long-stretch of a poem.

In what appears to be disjointed thought, this section ends with a declarative, allowing the culmination of each section not to rely on epiphany or image, but rather, syntax.

. . . long seasons invaded
By your current devoured your tongue
Of water those years time bent
My one voice spoke

It is as Ali describes, “a constant striking into chaos.” As we learn about Sheila Chandra, a lost voice, one which clearly returns to us through this verse. The divine appears prominent throughout this poem, as Ali questions:

. . . how do you now in this
Contained shape go through
Your life not like a constellation
Not guessed at intuited or divined
No name so how do you discern a shape for
What is often called god

This thread continues in “Phosphorous,” Ali’s final long poem among the soundy short ones. While the first long poem experiments with syntax, the second more so with sound, the final long poem appears to begin with a reliance on narrative sestets, only to follow with experimentation of form, while large blocks of letters span across the page, forcing the reader to work in order to decode. Once decoded, the verse continues to rely on sound, spelling such messages as: “Wrought sacred scrum you sought sacrum vault to seek or vault” or “Oh dog in heaven god own on me.” Divinity, then, appears a preoccupation of this text as religious imagery appears in nearly every poem. Which poses the question: What about the divine is Ali arguing? Perhaps that true prayer, whether of celebration, mercy, or petition, must rely not on language alone but rather, sound which spews from the body in our own search for it.