FOUR POEMS by Kazim Ali

Lake Animal You

Dead right now
Deeded soft, unmustered

Who’s unnameable
Who’s kin

Cinder or tinder
Ember or ash

You lose yourself
Buckled to the plan

To be a body
Crawling up the slope

Hungry for hunger
How come you at all

To words of fire
Body of water


Goya’s New York

I want to go home
The streets are flooded
Up to the car windows
I want to drown
Drown every day of my life

Paintings I thought were beautiful
Were of devastation
I want to be torn to pieces

The loneliness of the man
In the painting about the execution
He is looking
Nobody else is looking



After all the lake’s surface unruffled
When across it the shot
Sounds off the far shore
A continuous line of questioning
The thicket of shagbark opening
A road on the far shore
You drift in what’s beneath
Threatening to rise
Fathom by fathom
Every thread drifts
Every thread dropped down
To measure death


Dry Dock

Reading the paper backward
A mountain won’t come apart in your hands
The nature of stone, queer and quibbling

Sailboat in anxious wind
Frigate caught in arctic ice
Me between matter and spirit

Ship in ice
Ship in a bottle built there
Dry dock: a place I will never go


It feels strangely right to name the BP oil spill as one of the greatest ecological disasters our fuel-driven society has caused. Of course it isn’t accurate—the last hundred years or more of “developing civilization” has marched us inevitably toward this; it’s most remarkable that it hasn’t happened sooner.

But in a way it feels freeing that the damage could in fact be irrevocable. That certain things cannot be fixed. Habitats are destroyed, species disappear, climates change, that things, in fact, matter—the world doesn’t always get fixed in the second half of the show after the commercial break.

My teacher Jonji used to explain it to me from his spiritual perspective—that karma is beginningless and endless. In 2007, we talked about the devastating human and environmental costs of the United States’ imperial actions on the North American continent and around the world. I wondered out loud how long it would take to reverse the damage of the invasion of Iraq. Jonji said it was irreversible, that we had already written the next fifty or a hundred years. What use was any action at all, I wondered. There’s still the fifty or one hundred years after that, Jonji said brightly.

Jonji had been my teacher for a couple of years but gave up teaching in order to devote himself to his new family. When Jonji himself learned that he was dying, he undertook a deep study of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. “We have to understand this part, the actual process of dying.” He came out of retirement in order to “die” among us as an active and examined process. We were invited by Jonji to experience his process of “dying,” to look at it squarely and think about what the end of things mean.

We have always acted out of a fear of death, a desire to preserve, to keep our life exactly the way it is now. But maybe it won’t work. It is possible that the oil spill is uncontainable, possible also we will not be able to save the beaches or the birds. I want to save the beaches and the birds and everyone else as well, but even if we manage it, it is possible we will have to give up current consumption levels of oil, or give up oil altogether. What happens then? What would our new lives look like without air travel, without plastic, without electronics?

Like Jonji, we have to give up our fear of death, metaphorical and actual, in order to begin to be able to dream ourselves past it and into our new life.


 The author of several books of poetry, fiction and cross-genre work, Kazim Ali’s newest book is Orange Alert: Essays on Poetry, Art, and the Architecture of Silence, to be released by the University of Michigan Press in the fall of 2010. He teaches creative writing and comparative literature at Oberlin College and in the Stonecoast low-residency MFA program.

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