Risāla of The Violet Smile

There is indeed a cabal between poets and nightingales. Between poets and things that fly and sing in the night, that animate the trees’ branches where sounds and sweet airs tryst and disappear. In turn, this highlights the connection the poet has with that other daughter of nocturnal birds: the witch.

From Slippery Elm


The calcined stones come back.
The fallen temples come back,
The bursted whore houses, the green courtyards
Where the smile of Priapus
Keeps warm the memory of fountains.

My love, let us go along the vanished streets,
Across the bright geometry which still points
To mysterious love and hidden
Pleasures, still so sweet in the night.

Here is the house of the goddess. In the blue
Sanctuary, you can still smell the perfume.
Of sea foam and jasmine and
Carnations salty with her flesh.

The phallic symbol, jolly as ever
Riots in the thick foliage—stretched out
On the happy pan of the balance
Which offers it to love. It is heavier
Than all the fruits of the earth.
Aphrodite smiles in the shadows
As she feels the sea throb in her buttocks.

O ancient brightness! O far off light!
Naked light, love, shine on us always
And when the day comes when we are no more than stones,
After we too, my love, are only ruins,
Let us lie like these stones singing in the sun,
Leading others to love along our vanished ways.

—Rafael Alberti (trans. Kenneth Rexroth in his Thirty Spanish Poems of Love and Exile)

Some say the lyric was born in exile. This is only partly true, as the lyric was born when language itself was born. Born from humans mimicking the cries of birds and beasts, of the sound of the rain in the branches. Of thunder, waves against the shore, and the reverberations that all of these made in the bodies of our earliest ancestors. Those bodies were humanity’s first instruments.

But the lyric does thrive in exile, and like a recalcitrant dandelion or wild rose breaking through layers of outworn concrete, it has always been reborn with renewed vigour at moments in history coloured by the fracturing of Empire and State. Moments where, through song, we are connected to our most primal beginnings.

The ancestor of vocalized human language is bird language. Therefore, birds have pride of place among the ancestors of poets, and there is no bird more emblematic of this relationship than the Nightingale.

Maria Rosa Menocal puts it thus:

In the beginning, the bird is all things: Zen object of contemplation, singer like the poet himself, solitary like the soul—or is it God?—mourning witness to the lover’s blight, innocent, joyful beauty itself—or is that the Lover? They are clan brothers (some say it is a cabal) these poets and birds, survivors from forever, from the age of dinosaurs, but they are still, stark on the horizon. They keep us guessing: is he our soul? is she my lover? is she the singer? Does he clarify? Does he mystify? Will he fly away, just as I thought I finally had him in sight?

There is indeed a cabal between poets and nightingales. Between poets and things that fly and sing in the night, that animate the trees’ branches where sounds and sweet airs tryst and disappear. In turn, this highlights the connection the poet has with that other daughter of nocturnal birds: the witch.

Empire and State are inimical to lyric poetry, and instead have tended to favour the epic and the panegyric. Hence the lyric thrives when these fall apart, or when it is banished and forced to re-inhabit the wilderness that bore it. This is the lyric nightingale that Mahmoud Darwish referred to in his ‘Diary of a Palestinian Wound’: And we came to know what makes the voice of the nightingale/ A dagger that shines in the face of invaders. A singing totem he inherited from Lorca, who inherited it from Don Luis de Góngora y Argote, who inherited it from the ghosts of Troubadours and the Moorish ghosts that still haunt the streets and flower covered patios of his native Córdoba.

The truest poet is the lyric poet, whether her voice be accompanied by the lyre, the harp, the guitar and hand claps of flamenco, the berimbau, or the kick-kick-snare of an adept beat-boxer.

Yet, by the standards of the contemporary literary establishment, and even by those of some small journals that fall on or just outside the margins of the mainstream, lyric poetry is derided and labelled mere ‘confessional poetry’. Nature is something to ignore, deny, or collect specimens of in small flasks to be later displayed in chic exhibitions. The lyrical celebrations of the joie of youth, the ecstasy and abandon of love, wine, and song, are considered immature and juvenile indulgences. Poetry, having lost its music and its duende reads more like the most sober of prose, despite the fact it is at times written out in stanzas, which is to say, despite it at times being dressed in the typographical garb of poetry. But even stanzas are on the wane as more and more poets abandon them in favour of the ‘prose poem’, under pressure to constantly seek out new visual forms and to adopt a posture ‘more-avant-garde-than-thou’. Otherwise, they get scarce or no attention from many mainstream editors and judges who care little for music, magic, or strength of poetic vision, yet care much for what they consider to be the most topically trendy and formally ‘cutting edge’.


Gone is Enheduanna. Gone are Sappho and Catullus. Gone the scops. (The griots would be gone were it not for the emcees true to the elements, though the work of these are hardly ever considered literature). Gone wild Majnūn driven mad by his lost Laila. Oisín and others like him have disappeared in Fairy never to return. The descendants of William of Aquitaine have forgotten how to trobar. The wish of Novalis was granted; his soul was erased by the love the night brings. Baudelaire’s spleen exploded. The lyric tree that Lorca sought to prune to make it flower again all the more exuberant and beautiful, that lonely wind-blasted fairy thorn, that Golden Spruce of Haida Gwaii, that wide-leafed poison-milk witch’s fig, has been given to the axe and sold for pulp.

Modern ‘Western’ civilization banished the Nightingale long ago, and instead claims as its ancestor the Empires of the Classical world. In simple terms, the modern ‘Western’ telling of history goes as follows: Our civilization was born with Classical Greek civilization, and was further developed by the Romans until their empire fell apart. Then the lights went out for about a thousand years until the advent of the Modern period and beginnings of the Nation-State in 1492.

This is the grand récit or master narrative that has been told and re-told over the centuries and is still the dominant model employed by the textbooks of today. What seldom appears even in our contemporary textbooks is the detail that this narrative was written by Renaissance scholars who tended to re-write history to the tune of their own ideologies and political agendas, or to those of the politicians to whom they rendered service.

Thanks to these scholars and their intellectual descendants, to this day, the medieval period is often thought to be a synonym for ‘the dark ages’, for what is archaic and outworn, a wrinkle in the fabric of progress, of the smooth linear telling of ‘Western’ history.

But nightingales sing in the dark, and the fracturing of the Roman empire brought about a whole cacophony of ‘vulgar’ Romance vernaculars, vernaculars that co-existed and co-mingled with various Berber languages as well as a great number of Hebrew and Arabic dialects and hybrids with Romance. And of course, the poems that were composed and sung in all of these.

It is important to recall that what were the ‘dark ages’ for ‘Europe’ was the ‘Classical’ or ‘Golden Age’ for Islamic civilization. However, the fact the lyric favours political splintering is still reflected, to give one example, in the explosion of poetry in the badi’ style, a literary heresy closely associated with religious heresy, that was cultivated in Al-Andalus during the taifa period after the disintegration of the Umayyad derived caliphate there.

The Nation-State has no room for the lyrical riot of voices, languages, and cultures living together in the intimate conditions (an intimacy that bore dazzling cultural fruits, alongside some violent conflicts) that characterized what came to be known as the ‘medieval’ period. It makes perfect sense that the historians of the Renaissance re-wrote history to smooth over the expulsions, ethnic cleansings and linguistic discriminations that had to happen in order for the Nation-State to come into being. The dominant aesthetic of the Renaissance is derived from the smooth symmetries of Classical taste in art, of well defined categories and identities, and in some instances, of the mute and minimal. This is the aesthetic of the cool, smooth and well-polished pearl, and not the ‘cacophony’ or spectacular lyric excesses of much medieval art and literature, or their younger cousin the Baroque, a word thought to come from the Spanish barrueco, which literally means a rough or imperfect pearl.

In many ways, just as Modern civilization claims its roots in Classical civilization, so too does Modern literature and art in many ways drink from the fountains of Classical aesthetics. This perfect pearl and the polished and learned cherub voices that sing its praises are a far cry from la perle en brute, raw and natural, robust and godly as the kiss of Pan.

The Romantics challenged this view and sought inspiration in the often politically fractured yet culturally fertile medieval period, while they simultaneously fought against the societal changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution. However, the engines of Modernity proved too powerful to bind with lyric enchantments. This is reflected in the tastes of the contemporary literary establishment referred to above, and in the meanings the term ‘romantic’ has come to be associated with.

Nowadays, ‘romantic’ is often used as a synonym for ‘escapism’, ‘whimsical nostalgia’, or ‘hollow fantasy’, and has been mostly emptied of its political connotations. Far from an attempt to escape reality, Romanticism is really a passionate and fearless plunge into the very marrow of the same. The edict of the English Romantics was to call for love, wine, and snuff until you cry out ‘Hold, enough!’, yet at the same time be tempered by the tranquility and ferocity of Nature, to get out walking in the rain and mud. To dive in and Live. In its truest sense, it does not project some hollow fantasy onto a cold stark inert reality, rather, it asserts that Reality in and of itself is inherently magical. All of it. The whole spectrum of existence and experience, from joy to suffering, youth to old age, is innately imbued with spirit and wonder. This only ceases to be the case when one changes the syntax with which they communicate with reality, a change that is often associated with the loss of childhood innocence.

Surely, to focus obsessively on one’s ‘self’ does no service to poetry. And yet, the age old axiom stands: as above so below; as within, so without. The lyric poet is not given to self-indulgence, but to feeling the world so deeply, seeing it so profoundly, that their own soul is erased in the soul of the world. Think of the anonymous lyrics of popular or ‘folkloric’ poetry, in these, the ‘lyrical I’ belongs to no one but the Wind. How wise the youth, who knows the insights and feelings they have are unique and ephemeral, knows there is oh so much more to learn, and takes advantage of all of their joie in employing Death as copy editor. How wise the elder who defeats death by kindling the black flame of their innocent heart.

The Countess, by Wild Grace

Romanticism, the age old lyric traditions that it in some way preserves, as well as the traditions it inspired that in some senses parted ways from it, are bearers of the Violet Smile. The violet smile of true poetry, a smile beyond the fictitious divides of literary currents, languages, and time periods imposed by the most learned poetry critics and their anthologists. That smile at once innocent, wise and mischievous that seems to say ‘I-know-a-secret-that-you-don’t-know-but-I-can-show-it-to-you-if-you-but-come-with-me-and-take-my-hand…’

It is a sad thing that today ‘romantic’ is used as a derision. If a poet is inspired by the Romantic current, she or he usually feels a pressure to apologize for it.

Furthermore, the notion that Romanticism is not political is utterly false. We see this in Wordsworth’s alleged activity as ‘undercover agent’ around the time of the French Revolution, in the radical activities of Shelley with his infamous Masque of Anarchy, and those of Blake with his Proverbs of Hell to give a few examples.

Detail from the ‘Troubadour Casket’

There is a reason that the incendiary book that sparked the Romantic revolution in English was titled Lyrical Ballads. Surely, lyric poetry has a long history of political commitment. Think of Dante in exile, champion of the vernacular poets, of the Troubadours, of the sweet new style. Think of the Troubadours themselves, often considered heretics by their opponents. Their connections to Catharsim is noteworthy, but it’s not the whole story, nor is it analogous to the ‘heresy’ expressed by many Troubadours and Trobairitz. This is due to the Cathars’ denial of sex and the body, whereas the heresy of the Troubadours was more often a fin’amour whose physical consummation (when consummation was to be had) was celebrated before or as dawn broke, as demonstrated by the l’alba genre. This heresy was decidedly a religion of love, or, dīn al-hawā to use the equivalent Arabic term.

 

We can go back further and think of the aforementioned poets of taifa period Al-Andalus whose poetic model with all its lyrical, anarchic, and debauched mystical components was absorbed by their neighbours north of the border of the taifa of Zaragoza (in Arabic, Saraqusta). Let’s not forget that William of Aquitaine was a brother of arms to some members of the Banū Hūd of Zaragoza. It is clear the Occitan verb trobar from which the Troubadours take their name, is connected with ṭaraba, if not the Arabic verb itself adopted into the Occitan language. The meaning of the verb root ṭ-r-b and its derived forms is as follows: Arabic Verb Form I: to be moved (with joy or grief); to be delighted, be overjoyed, to be transported with joy; Arabic Verb Form II: to delight, enrapture, gratify; to sing, vocalize, chant; Arabic Verb Form IV: to delight, fill with delight; enrapture, gratify, to make music; to sing, vocalize, chant; to play music (with object pronoun, “for someone”), to sing (with object pronoun “for someone”). This has been more than demonstrated by many scholars over the years, and in recent years we can highlight the work of Cynthia Robinson that I have drawn upon here. And yet, sadly, due to ideological reasons, this is something many Romance philologists and medievalists continue to deny at all costs.

The legacy left behind by the notorious Abū Nūwās and others like him who used homoerotic lyrics to subvert the religious and political authorities of Abbasid Baghdad was carried on by the taifa sovereigns and their poet-courtiers, who took things to a whole new level in being themselves kings who subverted the very notions of kingship. With their poems of love and praise to the charming, coquettish and somewhat androgynous Cupbearer (androgynous and gender-blurring whether this Cupbearer was a boyish young woman, or, more often, an effeminate young man, and very frequently an eroticization of the Christian Other) completely pulled the rug out from under the rigid commonplace hierarchies…

Let it be known that whether sung to as rosinhols in Occitan, or ‘andalīb in Arabic, the undeniable totem of both of these groups of poets was our lyric Nightingale.


Returning to Romanticism. It should be specified that Romanticism itself is far from homogenous, and when we use that term we are referring to a wide range of thinkers and artists across a wide range of languages and political landscapes, and across a time-frame whose start and end dates are rarely the subject of agreement. Furthermore, I am in no way advocating any sort of ‘neo-romanticism’ (whatever that means) and understand there are also aspects of Romanticism worthy of critique.

In any case, much of this has been forgotten or denied. After Shelley ‘suffered a sea change’, so to speak, in what can almost be seen as a strange poet’s offering to the gods of the ocean, his washed up dead body was thrown into a bonfire on a beach at Viareggio. The story goes that this was done by, or at least done in the presence of, his friends Lord Byron, Edward Trelawney, and Leigh Hunt. His heart was alleged to have been salvaged and kept as a keepsake by his widow and fellow writer Mary Shelley in a silver case. Yet for many, that charred-black heart, its silver coffer, and the Memory behind it were cast back into the sea.

 

The Funeral of Shelley by Louis Édouard Fournier

In the succeeding years, after the Victorian poets entered stage Right, we arrive at the advent of literary Modernism, and with it, a strange paradox comes into play. While ideologically very different than the Romantics, much of Victorian era poetry can still be described as lyrical. This might have less to do with the poets themselves and more to do with their environment. In the nineteenth century, magic and a ‘magical worldview’ was on the wane but still had a considerable foothold, especially in rural areas. ‘Western’ civilization was becoming industrialized at an even more alarming rate but wild nature was not yet so suffocated by concrete and smog.

In contrast, while Modern poetry flung open the doors for experimentation it closed them on the lyric. Modern poetry can hardly be called lyrical, and some would argue that it should not even be called poetry. There are of course exceptions. Whitman is hailed as a ‘father’ of Modern poetry for flinging open the doors in his espousal of free verse, but his were songs primarily to the open road, not to the city street choked by pollution. Also, the fact his poems were meant to be ecstatically chanted, combined with their intensely personal nature, makes them, in a way, lyrical.

Or ee cummings with his nod to the medieval lyrics in “All in green went my love riding”. With cummings we have a formally and orthographically experimental poet when one first sees his poems upon the page, but all his experimentation is done in the service of music and lyrical themes, as it must be. In many cases, it’s less the Modernists themselves who are responsible for the prevailing derision of the lyric in contemporary poetry. The guilty party is more so the critics who the Modernists were posthumously enshrined by, and many of the poets of later decades taken to ‘avant-garde’ posturing.

It is notable that in Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris, a film that presents a reasonably broad panorama of the Modernist dramatis personae, that two of the most famous poets in their respective languages, poets who often get lumped in with the Modernists by the critics and anthologists, would be conspicuously absent. These are Federico García Lorca and William Butler Yeats, poets that in large part can only be considered Modernists if you deem them guilty by association.

It matters little if each of these poets pruned the lyric tree of his respective tradition, but in the connections they maintained with the land beneath their feet, with its folklore and the spirits that imbue even rocks with life; they represent something quite different. Lorca’s entire oeuvre—even the plays!—have been sung and absorbed by flamenco lyric tradition. Yeats’ poems have also been sung and there are few poets in English who have such an exquisite sense for the musicality of language as he does.

Both these poets lived during the ‘Modernist era’ in literature and were associated with some of modernism’s biggest names, yet while others were looking forward they were looking backward. Each in his own way and toward different ends carried out a mobilization of folklore, to borrow a phrase from Peter Grey & Alkistis Dimech.

These poets defy rigid classification into any particular literary current. This is to be expected from any poet whose output is based upon trafficking with fairies and duendes. It is worth mentioning that modernismo in Spanish literature is different from modernism in English, and, as exemplified by the bacchic and pagan Ruben Darío, in some ways is much closer to Romanticism.

Also, different languages got their modernisms at different times. Modernism or the term ‘modernist’ should never be used as a mere synonym for what is ‘revolutionary’, ‘iconoclastic’, or ‘innovative’. What differentiates modernists proper from their innovative counterparts of all time periods, are the specific connections those innovations have with modernity, with industrial civilization.

In Yeats’ case, Yeats the magician is incompatible with Yeats the modernist hence the omission or enormous understatement of this facet by subsequent anthologists, a facet which is more than a bit important to arrive at a nuanced understanding of both the man and his work.

Of course, there are also magical aspects to the work of T.S. Eliot but these are expressed in a completely different way. In his short essay “Modern Poetry is Prose”, Lawrence Ferlinghetti makes the following commentary:

“Modern poetry is prose because it sounds as subdued as any city man or woman whose life force is submerged in urban life…Like modern sculpture, it minimized emotion in favor of understated irony and implied intensity. As such it is the perfect poetry for technocratic man…And the nightingales may still be singing…but we can hardly hear them in the city waste lands of T. S. Eliot, nor in his Four Quartets (which can’t be played on any instrument and yet is the most beautiful prose of our time). Nor in the prose wastes of Ezra Pound’s Cantos which aren’t canti because they couldn’t possibly be sung. Nor in the pangolin prose of Marianne Moore (who called her writing poetry for lack of anything better to call it)…nor in the outer city speech of William Carlos Williams, in the flat-out speech of his Paterson. All of which is applauded by poetry professors and poetry reviewers in all the best places, none of whom will commit the original sin of saying some poet’s poetry is prose in the typography of poetry—just as the poet’s friends will never say it—the dumbest conspiracy of silence in the history of letters…Most modern poetry is poetic prose but it is saying plenty, by its own example, about what death of the spirit our technocratic civilization may be dealing us, enmeshed in machines and macho nationalisms, while some continue longing for some nightingale among the pines of Resphigi. It is the bird singing that makes us happy.”


Woman injured during Catalan referendum, October 1st 2017

It is in a mesh of macho nationalisms that I find myself in at this very moment. Indeed, that we are are all increasingly finding ourselves in. Since the events of October 1st in Catalunya I have walked the streets of Granada and seen the city become gripped in a fit of flag fetishism. The gazpacho-red and paella-yellow banner of Spain has been unfurled over numerous balconies throughout the city centre, and anti-Catalan sentiments (with a healthy dose of renewed hate speech toward ‘Rojos’ and environmental activists) are in the process of reaching a witch-hunt-esque fever pitch.

Only individuals as despicable as Mariano Rajoy and his government can make the perhaps equally ill-reputable Carles Puigdemont look like the victim, or worse, a hero, from the perspective of governments and media sources outside of Spain. Yet within the Spanish mainstream, Rajoy, the National Police and the Civil Guard are seen as the heroes for giving the Catalans a paliza or beating of which they are considered to be the well deserved recipients. Tragic to see ones neighbours and friends enveloped in Spanish flags; tragic when one sees this in their own extended family, and even more tragic when members of that family were killed or imprisoned for fighting against, or disagreeing with, the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Fascists come in all shapes and sizes, they come from the Right and they come from the Left (cf. the policies of Getulio Vargas in Brazil in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s), but perhaps one of the most clear and universal hallmarks of fascism on the government level is openly state-sponsored violence to effectuate political coercion. This is Rajoy’s idea of an, and I quote ‘amiable’ democracy:

Is it any small wonder the heraldry of the Civil Guard, the heraldry painted on all of their vehicles, is a sword crossed with a fasces?

 

Rajoy is the head of a party (Partido Popular) founded on the same ‘España, una, grande, y libre’ ideology of Franco, Primo Ribera, and The Catholic Monarchs Isabel and Fernando before them. A party founded on ‘Christianist’ principles, or in other words, principles of ‘political Christianity’ (cf. Islamism or ‘political Islam’). The PP thrives off of insurgent Basque and Catalan activity and more recently Islamic terrorism because it needs them as external demons in order to make every one feel more ‘united’ and ‘together’ under a flag that stands for stolen Gold and spilt Blood. We all know that Catalunya is Spain’s economic and industrial powerhouse and therefore the Spanish government cannot afford to let them separate, but ironically, the PP also benefits from what is happening due to the widespread awakening of Spanish nationalist sentiment it has aroused, swelling in power like a blood-fattened tick. It’s worth pausing and asking another question. Is it any small wonder the tragic attacks of this past August happened in Barcelona just a month and a half before the referendum?

All of this is directly related to our discussion of Empire, State, and the lyric. In order to understand why let us return to our commentary on mainstream historiography and consider the year 1492 in a bit more detail. We all know it as the year that Columbus and his crew ‘discovered’ the New World, and some people also know it as the year the Catholic Monarchs finally took control of the Nasrid Kingdom of Granada—an event that meant the end of what remained of Al-Andalus and the birth of Spain. Others know it as the year the Sephardic Jews were expelled from the peninsula, but few know that in addition to all this, on the 18th of August that same year—just a few weeks after Columbus set sail—1492 saw the first publication of the first Castilian grammar, codifying that language and establishing its hegemony in the Iberian Peninsula, a linguistic hegemony that it still enjoys. Spanish, when referring to the language, is a misnomer. The language is referred to here as castellano, in the same way it is also referred to in much of Latin America. Spanish, like the Spain it refers to, in reality does not exist, but were founded, like most nations, on ideological fictions. It was this cacophonic cultural pluralism of Galician, Catalan, Euskara (Basque) Aragonese, Hebrew, Arabic, Berber, Caló—and all the hybrids between them and different dialects of the same—that had to be smoothed over to create modern Spain, highlighted by historians as a prime example of the beginnings of the Nation-State. This is one of the dead horses of the medieval period that was thrown overboard in the calm seas of the Horse Latitudes (between 30 & 38 degrees North and South), as Menocal insightfully showed us, sacrificed in order for the winds of progress and modernity to blow, in order for Columbus’ ships to be able to continue sailing onwards toward a brave new world.

Keep in mind that Castilian (especially in its Andalusian and Valencian varieties) is absolutely chock-a-block with words derived from Arabic (arabisms); indeed, even Catalan has arabisms but to a lesser extent. It should not be forgotten that once upon a time the area that would come to be known as Catalunya was also part of Al-Andalus.

The Reconquista, the Spanish nation’s most beloved myth, is exactly that, a myth. Spain did not exist at the time of the so called Reconquista and numerous scholars have challenged the degree to which the different Christian Crowns considered themselves to be engaging in a re-conquista as they went about making land grabs to the South and in the Balearic Islands, not to mention fighting amongst themselves. Berbers have always been crossing the Straight of Gibraltar, have always lived in and done business with the peoples of Iberian Peninsula, and before they were converted to Islam, many were Christian and some even Jewish (cf. al-Kāhina). If Morocco belonged to Christians and was later conquered by Muslims, by the same twisted rhetoric of the Reconquista, that would give Christians the right to ‘reconquer’ Northern Africa, something that only the most despicable members of Spanish society would advocate. The vast majority of the Spanish flag wearers and ‘¡Arriba España!’ chanters would find this barbarous.

Also, scholars like the incendiary Emilio Gonzalez Ferrín deny that there was a Muslim conquest in Spain, hence the ceaseless efforts of Right-wing oriented scholars to silence him and punch holes in his research, for naturally, if there was no conquest, there cannot be any reconquest. Gonzalez Ferrín insists that what happened in the Iberian Peninsula was not a conquest, but a revolution, or a gradual process that slowly assimilated Islam and Islamic culture over time. He makes the following points: All the sources that describe the conquest were redacted much much later than the events they describe. The population in the south was largely Arian Christian rather than Catholic; Arians deny the trinity so their beliefs are actually very similar, or at least compatible with, those of Islam. How could it have been possible for some 300 ragtag soldiers (the oft cited 10,000 from the sources is likely highly exaggerated) to conquer just about the entire Iberian Peninsula in a few short years—taking into account the very difficult topography—when it took the Romans almost 200 years to do the same? These are all mysteries that the appearance of a coin from the 8th century whereupon it is written Muhammed is the prophet of God fall very short of answering.

Whatever the case, there is fortunately a growing new generation of Arabists, Hebraists, and Romance philologists who are committed to using their disciplines to destroy the toxic myths of Nations and Nationalism, and not the other way around, as has been the case for much of the previous century and earlier. Indeed, philology has been used on equal-footing as that other most powerful way for the greedy and power hungry to prove their nations: War. And in the ostensible absence of war, international sports (the World Cup, the Olympics). No Spaniard feels so Spanish as when they see la selección nacional take to the pitch, nor when Spain wins the World Cup. It arouses pride in those who don’t even like football, and in pretty much all Spanish citizens, be these catalans, vascos gallegos, aragoneses, castellanos, or the andaluz ‘más gitano’.

Mastering philology is one of our keys to mastering reality, to unravelling the grand récit and making room for all those other voices that don’t make the canons of national literature, for the lyric poets singing in the streets and leafy bowers. To speak with Bob Kaufman, for all those ships that never sailed, the ones left scuttled in their stalls with their seacocks open. Ships that could have sailed toward a very different future than the one brought about by Columbus’ voyage and the events surrounding it. Today we bring them back Huge and intransitory And let them sail forever.

All reality is quantity and quality. Numbers give the quantity, words give the quality. Hence operative kabbalah or other (almost all?) magical systems that employ numbers and words—the true roots of all things—to make change in the world. Languages come from the elements, from roots (cf. Empedocles). We see this so clearly in Hebrew and Arabic in that all words are derived from verbs of three (and some two and four) letter roots. Verbs are superior to nouns, because they represent the animating principles that substantiate nouns, that make them move. Therefore, we can flip the adage of the concrete and very ‘modern’ William Carlos Williams: No ideas but in movement.

As Empires and States continue to crumble, now’s to declare our intent in all our myriad babel tongues, in all our lyric and varied voces magicae: the homecoming of love (and wild nature) among illustrious ruins.

 


Slippery Elm

Slippery Elm’s poetry and prose in English and Spanish have appeared in dozens of journals and anthologies in both Europe and North America. He has performed as a part of flamenco groups in Europe, Africa, and North America, in courtly settings, as well as in the streets, by hearth corner, and under leaf. He is the editor and translator of the poetry anthology Your Death Full of Flowers and the author of two pocket poetry books. He compliments his poetry and dance by studying Arabic and Hebrew philologies.


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Risāla fī sh-sharq wa l-gharb, or Risāla on the East and West

“the false divide between the mental territories of East and West is a divide which serves only to justify the machinations of political and religious leaders who go cheap for power. It can be decimated, thus making it much harder for us to be manipulated and controlled.”

From Slippery Elm

The poet is a master of Time. A petrified magician with proleptic eyes and analeptic feet who stands so still and moves so slow they can appear inanimate, yet hip to that secret by which the clay pots of Story and Discourse are filled with breath and made to spin. Story, the series of events in the order in which they really unfold. Discourse, the order in which those events are narrated. A story has a beginning, middle, and end. Discourse, can make the end the middle and the beginning the end as it sees fit.

The poet has an intimate relationship with Time; by metonymy, therefore, she or he is also a witch, or in other words, a Minister of Fate. Truly in poems and tales there is a sign, and in them one sees expressed in the diminutive the same notes and time signatures to which dance the stars and all things. What better way to learn about concepts like Zeno’s 7th Paradox, the Laws of Relative Motion, Entropy, or Gravity, than by contemplating the structure of a poem or tale. Edgar Allen Poe celebrated Metaphor and Simile, because, as he asserted, they are the very laws of the universe. Indeed, the laws of the universe are naught but poetry. Listen close. I mean that in the best sense of the words…

Thanks to Einstein and his Theory of Relativity, science has found a way to express a face of what our witches and magicians have always known. Time slithers, folds in on itself, bites its tail, and can give light to fractals and spirals of ineffable complexity. The understanding that there is more to Time than meets the clock has become quite commonplace. What is less common is the realization that like her sister Time, Space is also relative. This might be difficult for some people to grasp, as Space arguably appears more tangible than Time, but truly, Space might prove to be the more relative of the two.

Let us consider cosmogony, and that erotic ecstatic moment that astronomers came to term the Big Bang. This is somewhat of a misnomer; a more accurate term might be the Big Expansion. Astronomers who work in the field of cosmogony believe that rather than a big explosion giving birth to the universe, all the fabric of what would come to be the universe as we know it was condensed into a small and incomprehensibly compact point. This point—or seed, as some might choose to view it—did not explode, rather, it unravelled and continues to unravel even now.

Think of what happens when a leaf of paper crumpled into a dense ball is subsequently unravelled. This makes us ponder, if everything that was was ‘condensed’ in that seed, what could it expand into? Would there not be a something, or maybe a nothing, outside of that seed? The truth is, it would not have expanded into a something, or even a nothing, as in the time of that seed the idea of an outside did not exist.

Consider the North pole. When one is standing on the North pole, the idea of ‘North’ ceases to exist, as any which way one may step, any which way the wind may blow, leads to the East, West, or South.

And so the Rose of Winds sheds its petals. There is no North, East, South, or West without a subject. We see this in the Sun that rises in Japan as it sets in Samoa. In the way the Incas traced their constellations; not stars upon a depth of black but black shapes on a depth of stars. In pop culture drawings that contain optical illusions and allusions to Freud. In the word for China in Mandarin—Zhonggou—not Eastern Kingdom, but Middle Kingdom. In the profoundest of oceans where up can be down and down up. In the underworld where, per D.H. Lawrence, darkness is awake upon the dark. In the underworld, that, per Jake Stratton-Kent, projects its deepest asphodel meadows upon the starry sky, where souls descend into earthly grottoes only to emerge refreshed or fatigued from craters on the Moon, where the stars of heaven strike the lowliest plants and whisper them: grow.

The ancients knew this; the geography of their myths witnessing more than one Mt. Olympus pick up its skirts, pull up its roots, and travel for leagues across land and sea.

Let us remember that the same spatial subjectivity applies when we speak of the cardinal directions in terms of political entities. East and West do not refer to fixed territories with fixed characteristics. This is demonstrated by the way in which Native Americans and First Nations were until fairly recently commonly referred to as Indians, or in how Australia is considered part of the West.

When one writes about the supposed clash of civilizations, one is writing about an Orient and an Occident of the mind. Edward Said famously wrote everyone who writes about the Orient must locate himself vis a vis the Orient. Frequently, the Orient is taken to be the world of Islam and the Occident is Europe and her offshoot, the USA. It is important to make this distinction between the world of Islam and the so-called Far East, which ‘Western’ culture tends to perceive as less of a threat to and less of a direct ‘antithesis’ of itself, due to its distance and due to the fact Far Eastern civilizations are not so much derived from Abrahamic religions. In contrast, Islam is Christianity’s first cousin. Familiar, but seemingly unassimilable, similar but not exactly the same, where the West sees its own face reflected in a mirror of alterity. Let’s not forget that in the lands that would become Europe, Islam was not initially viewed as a separate religion, but as a Christian heresy.

The terms East and West have always been evocative of a dichotomy, of a history defined by wars and the inevitable clash of two opposing opposites. Of course, this is not the truth. What is considered Occidental today is in grand proportion made up of ‘Oriental DNA’ and vice versa. These mental territories have always been heterogenous, subjective, and permeable; the borders thought to define them, both mental and physical, have never been able to keep much of anything or anyone out or in. We see this in Al-Andalus during different periods, in Frederick II’s Sicily, in Saladin’s Egypt and Syria, among many other places, where by a trick of the light and an anachronistic ‘multiculturalism’ that was by no means utopian, the medieval becomes the post-modern.

As this is a risāla—which is to say, a letter, an epistle—and not a treatise, I am unable to enumerate for a Western audience the innumerable ways in which the ‘West’ is indebted to the ‘East’ and the other way around. If in doubt, I urge you do some research yourself, and assure you that, simply put, Europe would be without many of its most positive contributions and best-loved hallmarks were it not for classical Islamic civilization, which in turn found the kindling for its own growth and innovation thanks to the cultural legacy left behind by the Greeks, who in turn were profoundly influenced by the cultures that surrounded them and with whom they interpenetrated.

The terms East and West only serve to make thinking less complex, more black and white, more economical, and to serve as justification for colonialism, the seizing of wealth and resources abroad, for the control and oppression of populations at home; in short, for religious and political leaders who go cheap for power. In this sense, in one way or another, all of us are ‘victims of a map’.

The borders that delimit the East and West and the territories that each of these compose are also subjective from ‘Islamic’ perspectives. Less so than cardinal directions, these tend to be thought of as the dār al-islām—or, the house (territory) of Islam—and the dār al-kufr, or the house (territory) of disbelief. The dār al-kufr is also sometimes known as dār al-ḥarb, or house of war. An important concept that serves as the mercury or mediating agent between these two entities is hijra, or emigration as a religious duty. In its earliest context, dār al-islām refers to the city Medina, where, we are told, Muhammed and his companions were given shelter from their persecutors. Here, dār al-kufr refers to Mecca, where the idolaters are still in control, and hijra to the emigration that the Muslims in Mecca are obliged to make to join their companions in Medina.

Here we also see the relation between the term hijra and the term jihād in that Muslim men were expected to emigrate in order to join the ‘holy’ struggle against the disbelievers who threatened them. As Islam spread throughout the Arabian peninsula and the Muslims conquered new territories, the borders between the dār al-islām and the dār al-kufr were continuously renegotiated. These borders become blurred, and the meanings of the terms become mutable and fluid, as we see hijra also being used to denote a Muslim who lives surrounded by disbelievers, but cuts off all connections with them without actually uprooting themselves and emigrating; to a Bedouin who leaves behind their nomadic life and adopts the sedentary life of an urban centre; or to some members of the nascent Muslim community who emigrated voluntarily to Abyssinia. Posteriorly, the verses of the Qur’ān used in discussions of whether or not the hijra is obligatory, are often Sura VIII (Al-Anfāl) verse 72 and Sura IV (Al-Nisā’) verses 97-100. Some consider these verses to have proceeded from the same period discussed above, when the Muslims were a minority community surrounded by hostilities. Whatever the case, throughout the centuries and to this day, different traditions of Islam and different schools of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) have given these terms their own interpretations. For the khawārij (s. khārijī) the term dār al-kufr encompassed territories controlled and inhabited by Muslims, but specifically non-khārijī Muslims. In ṣūfī thought, hijra can imply an emigration from evil to good, from ignorance to light, or from forbidden practices to the path of God. In this case, to emigrate does not necessarily imply a physical journey. From a shāfi’ī perspective, as long as there is one Muslim in a territory denominated dār al-kufr, this territory becomes dār al-islām, allowing this Muslim to remain living there without obligations to emigrate. The shāfi’ī school of jurisprudence also identifies another sphere, called the dar al-ṣulḥ, in which disbelievers have signed a treaty with the Muslims, and are therefore permitted to retain their properties in exchange for paying a special tax. But from a ḥanafī perspective, this type of sphere would still be termed dār al-islām due to it being governed by Muslims.

As we can see, the borders between the different types of territory are grey, something which has given rise to several questions for the jurists to solve when treating specific cases. For example, that of the moriscos in the Iberian Peninsula. What happens when a Muslim is living in a land previously denominated dār al-islām but has been conquered by disbelievers? Must they abandon their former home and emigrate? Some jurists assert that yes, in these cases, emigration is the only option. Others would argue that they are permitted to stay if, in spite of not being able to profess Islam publicly, they lived their religion in their hearts and intentions (another example of the dār al-islām being interpreted as an interior space). Its worth mentioning that in some moments throughout the history of Islam the old, weak, women and children have been exempted from the obligation to make hijra when caught on the wrong side of the the fence. In addition to all these interpretations, for many sunnis, the dār al-islām is a territory governed by a Muslim, or a territory which, although Muslims are not in charge, they are permitted to freely practice their religion. Other jurists, such as al-Wansharīsī, have asserted that Muslims are obliged to emigrate at all costs from a land denominated dār al-kufr to one denominated dār al-islām even if the first is a just society and the second is not. The fear of these jurists is that Muslim women would marry non-Muslim men, or that Muslims would adopt foreign languages and customs such as foreign styles of dress, and that these would inevitably lead them into apostasy. This is a fascinating concept: that identity must be preserved at all costs, even if this means forfeiting justice for injustice.

The concept of hijra has also been subject to shifting interpretations in the context of European colonialism. One thing that almost all the cases have in common from Nigeria to India is the role that the concept of hijra has played in the rhetoric of the Muslim leaders fighting against the Europeans on the one hand, and in that of the Europeans themselves after having made conquests. In the first case, the concept of hijra was used by Muslim leaders to compel their coreligionists who lived in areas recently conquered by the Europeans, to emigrate to the dār al-islām—here defined as the territories that they themselves controlled—in order to fortify their troops and bases. In the second case, we see how the European colonialists requested that a muftī from Mecca issue new fatāwā (s. fatwā) regarding the concept of hijra under non-Muslim governors if these permitted them to continue freely practising their religion. Such was the tactic used by the French in Algeria whose colonial agenda was disrupted by the Algerian population emigrating en masse to other countries such as Morocco or Syria. In India the concepts of hijra and jihād became complicated when for some, Muslims were not obliged to fight against the English or emigrate from territories that these had conquered, as they were seen as a salvation for the Muslims in their struggle against the Hindus!

To complicate things further, in contemporary times the term dār al-kufr has been applied to some Muslim governments by certain fundamentalist groups in order to legitimize their struggle against these, as has been the case in Egypt, Indonesia, or Pakistan. The term hijra has also been interpreted in contemporary times by authors such as Ibn al-Ṣiddiq as the emigration a Muslim might make to Europe or the USA for economic reasons. According to Ibn al-Ṣiddiq, Muslims would be permitted to remain in the dār al-kufr as long as they had intentions to work or study there.

The liminal herm that marks the grey boundary between terms such as East or West, or dār al-islām and dār al-kufr can also be seized by artists and activists who see the extremist proponents of each of these ‘poles’ not as the defenders of their respective civilizations or religions locked in an inevitable and holy struggle, but as a single party of despicable greedy and violent villains who have sold this world at the cost of the world to come. The world to come not in the Qur’anic sense of an eschatological paradise, or in the ‘Western’ sense of a Las Vegas (Jerusalem) in the Sky, but as the world that will be inherited by future generations, among which, ironically, the children of these same villains will be counted.

The ways towards this are manifold but one extremely powerful starting point for people who find themselves on the Western side of the divide is to make an earnest effort to learn Arabic. There are truly so many practical benefits in doing this, not least of which is that learning new languages re-wires your brain; in this sense the false divide between the mental territories of East and West, a divide which serves only to justify the machinations of political and religious leaders who go cheap for power can be decimated, thus making it much harder for us to be manipulated and controlled.

Our exploration of spatial relativity also applies to concepts such as the hinterland, the global sertão, to urban human habitats and wild nature. Borders and limits writhe and fork like snakes and lighting and can be reinterpreted to good effect in all manner of rewilding or regenerative permacultural initiatives. With this sort of manipulation and redefinition of space, both one’s own spatiality and that of one’s surrounding environments, we leave the realm of the poet and enter the realm of the dancer. The poet is a master of Time, the dancer a master of Space. This is why the marriage of poet and dancer signifies an end for Time and Space.

 


Slippery Elm

Slippery Elm’s poetry and prose in English and Spanish have appeared in dozens of journals and anthologies in both Europe and North America. He has performed as a part of flamenco groups in Europe, Africa, and North America, in courtly settings, as well as in the streets, by hearth corner, and under leaf. He is the editor and translator of the poetry anthology Your Death Full of Flowers and the author of two pocket poetry books. He compliments his poetry and dance by studying Arabic and Hebrew philologies.


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