by Helen Moffett
This talk by Helen Moffett at the Cape Town launch of book of songs provides an intimate perspective of the poet as a friend to the speaker, and gives us a glimpse of his daily persona and the workings of his mind and heart as a poet. It describes the deeply mystical bent of his writing as well as his clear-minded outspokenness against injustice. Helen Moffet is a well-known poet, editor, author and gender activist. Her poetry collection is titled Strange Fruit.
I want to tell you the story of an apparently ordinary man. Unremarkable, perhaps, because of his more sterling qualities – a devoted husband and father, pillar of the community, devout adherent of his faith, respectable member of the number-crunching profession. All these clichés are true of him. And for these alone, this man demands our respect – it is on these bedrock qualities that we build our societies. Someone has to pay the bills promptly, kiss the wife goodbye every morning, show up for appointments on time, guide the children, dress neatly, obey the speed limit – these things hold anarchy at bay.
he turns the fast of Ramadan
into a feast of creative fervour
But there is more to this story. What happens, what ripples in the universe are set up, when this same man – sober, reliable, respectable – is a visionary who walks the desert sands of Persia conversing with a Sufi mystic who’s been dead for 700 years? Who writes love letters to the world in the early hours of the morning? Who turns the fast of Ramadan into a feast of creative fervour? Who sings songs that find their home in the images captured by a stranger half a world away? Who slashes at the world’s ills with ink, then writes a prayer that bathes all who read it in tenderness? Who speaks with impenetrable clarity?
This man loves his family more than life itself. Yet, he travelled to Sarajevo and tried to enter it at the height of its bombardment. This man is shy (especially at my noisier parties), yet, he lays bare the heart of his domestic intimacy in print. This man is gentle, yet, few can write a more vitriolic indictment of social and political ills. This man is serious, yet, humour keeps surfacing at moments of otherwise breathless intensity.
this mystic has a voice
that speaks many tongues
I’ll tell you what all this means. It means that we are in the presence of a mystic. Mysticism, in the words of yet another poet who lived two centuries ago is, “the much madness that makes divinest sense”. All faiths and religions, every philosophy in the world, many post-modernist ones too, have wrestled with the paradoxes of paradoxes – how is it we can weep and laugh in the same moment? Why are love and hate faces of the same coin? But the task, the gift of the mystic is to show us a way to inhabit two different and apparently opposite worlds at the same time, to show us how to live out the contradictions of our age, how to enter and explore the fluid, magical space between two opposing aspects.
This particular mystic has a voice that speaks many tongues. This mystic howls from the rooftops with eloquent rage. He croons lullabies, winks, tells sly jokes, is bitingly sardonic. This mystic’s voice has spoken a poetry of resistance, love poetry, poems of asceticism and spiritual meditations. This mystic has roared about humanitarian subjects and purred in songs of singular gentleness for his wife and daughters.
the poems in this collection
sing and dance
Each of his celebrated collections has left a different footprint. Here, in this collection, we have a sustained cycle of songs that are both fresh, newly minted tributes to possibly the greatest mystic poet of all – Rumi. The poems in this collection sing and dance all the steps I have described above, but I shall let them speak for themselves.
Consider the complexity held within the simplicity of this phrase about war:
“the fires we will light to darken the earth”.
Or: “time is the skin of space”.
Or: “the space between the words in a poem without which there is no poem.”
Reflect on a stanza like the following:
the smallest of my creations is not a moth but infinity
look around you and you will see that the universe
is nothing but my amazement and you are its centre
Or: these lines written by the poet for his wife:
i promise that i will write you a love poem
every time i write any poem about love
Today, I sing a song about Shabbir. But I would be remiss if I did not pick up my lute in praise of John Cleare as well. One of the unusual pleasures of this collection is the marriage of concrete images to intangible concepts. What awaits you, the reader, is a double helping of delight – not just the poems, or the photographs, or even both, but seeing how it is possible to illustrate such abstract concepts as remembrance and grace. Look, for example, at the image illustrating “Song for Ruxanna”; it is a perfect example of this harmony.
I will close by returning to the poet’s verse, as he himself returns to the parent of this collection, Rumi himself, recording the conversation between themselves thus:
song of love
for mevlana jelaluddin rumi
recalling a visit to his shrine in konya
you might have wondered as you heard me cry
when we met, how a seven-hundred-year-old grief
could live in a fifty-year-old heart, and thought no doubt
in that gentle day, fast-forwarding into night, that here
is an errant bird that has finally made it to its home
is a river at its source separate from the sea, i ask
the question, you say, reflects the answer you seek
when love answers love, joy replaces questions
i danced just there where you are standing now
and gathered in one shams-lit moment, such beauty
as only the one who loves knows is possible, that lives
as we live and shines with the truth that lies within us:
so dance if you can, as one day you must; this madness
is all we have to show for the burdens we choose to lose
but first you need to stop those tears; they are affecting
the person behind you trying to take a photograph of love
© Helen Moffett–Text of Talk; © Shabbir Banoobhai – Poetry. All rights reserved.