At the Reading: Kazim Ali

BY HOPE CALLAHAN

Poet and translator Kazim Ali read from his work Friday, Sept. 5th, to a full house at Prairie Lights Bookstore. He shared his newest book Sky Ward with the audience -- a collection of poetry that focuses on the story of Icarus, inventively turning the traditional interpretation of the fable on its head by provoking the reader to sympathize with the disobedient son. Ali, in an aside about the role and struggles of a disobedient child, said, "I take it personally." After reading a poem that followed Icarus' descent into the sea, Ali suggested we leave the character there in the water, rather than continuing on to the next portion of Icarus' tale, which ends in his death.

Taking Icarus' point of view led to interesting observations about the state of the character's rather sheltered life. With his upbringing limited to his father and the labyrinth, it doesn't seem surprising that the sun and open sky were too much for Icarus to handle. In Ali's poems, Icarus pines for the confinement and comfort of the labyrinth but only after he's been enveloped by the endless sea. 

Lot's wife also made an appearance in Ali's reading. Another unfortunate charged with the crime of disobedience, Ali portrays Lot's wife in a sympathetic light. As she turns, bit by bit, into salt, she bids the rains "...drench me well, downpour," so that she can be reclaimed by the earth. Ali isn't the first poet to broach the subject of Lot's wife. He gained his inspiration from Scott Cairns' poem on the same subject and his sympathy for her is reminiscent of Anna Akhmatova's poem about her.

Part of Ali's reading centered on his translations of the mid 20th century Iranian poet Sohrab Sepehri. Ali referred to Sepehri as the "Ginsburg of the Middle East" in his reach and accessibility. But despite his conversational style in Farsi, Ali found the tone difficult to convey in English. When Ali addressed the trouble of translating, he talked about the impossibility of translating certain words that are rife with literary or symbolic weight -- cultural shorthand that can act as signposts for the reader but once translated lose much of their significance.

During the Q & A after the reading, Ali acknowledged his limitations as a translator of Sepehri's texts (Water's Footfall and The Oasis of Now) but thought of his translations as a labor of love. He said that he liked the idea that any given translation is meant for future translators of the text. What he read from Sepehri's works (mostly from Water's Footfall) were loose and musical. One, entitled "Beyond the Sea," ends with a command to seek far and mystical shores, saying,


"Beyond the sea there is a place,
you should get started now,
build a boat."

Kazim Ali's Sky Ward and some of his translations are available at Prairie Lights Bookstore on Dubuque Street in Iowa City. His other works and readings can be found at kazimali.com. When he isn't touring for his new publications, Ali teaches at Oberlin College in Ohio.