Monday, September 10, 2012

Letter Poem One: To Rumi

Guest post by Justin Adams

Most people, I think, have something to say – some life experience, some bit of wisdom come by honestly, and worthy of consideration, some legitimate question others should ponder. For some, that experience, wisdom, or question might involve someone no longer present. 

I remember walking up a hill beside the Ohio River, up to the Utica, Indiana graveyard. I was no more than ten years old, likely younger. My mother, sharing the stories of her childhood, brought me to that bald hill. There, I learned names I had never heard of – greats and great-greats who never saw me – names like Owen, Colvin, and Snelling. They had come to this soggy river town for reasons lost to me. And there they died. 

Always I have gravitated toward books written by men and women now dead -- some for many hundreds of years. Those who have come before have left on me their indelible marks. And so I carry their life and thought, and often not as well as I should.

Having been an English Literature major in college, I am often guilty of ignoring the rest of the world's stories, essays, drama, and poetry. My sin is not one of prejudice so much as ignorance. Occasionally, someone crosses my path and shares a writer who wasn't born on one of the British Isles sometime in the last thousand years.

One of those path-crossers is Aaron Weiss, a humble, spindly man from Philadelphia. Meeting him, one could believe in his city's name. Although he is a poet and a singer (or more accurately, poem-shouter) of the band mewithoutYou, he is a listener. Most nights, still covered in the sweat of frenetic concert dervishes, Weiss listens one by one to the line that has gathered at his feet. His shouted lines of poetry like “Why not let's forgive everyone/ everywhere, everything,” and “If your old man did you wrong/ then maybe his old man did him wrong” foreshadow the atmosphere of his post-show listening.

After my first time seeing his band, I waited to see him too.  Overhearing Weiss’ conversations as the line moved forward, other lines of his poetry such as “No clever talk nor gift to bring/ requires our lowly lovely king./ Come, you empty-handed/ you don't need anything” seemed to fit the humility of his stance towards others.

Seeing first hand the care he offered hurting folks, and the way they fed on such attention, I wanted to know who fed him -- what writers have helped him see more clearly God and creation within God and man within creation and God.

When I arrived at my turn, Weiss stuttered through a few familiar names, as well as Scripture, before he mentioned Rumi, an early Persian Sufi poet.

Since I'd heard of neither Rumi nor Sufis, I made that my next mini-research project. As it turns out, Rumi lived in 13th century Persia (modern day Iran) and inherited a leadership position at a religious school at just 25, and was very much within the religious "in-crowd."

Around a dozen or so years later, he met an ascetic named Shams who taught him the dervishes, and the ecstasy through experiential worship. As a result of their friendship, Rumi rejected his academic heritage to embrace asceticism. Rumi's change prompted such intense controversy that Shams was kidnapped and killed, allegedly at the hands of Rumi's son.

Despite (and possibly due to) the pain of that loss, Rumi continued in ascetic Sufism, typically expressed through poetry. As a Sufi, his basic goal was to experience -- sense, feel, and know -- the fullness of God.

And, interestingly, Rumi made some jaw-dropping statements regarding Jesus. Here's one:

     In the fire of the Divine love,
     behold I saw a whole universe
     Each particle there possessed Jesus’ Breath.

I'd encourage anyone interested in Christianity, faith, life, art, or poetry to read up on Rumi’s life, not because he was perfect or always spoke the whole truth, but because his work reveals beauty (which is from God) and compelling affection for Jesus (which is also from God).

So, here's my letter to Rumi, inquiring after the death of Shams.

Although letter writing is not a new frontier in my life, I am indebted to Wendell Berry for returning that art to my mind, along with the freedom to imagine conversation with those now gone.

To Jelal ad-Din Rumi

They say you looked for him
as far as Damascus,
the friend who had arrived
in the night uttering
prophesies that shook you
from your syllogisms.

Did you ever suspect
your jealous son, the one
you stopped tucking-in at
night, could be the culprit
wielding a khanjar knife
inscribed My only one,

Or your long neighbors who,
having coveted your
old company at the
city gate, balked hearing
the whirling dervishes
of your beat poetry?

Old friend, did you divine
that they, your daughters and
wives, took the sycamore
crook of your shepherd’s staff
to your beloved’s neck
by the Euphrates shore?

*       *       *

Copyright retained by Justin Adams.  Published here with his permission.

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