Kazim Ali's latest book of poems is born out of our collective existential crisis. How do we continue to survive "in a world governed by storm and noise"? Creating an ingenious form on the page, Ali uses sound to give us a sort of research project that grapples with this crisis of survival over time. But the project's beauty manifests from the impossibility of its findings. After all, how is one supposed to answer the colossal question of existence?
Ali, who is an accomplished translator, editor, and teacher, takes on this task by going beyond our understanding of language. As such, with three long poems strung together by four short ones, the collection is a form in itself, complete in its sequential innovation. It is intentional in its intricacy as it seeps through the pages and transcends something that can be contained.
Throughout The Voice of Sheila Chandra, Ali grabs fragments of stories to depict the ways we study our past, realize our survival, and move into the next sequence. The book is named for a singer who hasn't performed for ten years; a rare and incurable neurological condition called burning mouth syndrome left Chandra voiceless. Before her diagnosis, she had built a career on experimental vocal techniques, often not involving actual words. For her then to lose her voice entirely, yet continue to be celebrated is the essence of a mystic survival.
In the book's namesake poem, Ali writes, "And the body of the singer become / the body of the instrument / talk to the drum hum / Study its vowels she made her vow," telling us how Chandra once sang so freely and completely, her life moored to her tongue. "Devotional or pop song or drone," she did it all, but "the fragile body" cannot abstain from listening to her long-gone voice — from deriving pleasure from it as though it is a vice — just as she cannot abstain from singing even after her voice is gone.
But of course, now she cannot sing — not even talk — without unbearable pain. So where do the words go? The poet says, "Unspeakable Zen mind is not empty / Mind but mind river knows it flows ..." Even without words, the silence is not true. If the voice cannot move through air, then it doesn't disappear, it just turns into something else. Later, he writes, "Be lit all the lanterns in the new world we / Need the language of stone from string." One way or another, we find a way to get the language out of us, so we can keep moving.
The book's first long poem, "Hesperine for David Berger," is a song that reads at once like a lullaby and a howl. At the time Ali was writing it, he had just learned about Berger, an American-Israeli athlete, and one of the group killed by terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics. This led him to think of Mohammed Al-Khatib, an athlete of the same age he had recently met, as well as Pakistani Qawwali singer Amjad Sabri, murdered on his way to a performance in Karachi. In examining these different stories, the poet wondered what it would be like if they intertwined. He started to tackle physics and music, attempting to discern how each moment in time vibrates and connects through the universe.
"Are we pieces made up of pieces made up of pieces," Ali wonders, as the poem itself flits from fact to abstraction. This line is an example of how Ali uses the poem's form as part of his large quest.
Jumping across the poem's pieces, he makes frequent allusion to the voice as a bridge through time, as something that has the power to rewrite the past and transform the future. We look at the "stained-glass window" of history and settle in "this in-between place" trying to translate what we find. It is as though the window is the poem's fragmented form, and Ali is using his voice — his words — to tell us how so much that seems isolated is connected through time.
In its abstractness, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what "this in-between place" is, but the poet delicately insists that we still move forward, partly because everything around us does. In the last long poem, "Phosphorus," Ali writes, "You believe you are wicked but it's the world / That changes position." So much of our pain is proof that we are part of the universe's metaphysics. He continues, "No one will care for you / And yet you are held down or held up / Be not abandoned the wind has its own demands," as though the universe has made an unbreakable pact with our persistence.
This persistence is the closest the book gets to the quest for meaning, and it is a considerable, but painful place to land. When Ali writes, "To hear is to make real," he is not just referencing sound in the literal sense. He is also reminding us that our voice implies our existence. So what happens when no one is listening? We go on.
The book ends with half a page of notes that explain some of Ali's research. The very last note states, "Sheila Chandra, after many years, has regained some use of her speaking voice." Much of what the poet has presented to us is painful, yes, but it is also beautiful in how it uses voice as a symbol for continued imagination. Altogether, The Voice of Sheila Chandra is both an excavation and compilation of our survival.
Jeevika Verma is a producer at Morning Edition.