Poems of praise
May 30, 2005
At VivaBooks last week I picked up a copy of Daniel Ladinsky's translation of sixty "wild and sweet" poems by Hafiz, The Subject Tonight is Love. (You can read a handful of poems from the book here at poetseers.org.) Hafiz was a Persian poet, born sometime around 1320 C.E., known as "the Tongue of the Invisible" because he gave voice so beautifully to the infinite and irrepressible Love he understood divinity to be.
As Ladinsky notes in the book's introduction, Hafiz wrote some of these poems as a student or seeker, and others when he was a teacher or master later in life. In addition to speaking of God as Friend, Beloved, Ocean, Sky, and Moon, he uses more startling metaphors: Sweet Uncle, Generous Merchant, Problem Giver, Clever Rascal. For Hafiz, Ladinsky writes, "God is the Dancer, the Music, the Wine, the Bottle, the Beautiful Companion, the Kind Radiant One." I love the variety and playfulness in his God-language, and the simplicity of his voice. Hafiz wrote poetry anyone can grasp. That's true of many of my favorite poets: Naomi, to be sure, and also Jane Kenyon, William Stafford, Robert Bly -- all poets who concern themselves, to some extent, with the holiness in the everyday.
These poems also tread the fine line between poetry and prayer, a point of intersection which fascinates me. Marge Piercy achieves it in some of her Judaic work (collected in The Art of Blessing the Day), and it's what I aimed for in my series of morning-blessing poems. Ladinsky's rendition of Hafiz holds poetry and prayer in delightful tension, and I think the best poems in this collection manage to be both at once. The book begins with one of these, "Where Dolphins Dance," and the opening lines of the collection are particularly striking to me:
The work starts
As soon as you open your eyes in the
Hopefully you got
Some good rest last night.
Why go into the city or the fields
Without first kissing
Who always stands at your door?
It takes only a second...
From the first line, I feel like I'm reopening an ongoing conversation with an old friend. Hafiz' suggestion that we stop to kiss God at the doorway echoes for me in the Jewish custom of placing a mezuzah (which many Jews literally kiss) on our doorposts -- and, more broadly, in the aspiration to be mindful of Oneness in our transitions from one thing to another.
Some of the poems are whimsical. ("Today/ The vegetables would like to be cut/ By someone who is singing God's name," begins one.) Others are more instructive -- like this little one:
If you have not
Been taking your medicine lately
By saying your prayers every day,
How can Hafiz seriously listen
To all your heartaches
It made me laugh, a little bit ruefully. (Hafiz has a point, there. Somebody remind me of that next time I'm feeling melancholy?) And I love the timeless quality of the language. I don't know whether to attribute that to Hafiz's verse, or whether it's a quality of Ladinsky's translation, but these poems feel like they could have been written yesterday, not six hundred and fifty years ago.
Often Hafiz mixes exhortation with rhapsody. In "Out of the Mouths of a Thousand Birds" Hafiz urges us to listen to what is around us right now, and then describes how he puts that into practice. In his world, he says, the "clanks/ of the morning milk drums" turn "into an ecstatic chorus of the Beloved's Name." And if a wagon wheel bumping over a rut can be the sound of prayer, then so can today's traffic sounds...but how often do we make the effort to hear them that way?
In "Something I Have Learned," Hafiz asserts that just as we clean water by pouring it through fine cloth, we filter ourselves and our words by pouring ourselves through God's Name. "From my constant remembrance/ Of the Friend/ All I now say is safe to/ Drink," he writes. Safe to drink, yes -- though the joy he takes in meeting God on the road and in the alehouse and among the stars is startling, almost radical. If this collection of poems had a warning label, it might be "These poems may wake you up," or "Prepare to see God in unexpected places," or "Be ready to rejoice."