Can modern poetry ever be sublime? Variations on this question—Is epic poetry dead? Are any modern poets truly Great? Is modern poetry doomed to be the verbal selfie?—all seem focused on the plethora of similarly-styled modern poems that skew toward the personal as opposed to the epic (in the larger sense), that eschew grand themes and sweeping visions for personal vignettes and points of view, the image for its own sake, language for its own sake, minutiae. Yahia Lababidi’s poetry, in his new comprehensive collection Balancing Acts, takes another direction, quite consciously balancing his own life experience against higher things, not only spiritual but also philosophical. While not epic poetry, these poems take us to another level of understanding in the visionary sense, actively reaching toward enlightenment, something higher.
Each poem balances its everyday sensuous elements, which are quite comprehensive, with a loftier vision. And that vision almost always reigns supreme. His pivotal moments wrestle with great ideas, often his own original ideas and observations. His language, as one might imagine, follows suit. He has no compunctions about using words like “specificity” and “undifferentiation” if they suit his purpose. The whole of language, including the often-spurned abstraction, is useful to him. The first poem in the book, “Words,” gives us his attitude towards language:
Words as witnesses
testifying their truths
squalid or rarefied
inevitable, irrefutable. […]
every poem is a cosmos
dissolving the inarticulate.
And indeed, that last couplet sums up what the poet seeks to accomplish. He also sets us up to understand that this book will be about “truths,” about things that are “irrefutable.” This would be the opposite of the current trend in poetry toward avoiding the abstract, proving in fact that philosophy and “pure” ideas can be presented or discussed in poetry without cliché or prosaic generalization.
He asks, for example, what do we understand about animals? To articulate such as-yet-unformed thoughts, he does not describe an animal in the usual way. Instead, the poet chooses a more philosophical exploration, asking “What Do Animals Dream?” (the poem itself being a series of questions):
Are there agitations, upheavals, or mutinies
against their perceived selves or fate?
Are they free of strengths and weaknesses
peculiar to horse, deer, bird, goat, snake, lamb or lion?
Are they ever neither animal nor human
but creature and Being?
In asking such questions, we face the dissolution of species in a moment in which consciousness itself is contemplated. The issue of animal vs. human is explored further in “Dog Ideal”, a tour-de-force of poetic reasoning that crescendos to where the dog becomes something akin to a zen master…possibly better. And not the way one might expect, but, as he argues earlier in the poem,
unconcerned with the pursuit of truth
and other lies
they live in Truth
never lost in the labyrinth of self
they are without self-image,
thus without self-deception
This is not another tale of the faithful dog often memorialized in literature; this is a philosophical exploration in poetry of dogness itself. He balances the facts of a dog’s life against important philosophical issues, and the comparison articulates a dog’s cosmos for us as seen through that lens. Of course, who we are as human beings is the subtext of this discussion of dogness, and by the end we can see where the dog has succeeded in ways that our very minds have doomed us to fail.
Or our hearts, as in this excerpt from the same poem:
honest in their need to give and receive
a love neither tormented nor tormenting
nursing their wounds without meditation,
which is the creation of more suffering
Grounded in science and reason, but aimed toward the spirit, his words engage both thought and experience to achieve their revelations. His poem “Dawning” describes the similarity of human change to plate tectonics:
As decisively, and imperceptibly, as a continent
some thing will give, croak or come undone
so that everything else must be reconsidered
In “Solitude and the Proximity to Infinite Things,” the desert is depicted as a force of nature to be reckoned with, its remoteness and sense of infinity making it a place “without heart.” Yet it is in that very place, “set apart,” where we can find the sublime, as in “Desert Revisited:”
incorruptible starting point
where eye and mind are free
to meditate perfection […]
the maturity of ecstasy
longing to utter
the unutterable name
Here the mind’s power transforms one’s environment while finding its own place in synch with the heart. These poems do not present “realization” as an end, as so often typifies “spiritual” writing. Rather, they form a gentle laying out of possible paths, ways of seeing and being. Here, to be enlightened is to return from the heights of concept, of “realization,” back to the heart.
As in the poem “Heart,”
The heart has its treasons
that reason does not know—
why it must cheat, lie, even die
just to stand a chance at rebirth.
This wisdom of the heart transcends logic and yet, in Lababidi’s cosmos, is not at war with it so much as offering us a takeoff point for those questions unanswerable by logic or philosophy alone. Such “rebirth” and the truths that are revealed by seeking it need a “poetry of feeling” which appeals to the senses and the intuition, beyond the “labyrinth of self” and “the conceit of thought,/ the paralysis of analysis” (from “Dog Ideal”).
Nothing, of course, can be sublime or grand without first being tested. These poems take us through more difficult and meandering routes, to familiar places we imagined perhaps as of no significance. Such as in “Hotels:”
Come, check into these dens
you patrons of boredom, lust
and pay-per-view entertainment
Such privileged inmates
showered simulated warmth
impatiently switching channels
You do not see yourselves
as the night does, shadows
in a flickering monster screen
This is no didactic poem; rather, it makes us picture a world where everything is of consequence. In the poem “Inheritance,” observing what we inherit from our progenitors shows that consequences derive not from the reality we present to others as true, but all the defects and awkward facts we seek to cover up:
We inherit the things we abhor
the unsightly clunkers we scorned
and vowed to forsake as décor […]
Hardly, the heroic public stances, more defeatist private habits
precious little of the extolled self discipline, gleaming courage
or magnanimity. In their place, a host of colossal smallnesses
Yet from “a host of colossal smallnesses” can come, with a more enlightened use of the mind, something far better. Although one might expect that an accomplished aphorist, which Lababidi is, would focus on larger issues; such focus is no less influenced by his being an Egyptian, a place where one’s personal life is dominated in many ways by powerful and oppressive or demeaning forces. Writing in English, exiled not only from his home country to which he dedicates this volume but from its language, makes more compelling the sense of there being a grander vision to be found. Without didacticism, and with a sense of beauty and freedom both in life and in the craft of poetry itself, we are offered insights into such things as the root cause of social unrest, in “What Is to Give Light”:
When words lose their meaning
and an entire people their voice—
so they can neither laugh nor scream—
death and life begin to taste the same
Here words are in fact survival tools. Oppression deprives its victims of the means of human expression, even of words themselves, so essential to freedom. “Dissolving the inarticulate” has never been more urgent. And as Jane Hirschfield says in her essay “Spiritual Poetry,” the poetry that rings most true “plunges into the heart of the matter at hand, bearing witness in some essential way.” This is exactly what Lababidi does on matters of highest import, and we as readers, taken way beyond the borders of our selves, are grandly enriched by it.