Ayaz Pirani’s book Kabir’s Jacket has a Thousand Pockets is a collection of creative, intellectually flexible poems inspired by ginans, a kind of Indian devotional poem, in the contemplative tradition of Ismaili hymns and songs. Pirani writes supplications, laments, and parables in a form meant to be memorized and sung. While ginans are normally written in Indian languages, these English-language ginans explore diverse cultural terrain ranging from Sufi parables of birds to Western pop culture. The poems are not hermetically sealed off, instead requiring interpretation.
The poems play with cultural references from many homes, using “whatever you thought intangible / and beautiful / among your people” (“Commonwealth Tour, Nairobi, 1952”). Readers will find layers of meaning depending on whether they are more familiar with Shakespeare’s busybody character Polonious or with Nakalanki, a syncretic association of Hindu god Vishnu’s tenth incarnation with the historical leader Imam Ali who is revered by Muslim Shias. The nature of the poems is such that they work whether you understand one, the other, both or neither.
The far-flung places in the collection also work together and layer on one another between poems. “Sahara Hotel, Biloxi” begins with “a white-heat drive to the Gulf’s jaw” and is immediately followed by the opening line for the next poem “(White) City”: “Back home is a prize-fight / through snow to Rue Payette.” In both disparate places, opposite elements—heat, snow—both white, are described in terms of physical conflict. Inspired by 15th century poet-saint Kabir’s boundlessness, the layers of reading also invite postcolonial, diasporic complexity.
In the tradition of mystical, devotional poems, Pirani’s poems are instructive and often in imperative voice. Yet, while they are intellectual with a touch of the didactic, there is a repeated theme of not knowing and of loss: “Whoever my people are, wherever they are / I don’t know. Even if they think / they are my people, I also don’t know” (“Message, No Bottle”). In other poems, such as “Childless,” the loss begins as personal and poignant—“My fear is that we / missed out on a love / you get to hold”—and as elsewhere ends once again in didacticism: “All of you will end up missing / out on the kinds of love / you didn’t make.”
The work is not easily accessible through emotion or imagery, but rather through turning intellect inside out, rendering the reader a “disciple / … / in the house of the incomprehensible” (“The Birds”). We are privy to multiway conversations, mediated by a guru, that examine what this guru wants of us and deconstruct what we want of a guru: we are instructed to respect the search, and not to “turn it into an opera / by looking for the moist center” (“Pluto”). There is no moist centre to the collection—its voice is elliptical and dry, contemporary and quirky, magical and eccentric. The poems in this collection do not wash over you, but rather—like the best of mystical poetry—prod, tingle, knead, and undo. The aphoristic, conceptual, spare, and odd works are written with acute spiritual sight, and they confound and undo orthodoxies and certainties.
Rabea Murtaza is an instructor and writer living in Toronto, Canada.
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.