Poetry reading can be a lonely activity and it may sometimes help, despite the pleasure of solitude, to have a gentle conversation with a fellow appreciator of verse.
It is hoped my comments will perform this ordinary companionable role. They may also at times help to explicate some feature of a poem that proves puzzling, although the poems in this volume are simple and straightforward.
My comments spring from a deep appreciation of Francis’ achievement and do not make any great hermeneutical claims. If consulted, they should always lead to a rereading of the poem itself. A poem is not finally something to be studied and understood rather than experienced. It is to be received in the heart with recognition and joy.
Repeated reading helps in appreciating the integrity of the writing and the freshness of the verse. The techniques are not particularly revolutionary. A major part of the poetry is written in rhymed couplets. Much of the imagery – the wine, the dust, is drawn from traditional Iranian poets. The ideas are not far removed from the Sermon on the Mount. Yet here we have an honest and authentic voice which can draw an immediate recognition from fellow seekers. I feel it is one of those rare volumes which, like Hafiz’ work, can be opened at random to find insight and inspiration.
And more than this, it is about finding as well as seeking, a testimony of the extraordinary directness available to seekers in this grace-filled period of Avataric advent.
We have waited all night for you, and now the dawn is come.
From distant places we came—there can be no returning home.
We know it is morning because of the dawn’s cool fingers
Upon our hot eyelids, and we can hear her sweet singers.
We cannot be sure now whether it was our own yearning
That expected you, or you promised—it matters not in this burning.
Neither have we your brightness, nor will we behold the new day—
We lost our eyes in the darkness and are adrift on tears’ waves’ way.
Blind witless wretches whose song the wind carries with the seagull’s cry;
Bold fellows brave enough to leave home, but not daring enough to die.
Still, we are wrapped in a glory to all other men denied;
We once touched the hem of your dress—this is our spirit’s pride.
What is it to us that somewhere the world’s sun will presently rise—
Sometime this darkness of nowhere will be lit by the light of your eyes.
The voyagers here experience no ordinary darkness and await no ordinary sunrise. Without the light from the Divine Beloved they are lost in a nothingness that is nowhere.
All on board for the voyage. Francis reaches out with the ‘we’ to include the reader in the company of the crazy voyagers. He assumes that we are in the same boat, not daring enough to die to self yet having lost all old satisfactions and bearings with a glimpse of the transcendent other. As Stanza 3 says we cannot even be sure what objective basis there is for our hope or how much is only imagination.
No kudos for having embarked; these crazy mariners possess only their yearning. But this is enough; even without objective certainty it is enough to be ‘wrapped in a glory to all other men denied’. No cosy pride here in belonging to a club of faith. These are the sanyasins of a new order. The present is darkness, inspired by memory and desperate hope.
The metaphor of an epic voyage through an endless ocean will be one of the unifying themes which give power to the book as a whole. One source of inspiration is The Odyssey and the long wanderings of its hero to find home and fulfillment. But we are worse off, our voyage is an inner one where ordinary home and sunrises are abandoned. We have become blind to the sights. The mention of hot eyelids and blindness suggests the cliché ‘blinded with scalding tears’ but note how subtly this is presented in the poem.
It is a poem of waiting without impatience and longing. Even our veiled glimpse of the truth is utterly precious.
Notice how the stops and pause in stanza 1 give a feeling of finality to the poet’s calm statement. This is just how it is.
Like many poems in the ghazal tradition the poem is not primarily addressed to us but to the Beloved.