on Sukun: New and Selected Poems by Kazim Ali

I begin this review of Kazim Ali’s latest book, Sukun: New and Selected Poems, while attempting to process the daily news coming out of Palestine. I am thinking of Ali’s work alongside another recent book, Dark Days: Fugitive Essays by the poet Roger Reeves. Reeves theorizes a not-quite-utopian “Nowhere” as a place in which to seek refuge in the face of racial capitalism and empire ruled by logics of domination. Since the rhetoric of change within a flawed system is doomed to always keep masses subjected, Reeves argues—in conversation with many other contemporary Black, queer, and indigenous theorists—that change must come outside the logics of traditional rhetorical and organizational strategies. Reeves writes, “our freedom resides in this Nowhere, in this invisibility. Our freedom is invisible—not because it doesn’t exist, but because it has yet to be achieved.” While Reeves’s essays are primarily addressed to, for, and from Black communities in the U.S., he extends the “we” here to Native Americans, Arab Americans, and communities that have experienced oppression in America. He writes to those who want to question “who we are, what we want, and what we mean to each other” outside the cruel optimism of America. Reeves’s conception of “Nowhere” as a place in which to ask questions and imagine together offers a space in which to move outside the logics of possession and domination that extend out from the violence of imperial centers.  

Reading Sukun, Kazim Ali’s first book of new and selected poems, I had the experience of reading an oeuvre by a poet whose work has emerged from an embrace of “Nowhere” as a place in which to seek belonging. In the wake of British occupation, partition, and dispersal around the globe, much of South Asian diasporic literature orbits themes of cultural loss, dislocation, invisibility, and an anxiety around belonging. Bhanu Kapil famously wrote in Ban en Banlieue, “What, for example, is born in England, but is never, not even on a cloudy day, English?” Often, this feeling of being without home can lead to what scholar Vijay Prashad in The Karma of Brown Folk (2000) has termed “the inward turn” among South Asians in the U.S., a tendency to accept a reductionist sense of cultural identity and adopt exploitative systems of empire. Instead of chasing a desire to be seen as American, British, Canadian, or Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, or Sri Lankan, what if we refuse to seek community in these narrow, legible terms? In Sukun, we are treated to a mid-career arc of work that emerges from Ali’s poetic practice of inhabiting, rather than running from, “Nowhere.”

Sukun opens with a “Ternary” of new poems before launching into selections from Ali’s nine poetry books: The Far Mosque, The Fortieth Day, Bright Felon, Sky Ward, Silver Road, Inquisition, The Voice of Sheila Chandra, Crib and Cage: To Etel Adnan, and a new full-length collection, Tanpura, which appears for the first time in this book. Sukun concludes with an essay titled “Faith and Silence,” which was previously published in Ali’s 2010 book Orange Alert: Essays on Poetry, Art, and the Architecture of Silence. The title Sukun references a diacritical mark placed above Arabic consonants that denotes a “stillness” or “rest,” in which the character is unvoiced. This choice of title frames Ali’s poetry as emergent from a practice of seeking to inhabit this void. 

Ali’s questions around belonging, identity, and home stretch from his earliest book, The Far Mosque (2005), through his newest poems. We can trace three different modes of engagement with these questions as we move through Sukun. These modes are evident through a close reading of “Golden Boy,” the second poem in the opening ternary. Here, Ali’s language evokes the embodied practices that have informed his artistic life, his political engagements with place, and a capacious mode of relationality across difference that shapes his distinct, skillful shaping of sound. The opening lines root us in the duplicitous relationship with invisibility common to diasporic literature: “Almost afraid I am in the annals of history to speak / And by speaking be seen by man or God.” Two stanzas later, the bodily tension of invisibility links to political structures: “This nation a notion beneath the body hollowing / Its stomach to emptiness and in breadth / The river empties.” By reference to the embodied practice of fasting, the body hollows around the question of nation. Following from the preceding stanza, which situates the reader “Atop the Manitoban parliament building in Winnipeg,” this theorizing of nation as a notion to be deconstructed reverberates through the poem. Consonance and assonance unfurl naturally as though an eruption from the subconscious of the poet; “nation” moves to “notion,” which moves into the echoing “o’s” that mime the affect associated with “hollowing.” The reader’s stomach is emptied by the breathless opening to the stanza linking the reader’s body to the experience of Ali’s words. And all of this—the reader’s and poet’s bodies called into the construction of the poem—opens into a mode of relation that seeks connection without an erasure of difference. “And space we width one and other weight” employs homophonic play, but to an unexpected effect. Rather than a homophony that is sonorous, the visual and aural blur to cause the reader to slow down, stumble with their tongue and focus on each word. Instead of “one another,” “one and other” refuses to dissolve the space between self and other. The poem implies a togetherness that respects the “width” between differences, that the “weave woe we’ve woven” can come together in solidarity without conflating struggles. 

The body in motion with others across time, space, and various cultures is central to understanding Ali’s poetry. While Ali writes often about faith, and draws from his father’s ecumenical understanding of Islam, he also teaches yoga and has a background as a dancer. These are important notes for this “New and Selected Poems,” because it is impossible to talk about Ali’s contributions to literature without acknowledging that one of those contributions is how he makes the moving body—both his and the reader’s—a necessary element of the writing. 

One of the most evident embodied practices throughout Ali’s writing is, as mentioned above, the practice of fasting. Though not included in Sukun, Ali has published a book of nonfiction titled Fasting for Ramadan: Notes from a Spiritual Practice, which directly documents its influence on his work. Speakers in Ali’s early poems write, “You came to the desert, illiterate, spirit ridden / intending to starve” (“Gallery”) and “Hunger opens you to illiteracy / thirst makes clear the starving pattern” (“Ramadan”). The practice of fasting also leaves a mark on the physical form of his poetry. Take “Lostness” from The Fortieth Day, the title of which is a reference to the last moment before salvation in the Qur’an. “Lostness” is comprised of monostich stanzas, eschewing punctuation, with lines occupying the void, standing distinct from one another while their syntax bleeds together. The poem emulates a prayer that deifies Lostness. While much of spiritual poetry can fall too easily into metaphysical abstraction and speculation, Ali’s always returns to embodied experience. “Lostness” finds form in the embodiment of “lovers who will not touch each other but look out into space // thinking I do not belong in the world” while they are stilled by the “storm of news” and “circles of water and wanton violence.” While it is speculation to suggest that this results from Ali’s well-documented engagement with embodied practices of yoga, dance, and fasting, I move through poems like “Lostness” pulled by the gravity of the body as felt in sound. The tactile poetics demand one move their lips as they read, even if silently. The jaw must get involved, and so we begin to move along with a speaker who only comes to know themselves in transit: “but who are you / at the corner of San Anton and Duende / dark-eyed and holding your empty // no body knows you / hardly arriving and / already gone” (“Autobiography”). 

As Ali’s poems recruit the reader into movement, we trace the way his conceptual obsessions and formal experiments begin to court Nowhere. Through a poetic voice guided by bewilderment, detachment, and a desire to listen, Ali approaches Nowhere paradoxically through writing about specific places. In excerpts from Bright Felon, Ali’s hybrid autobiography, we encounter a form that recurs later in Ali’s career—particularly in Silver Road and his most recent work. These poems employ long lines that vary in their syntactical structure—sometimes a sentence, sometimes not, sometimes enjambed, sometimes end-stopped. At times the lines bleed into each other, and at others they shift abruptly in a mode of juxtaposition we often see in lyric essays. The title of these poems is usually the proper noun of a specific place. Take “Marble Hill,” a poem about the northernmost neighborhood of Manhattan, and informed by another bodily practice—butoh dance—which the speaker mentions as a form they want to practice: 

What is my war? Not the one you think. 

I won’t say. 

Constant state, sure as the white noise on the television after the 
station has gone off the air. 

But who goes off the air any more. 

And whose air.

Came to Marble Hill then.

This form follows an improvisatory impulse, bouncing from speculation to scientific fact, and then to specific lived experience for the lyric speaker, whom we can safely identify with the poet. There is a deliberate opacity the speaker wishes to create in “I won’t say” what their “war” is. But we get the sense that it has to do with questions of possession by the line “And whose air. // Came to Marble Hill then.” As we move through the speaker’s autobiographical experience of living in Marble Hill, we get the sense that “the war” is about what happens to the land, air, and water we live upon, and who gets to control it. 

“Marble Hill” is a precursor to much of the recent work Ali has done, including his recent journalistic memoir Northern Light: Power, Land, and the Memory of Water (2022), in which he confronts the true history of his hometown—Jenpeg in Manitoba, Canada—which was constructed by Manitoba Hydro in order to build and support a dam in which Ali’s father worked. The book documents Ali’s desire to come into a new mode of relation with that place, to acknowledge both its effect on him and the unknowing effect that his family’s presence had on the home of the Pimicikamak people. The poems included in Sukun are driven by similar questions about how we inhabit place, how place comes to have its own history. The poem “Carlisle”—for Carlisle, Pennsylvania, site of the first Indian Boarding School in the United States, set up in 1879—theorizes different ways places come to have histories through our inhabitation—our daily habits of transit, the colonized history, and the history that is buried, sometimes literally in a graveyard.  

You know without explanation whose graveyard that was that was torn up. 
You understand the color of their skin that enabled their desecration and what station they occupied in this community while they lived. 
Why should I spell out every little thing. 
There are things about a person’s body you do not know, the things it craves and loves. All the sordid things we could never tell, the cheap things, tawdry and paltry. 
Carlisle where soldiers are trained and so-called “Indians” were brought to be forced to forget. 
Never did I think when I arrived there that it would be the place I would sort myself out and dare actually to speak. 
Nothing happened there but time.

Ali writes of time in the essay “January Is a Month with Two Faces” from Silver Road, “But time will cruelly divest us of our contexts throughout our lives and we are constantly supposed to invent new ones or see the relationships that once existed in both past and future tenses.” This critique of linear time informs how Ali’s poems wield lyric time. Many of these poems counteract the alienation of linear time by blurring past, present, future alongside space and place. The forms in Silver Road through to Inquisition and Tanpura warp places, cultures, and periods through juxtaposition, enjambment, leaps between prose and shorter poetic utterance, sparse punctuation, and breathless, long lines stitched throughout absences of text which signify that “Every time and place exists inside one human body.” The poetics imply that every time and place can exist inside one poem. I have written elsewhere about Ali’s invented longer forms, such as the Hesperine and his “broken” crown of forty sonnets in The Voice of Sheila Chandra. “Hesperine for David Berger” reappears in Sukun, proposing an unlikely brotherhood between 1972 Olympian David Berger and current Olympic hopeful Mohammad al-Khatib, all while linking their stories to painter Imran Qureshi, former Yale-employee-turned-protester Corey Menafee, singer Amjad Sabri, John Coltrane, and physicist Stephon Alexander. These audacious, spanning linkages showcase a mode of relation outside the logics of nationalism with a respect for the opacity each of these stories and individuals maintain. 

As we cascade into the final third of the book, we begin to understand that entering such a poetics of relation with the world requires what Reeves calls the work of relinquishment. Ali’s experience of diaspora and queerness informs his relationship to relinquishment. In the poem “Pulse,” from his newest poems, Ali writes, “Known in two genders like Orlando whose tongue newly woke // To pronounce any word for god or man means to enter violence’s fold // No oath sworn to save no salvation no salve no valor no ovation no nation.” To speak within a violent nation in the colonizer’s tongue is to “enter violence’s fold.” To wake up from the violent dream of nation while still subjected to its strictures, and speaking its tongue, requires an improvisatory impulse coded in the sonic and visual movement of “No oath sworn to save no salvation no salve no valor no ovation no nation.” The “o’s” carry the line, which moves of a subconscious, palpating impulse to find the right words. The “s” in “sworn” propels the movement to “save no salvation no salve,” which then listens to and responds to the “v” of salve toward “no valor no ovation” culminating in “no nation.” It’s as if the tongue is a hand in the cave of the mouth, covered in darkness, but feeling its way along walls for a fissure through which to emerge. The open mouth, the void that it represents, is a portal to “nowhere.” 

Poems such as the one above and the project of Crib and Cage revel in sound as a way to create new textured and mangled melodies in uncertainty. Ali’s capacious and world-building relationality finds voice through the unexpected music his improvisatory impulses create. Ali’s long hybrid poems meander lost and bewildered through the walls and tubes of the body, through the borders and waters of the world, giving form to the hands feeling their way through the caves of these strange carvings of land we call nations. And these capacious meanderings feed emergent songs of unique, haunting, and malleable songs. The sonic, more than sense, drives revelations for how to orient oneself toward collective freedom in this world. There is no better revelation than that of the book’s eponymous poem, “Sukun”: 


The world is wound
Around me wound
That blessing that approaches 

Reproach that world that would 

Wind wood wind wound
How thunder would sunder 

The sound there sown there
Is shown shone sewn
To a one that wood
Remain remains still
Won in the world could
Will I one will I shunned
Son soon swoon sukun

The improvisatory impulse plays with English’s absurd homophones. This play courts the imaginary into new modes of perception. In the poem’s refusal to bend to semantic legibility “reproach(es) that world that would.” It seeks “a one that wood / Remain remains still / Won in the world.” From the subject positioning of being “shunned”—perhaps by race, place of birth, queerness, or one of the many other ways in which empire chooses to shun some—the “son,” presumably Ali or another lyric speaker or reader who identifies with the poem, will “soon swoon sukun.” The implied future tense paired with the sibilance of each word in the last line and the long oo sounds creates a lullaby into a utopia in which the queer poet of color can rest. 

Ali writes, “I’m no scientist but I have a song / It vibrates neither in seven notes nor twelve but in all the space between / Usually thought of only as a whine or hum.” This song, Ali’s songs, emerge from Nowhere, because the place in which all the shunned folks in this colonized world can safely rest doesn’t exist. Not yet anyway. Or rather, not in the places in which we are taught to look such as Pennsylvania, or Winnipeg, or Cairo, or Lahore, or Palestine. Reeves writes of “the work of relinquishment. Of entering Nowhere.” Ali’s songs, by abandoning the illogical demand for sense in a violent world, perform this work. They invite our mouths and bodies to move into new patterns. This movement opens us to new forms of relating with the world. Ali’s singular poetic gifts presented in Sukun teach poets and readers who desire a future outside the binds of this ongoing hypercolonial world begat by logics of dominion and possession. Through Sukun, Ali’s poems extend a hand to hold as we wait outside the door to Nowhere, eager to enter together, to listen, and move into new collective futures. 


Sukun: New and Selected Poems. By Kazim Ali. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press. 2023. 318 pp. $28.00.


Rushi Vyas is the author of the 2023 poetry collection When I Reach for Your Pulse (Four Way Books and Otago University Press) and co-author of the collaborative chapbook Between Us, Not Half a Saint with Rajiv Mohabir (Gasher Press, 2021). Born in Toledo, Ohio, he now lives in Ōtepoti Dunedin in Aotearoa New Zealand.