EDITORIAL NOTE: The essay below was first published in 2007. Along with part 1 of this 2-part post, and a new art series dedicated to the children of Afghanistan, this updated text is presented as part of a series of reflections on the potential impact of Jelaluddin Rumi’s powerful legacy upon the region of his birth and those who have fled it. (If you missed part 1 you can read it by clicking here.)
“The lovers crawl in and out of your alley,
I first fell in love with the poetry of Jelaluddin Rumi while working as a bookseller (as discussed in Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind). That was when the unparalleled lyrical grace, philosophical brilliance, and spiritual daring of his work took me completely by surprise. The impact of its soulful beauty and the depth of its profound humanity were so intense they prompted me to spontaneously compose poetry without being aware I was doing so––until later reading the compositions in my notebook and wondering how they got there.
Writing without realizing I had been writing was no small matter to me, so I wrote Coleman Barks, one of the renowned translators/interpreters of Rumi’s work, to ask what he thought about it. Barks was kind enough to telephone me and said he was aware of many instances where people with a deep passion for Rumi’s work found themselves spontaneously composing, reciting, or singing poetry.
That knowledge, coming from the man whose celebrated “versions” of “Maulana’s” writings helped make Rumi a bestselling poet in the United States, made me feel better about my own experience. It also forever defined the sense of blessed enchantment I’ve come to associate with all things related to Rumi. Consequently, I couldn’t help expecting and yearning for some semblance of that enchantment as I read the novel A MOTH TO THE FLAME, THE LIFE OF THE SUFI POET RUMI, by Ph.D. Connie Zweig.
The Beginning of an Extraordinary Life
From the first page to the last, there is much to admire in Zweig’s amazing recreation of the places, people, and events that shaped the life and work of Rumi. The author skillfully brings to life the everyday colors, activities, and diverse religious customs of the Middle East in the thirteenth century. She also––having been for many years a student of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sufism––proves more than a little adept at describing various states of psychological and spiritual consciousness.
A Moth to the Flame begins as Rumi’s father, the spiritual leader Bahaoddin Velad, is dying. The future author of the massive and now classic book of world literature, the Mathnawi (or Masnavi) is left to face life alone in Konya, where threats of war and invasion increase daily. As Rumi takes on the mantle of leadership and enters into marriage and fatherhood, Zweig exercises her privilege as author to make readers privy to his thoughts and most intimate moments.
Those who prefer their spiritual heroes presented in their basic humanity may nod approvingly at the portrayal of Rumi’s consummation of his two marriages while those who empower the grace of their own spirituality with that gleaned from his may feel differently (reviewers on different platforms since the book’s publication in 2006 have demonstrated as much). In one sense, these brief scenes––in which Rumi experiences both disappointment and erotic intoxication––appear crucial to illustrating the contrast between the nature of carnal desire and the elevated spiritual consciousness towards which Rumi was evolving. In another, they do not, and become even more questionable when the sexual focus is placed on his wife Kira’s fantasies regarding her mystically preoccupied husband.
A Sacred Friendship
It is difficult sometimes to determine whether A Moth to the Flame is intended as a celebration of Rumi’s life, as a feminist critique of it, or simply a balanced account presented in the form of fiction. Much of the book’s substance is a matter of historical record while much of it is a matter of interpretation of that record.
By nearly every account, the Rumi now famed for his boundless defense and espousal of life as a manifestation of divine love would be unknown to the world had it not been for a spiritual transformation triggered by his meeting, and subsequent friendship with, the wandering dervish known as Shams of Tabriz. That fact is a dominant theme in A Moth to the Flame as well. But it is often difficult to understand exactly why or how this is so when the overwhelming impression of both Rumi and Shams in these pages is that of two men whose esoteric obsessions caused devastating––even fatal––psychological harm to those who loved them, particularly the women in their lives.
Consequently, we note with stunned sorrow the forced marriage of Rumi’s young daughter Kimiya to the much older Shams; and the painful desire-filled loneliness that Rumi’s wife Kira suffers while her husband engages, seemingly to the exclusion of everything else, in sacred conversations with Shams. Readers even find themselves empathizing with Rumi’s son Aloeddin’s stinging sense of rejection when his relationship with his father appears to be obliterated by the presence of Shams in their lives. Eventually that rejection leads to Shams’ murder.
As plausible as these scenarios may be, they leave the reader wondering about the majesty of that Shams who was described as “one of the poles of the age,” and who was not only resented and feared as he is in A Moth to the Flame, but who was adored for his love and knowledge of God. Likewise, the novel gives us a true enough account of Shams’ initial departure from Konya after first meeting Rumi, but says nothing of the legendary celebration during which people in the streets spontaneously recited and sang poetry upon his return. We learn instead about guards who are executed because they lied about having killed Shams. The degree to which Zweig’s work as a Jungian therapist and an explorer of “the shadow side of spiritual and religious life” influenced the substance of her narrative is worth readers’ consideration.
A Nation of Lovers
Possibly the most inspiring scene in A Moth to the Flame comes at the end when, once again, Mongols and crusaders threaten to conquer Konya. Rumi, after a lifetime of devotion and sacrifice, experiences this revelation: “I am a lover of God, and those who follow me, Muslims, Christians, or Jews, we are a nation of lovers. Our religions divide us, but our yearning for God, our himma, unites us, whether we are Muslims longing to join Allah, Christians longing to be embraced by Christ, or Jews yearning for the Messiah.”
He decides to “make jihad in my own way,” which means standing, like Moses, rooted unshakably in his faith and watching as Divinity literally fights and wins his battles for him. One does not need to be a U.N. ambassador or professor of religious studies to note the importance of Rumi’s understanding and application of the concept of jihad. For him, it meant battling the “nafs,” or weaker worldly qualities within oneself in order to achieve a greater sense of unity and co-creativity with Divinity as opposed to launching a supposed “holy war” against those who do not share one’s religious beliefs.
Achieving this divine union relegated all else to secondary importance. This point is significant not only for those duped into believing that blowing up themselves and others is the ultimate act of faith. It is also important for those readers who, following the devastations of September 11, 2001, needlessly questioned their passion for writings by Rumi. Among the stronger aspects of Zweig’s novel is its demonstration that Rumi’s literary and spiritual voice is one which champions unity through love over domination through coercion.
Despite any criticisms offered above, just as it states on the book’s back cover, A Moth to the Flame is clearly presented “in the tradition of Siddhartha and The Last Temptation of Christ” as “a mythic story of the human soul.” This distinction is necessary because while the book is categorized as fiction, the subtitle reads “The Life of the Sufi Poet Rumi,” which could lead some to interpret it as historical biography. The more accomplished volume along those lines remains Franklin D. Lewis’ Rumi, Past and Present, East and West, the Life, Teachings and Poetry of Jalâl al-Din Rumi (though Brad Gooch’s Rumi’s Secret: The Life of the Sufi Poet of Love is a popular volume some readers consider more accessible).
A Moth to the Flame does contain a very useful appendix timeline of events pertaining to Rumi’s life. Moreover, translations of Rumi’s poetry by Jonathan Star and Shahram Shiva, utilized throughout, help make the novel as a whole an exceptional work of literary art well worth reading and cherishing.
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“Loving, Happy, Untamed, Passionate"
Somebody call the cops!
My muse has been stolen
I repeat my muse has been stolen…
The pain of this crime is felt in each stanza as she dramatically describes the sleep deprivation and loss of creativity it has caused. Yet there is also gentle self-deprecating humor while observing:
I feel too normal
I need my abnormality back…
The depth of her need is amplified with the following simultaneously pleading and demanding lines:
I want it back the way it was taken
Opinionated, LOUD, wild, confused
Loving, happy, untamed, passionate
Smart enough, encouraging, kinda shy
Uncorrupted by the norms of society
Unpierced by the actions of my peers
AND ALL MINE
In the poems which flow immediately afterwards, titled “Nicking,” “Lost Scared Afraid,” and “My Muse,” the poet’s attachment to what most inspires her can be understood at different times in different ways. In one moment, it is an addiction of a healthy variety rather than a destructive one. In the next, it reads and feels a lot like a love affair brutally interrupted by the kind of heinous disregard which too often in our current over-technologized world leads to tragic consequences.
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In the Tradition of Baring One’s Soul
Instead of offering strategies for navigating the painful uncertainties of her personal journey, the Savannah, Georgia-born poet simply presents her own efforts at balancing them. In this way, she self-identifies with humanity as a whole rather than with a single segment of it. Near the end of the volume, she notes the following in a letter to herself:
I know you
From your favorite color
To your deepest secrets
From your untold feelings
To your wildest dreams
I care about
Your every word
There is a tremendous amount to appreciate in this first edition of Aurie Cole’s debut volume as her pen makes its free-styling way through shock and despair toward hope and self-determination. However, it has to be said as well that serious readers of poetry are likely to find a number of typographical errors distracting. These are understandable enough because talented young poets rarely receive the kind of publishing support which ensures the absence of such mistakes. (How many, after all, such as the celebrated Amanda Gorman are likely to receive an invitation to recite their poetry at a presidential inauguration and subsequently get Oprah Winfrey to write a foreword for their book, basically guaranteeing its status as a number 1 bestseller?)
Other critically-minded readers may question the absence of poems dealing with such timely issues as the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, or Black Lives Matter. In a way, it may be argued that the more deeply personal writings inspired by the poet’s muse are a kind of response to these very concerns as they illustrate the power of sheltering within the integrity of one’s own sanity in a world knocked off balance by myriad forms of chaos. The important thing may be the knowledge that Talks Between My Pen and Muse is only a first important literary step for Aurie Cole and readers hopefully can look forward to many more writings from her pen and muse in the future.
Author of Greeting Flannery O'Connor at the Back Door of My Mind
Creator of Authentic Silk-Featherbrush Artstyle
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“The most shocking moment in my life was when I was told that in two days I was leaving my country. It was a small moment in in which I felt that the world was falling on top of me.” ––English Learning High School Student (from the book Where the Rainbow Ends)
The extraordinary significance of those words is demonstrated repeatedly in the collection of brief stories written by more than 90 anonymous English Learning Students in the Oklahoma City Public Schools system. These brave young authors range from fifth-graders to high-schoolers.
Intense debates regarding the migration of populations around the world have been ongoing for the better part of a decade but the voices of youth whose lives are most impacted by those debates are, as indicated, rarely acknowledged. Within this volume, they come through loudly and understandably enough. The word ‘understandably’ is emphasized here because the editors have very wisely left speech patterns and vocabulary as originally penned. These are, after all, individuals who are slowly adjusting to new ways of comprehending, relating, and behaving on different levels.
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Those of us already proficient in the English language might wrinkle our brows when reading certain sentences with obviously faulty grammar. But we know what the authors mean and these sentences help us understand the gigantic challenge of uprooting oneself from a known cultural environment and reestablishing your life in a new unfamiliar locale. The most hard-hitting statements go beyond such considerations as syntax and brings to mind what the great Harlem Renaissance leader W.E.B. Du Bois called the worst blow which people of African descent suffered during slavery in America: the destruction of the Black Family.
Human migrations forced by desperation in our modern times have resulted in similar devastation; however, in the pages of Where the Rainbow Ends we experience painful separations as well as healing reunions. So it is that one student recalls prior to leaving El Salvador: “My sister went to the USA when I turned 4 years old but she got a VISA to get here so I have no memories of her.” The opportunity to make new memories would not come easily but it would come. Another student from Honduras demonstrated the importance of such a prospect when declaring: “And I learned to love my dad after seven years I was separated from him.”
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Hopefully, additional volumes or ones similar to Where the Rainbow Ends will present readers with the flip side of the immigration coin by sharing the voices of different Americans’ experiences of adapting to immigrants. That is something I attempted to do in the story “A Brazilian Thanksgiving in Savannah” published in Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah. For the time being, it’s good enough to know my quote at the beginning of Where the Rainbow Ends has played some small role in helping the student authors amplify their voices and educate the world about the realities of one of the most consequential concerns of our volatile historical times.
author of Greeting Flannery O'Connor at the Back Door of My Mind
co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
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She followed the novel Wise Blood with a collection of short stories, A Good Man is Hard to Find, in 1955; the novel The Violent Bear it Away in 1960; and the short story collection Everything That Rises Must Converge ––a book on which she worked virtually right up until her death–– published posthumously in 1965. In between the writing and the publishing, she marshaled her strength to travel (aided by crutches) and lecture, write articles for popular magazines (for which she was generally well paid), and write numerous letters to friends, supporters, and critics.
(To read part 1 of this story please click here. For part 2 click this link.)
The O’Connor readers and scholars now know would not have been possible without a tightly woven network of friends and family members who supported her work through belief in, and out of love for, her. After illness derailed her plans to live the life of a postmodern New York author, she famously surrounded herself with peacocks at Andalusia, her family’s farm, and allowed the world to come to her just as much as she continued to embrace it on the page and through speaking engagements. Fellow authors, theologians, aspiring writers, general admirers, and would-be lovers in the form of men as well as women often made their way to her front door.
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Mother and Daughter Together
As such, she did the kinds of things caregivers tend to do when committed to ensuring as high a quality of life as they can for someone they love: setting aside a thermos of hot coffee at night to share with Flannery in the morning, running a farm to secure an income, tolerating the droppings and cries of beautiful but annoying peacocks, traveling abroad with her daughter even when she herself was ill, and standing guard at her hospital room door to ensure a chance at rest and possible recovery.
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In Praise of Those Who Wait
Then, approached by an editor in 2003 about a biography on O’Connor, it clearly was not an offer he could refuse. A dream which had been deferred for more than two decades finally saw the light of day in 2009 and by most accounts it was very much worth the wait.
Aberjhani is co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance as well as author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah and Greeting Flannery O'Connor at the Back Door of My Mind.
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If you missed part 1 of this post and want to check it out please click here. Part 2 begins now:
McNaughton's nods to the late "Imaginary Man of Las Cruces," poet Nicanor Parra, in the poems "¿ENTONCES QUÉ?" and "(COLIN CHRISTOPHER" (open parentheses per original) should not surprise anyone. Given the company his pen has kept over the decades, it would be too much of a stretch to say he and Parra share the same antipoetic approach to their craft. There nevertheless are similarities which reveal a kinship between their aesthetic instincts. The humor employed by both poets at times oscillates between comic hilarity and nightmare darkness. It can assume the form of thinly-disguised self-deprecation or more overtly-poised social and political satire.
If Parra's is a poetry of anguished laughter and mournful tears as some have suggested, then it may be McNaughton's is an equally intense but more restrained verse of amused hopeful smiles and astonished frowns. Both employ a minimum of embellishments to achieve maximum provocation. Both balance ironic incongruities with subtle personal resolve in a manner similar to the way jazz musicians utilize highly-charged counter-rhythms to produce captivating performances. Both, as Parra put it, incorporate "the hideousness and the beauty of the world" (Marie-Lise Gazarian Gautier, Interviews with Latin American Writers, 1989). Therefore, naked pain and uncertain joy play crucial roles in rendering disturbing truths aimed at disrupting, or reclaiming, different kinds of power.
The narrator of "CHILDHOOD + YOUTH" laments, via "figures of speech," wars of different kinds which have never ended, and, numerous bridges burned while waging them. He finds his understanding of these interior and exterior traumas challenged by doubt, but then reaffirmed by an authoritative witness who knows what it means to survive unnerving cycles of destruction and rebirth. Taking a trip "to David Highsmith's furniture store," he buys a copy of Hector France's Musk, Hashish and Blood:
"...Then I went to my place
to read the story and smoke hashish and
drink whisky and set another bridge ablaze.
Standing on it I met Virgil. You know, I said
I thought all those figures of speech you used
were real figures of speech. They are, he said.
Pay no attention to fools. Here, come with me.
I have a bridge to see to, and I wouldn't
mind some company. Bring your strike anywheres."
Such healing, empowering, and time-bending solidarity can only come with dedicated practices of remembrance and recognition, among the hallmarks of McNaughton's extensive oeuvre. As the late writer Benjamin Hollander put it in "The Pants of Time," his definitive review of TINY WINDOWS, "McNaughton’s work achieves a testament of personal observation embedded in a trans-historical tendance of the imagination." Moreover: "He discovers history for himself anew..." (Boston Review, June 5, 2015).
He also increases its capacity for simultaneously preserving autobiographical identity and expanding notions of community to accommodate kindred spirits occupying physical and non-physical forms. Thus the poem "AS EFFECT AN ECHO" is less an elegy in which McNaughton bids farewell to Hollander than it is the written continuation of a relationship:
"The back door hammer clubbed my friend, the Jew,
Ben Hollander. I can't part from Ben. They
say one must part who don't understand the heart
of the friend, it knows something else, something
about containment, about the stars at night,
about the heart that contains them..."
The stars in the heart comprise the sweet substance of enduring friendships, or alliances, and even less-binding associations, which take on a kind of sacredness for the way they inform and sustain each other’s' personalities. They reject the insanity proposed by stars as symbols of genocide sewn onto the clothes of Hollander's ancestors in Nazi concentration camps as they do all restrictions placed on basic human freedoms and civility.
'The World's Suppositions of Poetry'
In "OLD SOCKS" our narrator confronts the reality of mortality and what it has meant within the context of life lived up to this point. While wrestling with "my very own tangle/ of being," the poet reflects on successions of wars which have threatened the innate integrity of that being. In contrast, friendship has helped guard against the threat by reinforcing the front lines of self:
"...So I have Bill's
back-up for my opinion of Hobbyhook,
Bill's authority, his knowing smile, his
eye twinkle. Queer, how this poem has turned
into Bill's hats. Bill's ears. Tells you something
about how little truth matters when it
comes to trust. Oceans come, oceans go, they
used to say, fishing for flounder, floundering
they called it, they still do, obviously..."
Whether writing autobiographically or assuming the voice of another seems less important than the invitation to celebrate shared histories, friendships, lives, knowledge, acts of compassion, or acts of remembrance. These endow life with a quality of being which--despite media glamorizations of artificial presences in a world where such creations too often diminish capacities for actual thinking or organic human interaction--seem to lose more value by the day. Likewise, different literary strategies may have their irrefutable uses and powers, but in the end they too are floating along with everything else Somewhere in the Stream of discoveries and encounters as we navigate shifting currents, or dodge the increasing fury of hurricanes, and hold on for the sake of poetry and each other.
author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
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