Poetry Wednesday: Rumi

Let the lover be disgraceful, crazy,
absentminded. Someone sober
will worry about things going badly.
Let the lover be.

I remember half-listening to NPR about four years ago—I think I was in the kitchen, scrubbing gunk out of the oven, in anticipation of a visit from my MIL—when a woman with a beautiful accent started reciting a few stanzas of poetry. I dropped what I was doing and listened.

It was possibly the most intimate, erotic poem I’d ever heard, like something that is whispered between lovers only when love is absolute.

Not something one usually hears on public radio, especially, as I discovered, on a program called “Speaking of Faith.”*

The woman was Fatemeh Keshavarz, who is, among many other things, chair of the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages & Literatures in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. The poem was written by a 13th century poet and Sufi mystic named Rumi, who, among many other things, inspired the creation of the whirling dervish, an ecstatic dancing meditation.**

Oh. All right then.

Dr. Keshavarz mentions during the interview that Rumi saw no boundary between sensual and emotional love and knew that longing is a powerful force. All I know is that the imagery of Rumi’s poetry is achingly physical, even when it speaks of spiritual love:***

If anyone asks you
how the perfect satisfaction
of all our sexual wanting
will look, lift your face
and say,
Like this.

When someone mentions the gracefulness
of the night sky, climb up on the roof
and dance and say,
Like this.

If anyone wants to know what “spirit” is,
or what “God’s fragrance” means,
lean your head toward him or her.
Keep your face there close.
Like this.

When someone quotes the old poetic image
about clouds gradually uncovering the moon,
slowly loosen knot by knot the strings
of your robe.
Like this.

If anyone wonders how Jesus raised the dead,
don’t try to explain the miracle.
Kiss me on the lips.
Like this. Like this.

When someone asks what it means
to “die for love,”
point here.

If someone asks how tall I am, frown
and measure with your fingers the space
between the creases on your forehead.
This tall.

The soul sometimes leaves the body, then returns.
When someone doesn’t believe that,
walk back into my house.
Like this.

When lovers moan,
they’re telling our story.
Like this.

I am a sky where spirits live.
Stare into this deepening blue,
while the breeze says a secret.
Like this.

When someone asks what there is to do,
light the candle in his hand.
Like this.

How did Joseph’s scent come to Jacob?

How did Jacob’s sight return?
A little wind cleans the eyes.
Like this.

When Shams comes back from Tabriz,
he’ll put just his head around the edge
of the door to surprise us
Like this.

I won’t pretend to know all the symbols or references in this poem. I’d like to, but it isn’t necessary—the poem simply is and the feelings are, and the whisper is there, in my ear.

Like this.

*The podcast is here in case you’re interested.

** I’m not particularly interested in discussing or debating religious beliefs here. I gots mine and you gots yours (or not, as the case may be). But in my opinion, refusing to experience Rumi’s poetry on religious grounds would be a grave loss. I’m just saying.

***Translated by Coleman Barks and John Moyne. There are other translations available, but not where I can put my hands on them at the moment.

Image taken in Isfahan, Iran by milads2001