Teaching the Ineffable: Learning to Pray by Yahia Lababidi
Most of Yahia Lababidi’s work has an unabashedly spiritual element to it, so it is no surprise Learning to Pray would be a subject within his writerly domain. Including aphorisms in the book must come naturally to one who began writing them while growing in Egypt, where, he says, “proverbs served as street poetry,” and were “like fossils of philosophies merging with living truths.” Within the realm of “living truths,” Lababidi mines his own experience for these poems and aphorisms that speak to the human impetus to worship and to the need to create art. As he states in the preface, citing a pervasive contemporary disillusionment with organized religion: “Poetry is how we pray now.”
This declaration has a fertile field of applause. As Sun Yung Shin wrote in “Poetry as Prayer and the Praxis of Emptiness,” “I feel like poetry, much like prayer, is that state of searching, of a willingness to surrender to the unknown.” Ellen McGrath Smith similarly says, “poetry is . . . yearning for connection.” Lababidi’s contribution is this aphorism: “Trust in longing to sing itself.” In this particular book of longing, Lababidi has found another mature, unexpected voice: that of a teacher who bids us toward another dimension.
How else to describe the speaker of “Night Bird,” who says:
How night descends, enveloping us in its great sacred wings,
with the promise of a deeper silence than day dared to offer.
. . .
Tread lightly, cover the smiling mirrors and sullen screens
don’t let any spirit escape through the 1,001 trap doors…
He gives us an example, then instructions. The narrator speaks to us from experience, yet the listener could just as well be himself. Of course, the best teacher is also necessarily the best listener, teaching thus by example. To that end, Lababidi uses more down-to-earth parables, as in the poem “What the Sunset Said,” where the speaker describes “two spiritual sentinels/ transfixed” by what “science calls . . . twilight calibrated magnetic compass,” which he tells us is really:
with their entire being, participating
silently, in a universal hymn
until they were pulled, as out of a viscous substance,
by the hungry cry of their nearby young
to become two feral pigeons, again
with this world considerations
parenting, foraging, keeping alive
and, dazed, they consented to their stations.
Here the pigeons have their own kind of prayer, transfixed, and then are, like us, inevitably drawn back into their “real world” of “parenting, foraging, keeping alive,” which reminds us of our own moments of transcendence from which we too are pulled “as out of a viscous substance” back into ordinary life, a tension between “two worlds” at the heart of living.
This also echoes the Quran, where the world of living things as spiritual beings who also pray is emphasized, as in this excerpt from Quran 24:41 referring to birds: “each has known his prayer and exaltation (of God).” I suspect Lababidi was not thinking of a Quranic reference per se, but rather its message: the sacredness of all life, imbued his way of thinking, which is the best way to respond to scripture, as what one hears incorporates into one’s memory (which, with the author’s Egyptian roots, likely includes the Quran). Lababidi gives us examples from that inner place of acquired knowledge, encouraging us to be aware and listen. How else can we discover, as if by accident, those longed-for connection with such indefinable surrender?
Here we are reminded of the father of modern literary criticism, Matthew Arnold, who says in his famous essay “The Study of Poetry,” “most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry. Science, I say, will appear incomplete without it.” Today’s critics may prefer the more popular novels and memoirs, but there is a significant trend among poets to view their work, as implied above, as having a higher purpose. McGrath Smith’s essay’s subtitle, “Forget the Jackpot—Writing as a Sacred Act,” speaks of poetry readings as “like a collective prayer.” This book fills such a need, not only in its attempt to express the ineffable, as one could say is poetry’s higher aim, but to do it in a way that brings it into a collective sphere. We are here supplicants at a reading, the poet bidding us to look where we refused to see, as in “Dawning”:
There are hours when every thing creaks
. . .
when inner furnishings defiantly shift
As decisively, and imperceptibly, as a continent
some thing will stretch, croak or come undone
. . .
Some piece of immobility will finally quit
suddenly nimble on wooden limbs
as fast as a horse, fleeing the stable.
Here the poem itself shows us something about what an epiphany is, using the metaphor of a house and its contents making those creaking sounds, which Lababidi then compares to plate tectonics (“a continent”), then “some piece of immobility” on the receiving end of these shifts, until it becomes alive—“as fast as a horse,” the “stable” being both noun and adjective modifying what he’s really referring to, some kind of dogma or inner resistance to a necessary letting-go in order to reach “a mysterious something.” This is one of Lababidi’s signature techniques, taking the reader in stages from the familiar, to something larger (a continent), to something entirely unexpected (a horse fleeing the stable) yet still bound to the familiar (the “wooden limbs” echoing the creaking house). This technique is also a metaphor for prayer itself: one begins with something familiar such as a wish or a ritual, then uses a larger reality or idea, such as God or the ineffable, to reach an epiphany of some kind, which ideally should astonish, coming as if out of nowhere. From there we return to the ordinary world now recharged or transformed, here exemplified by the horse breaking free on “wooden legs.” This technique is also used in his poem “What the Sunset Said” quoted above. As Ed Simon put it in his essay “Poetry is Prayer”:
when done well, prayer and poetry can both change you, but it’s difficult to put into words what that change was. A sublimity in that paradox, for prayer and poetry are defined by being words that gesture beyond words themselves.
And it is that beyond wherein lies the epiphany, just out of reach yet also satisfyingly there.
In his poem “You, Again,” Lababidi conjures that very tension between the silence and the getting-there, between the epiphany and its would-be vehicle, in this case unnamed, but addressed:
there you go, restraining the impulse
to say it all at once
even surrounded by silence
still filled with noise
now, having stirred some thrumming
hour when the moon throws
her full-bodied light
over all, like a silver screen night
of silent films, the whirring
of the reel.
Is he speaking to a part of himself or someone else, a muse or even God? I suspect it’s a conversation within himself, but in the end, the poem is its own witness to something indefinable with which the poet is engaged. Whatever the poet thinks it is, the poem itself is the vehicle, the container, describing itself and gesturing beyond its words. We can feel it, sense the sounds he conjures, but what we are left with is nothing more or less than the poem. You can’t take the prayer out of the poem or the poem out of the prayer. “Words that gesture beyond words themselves.” The silence conjured by what is not silent at all, verbalized by “the whirring / of the reel”; the silence filled with noise, at its heart both “still” and “filled.”
These poems ultimately teach us with examples, replying to the question “towards what something?” with a murmuration of “starlings,” the poem’s title “flitting like a great kite, giddy it got away / yet guided by a steady and invisible hand.” He gestures toward this “soundless symphony” performing its own poetry, its own collective prayer.
The aphorism, not only Lababidi’s specialty, but also an element in his poetry, is featured as a separate section in this book. This is the consummation of teaching itself. There is wisdom one could use in solving social injustice—“The starved think differently than the sated”—and uniquely worded advice—“Unheeded pricks of conscience might return as harpoons of circumstance”—and gestures to the genre—“Aphorisms respect the wisdom of silence by disturbing it, briefly.”
It’s difficult to resist quoting more of these, because although they are not considered a type of poetry, these aphorisms have the lighter touch of a poet. As Lababidi himself said in an interview, “The practitioners of the (American) aphorism tend to be poets, and bring to them a poetic sensibility.” A poet with the voice of a spiritual teacher or guide, which indeed is uncommon. Emily Dickinson’s poetry, with its unique knowing voice, also incorporates her inner sage. Such a voice teaches us that we can learn something valuable from it that is neither didactic nor explicit, but rather an invitation to enter the road less traveled or the hidden gate. Hidden perhaps, but toward which we are subtly drawn, because one finds there the inviolable; in the poet’s words, “Unlike prose, poetry can keep its secrets.”