The Poetics of Sacred Space in Dujie Tahat's Salat

Salat by Dujie Tahat

Tupelo Press, November 2020. $12.95


1.


As Palestinian-American poet Lena Khalaf Tuffaha notes in her blurb, "Salat is the second pillar of the face and the structure that frames the believers' days." It is a daily practice, a particular positioning that invokes, calls to, and prepares the mind for the day. By framing this chapbook in salats, Dujie Tahat brings longing to inflect "the angles of our return." Salat pays homage to the poet’s experience as a Filipino-Jordanian immigrant by making use of form to disrupt what readers expect from the assimilated page.


Raised in a mixture of Filipix Catholic and Islamic spiritual commitments, Tahat has described the Catholic Church and the Mosque as frames for entering the American language. "My faith relates to poetry because to me it's like where language meets the body and how this body that I have came to be,” Tahat said in a recent interview. Each poem is a salat, shaped by the ritual, and yet inhabited by the individual concerns, heartbreak, joys, and worries of the narrator.


2.


The first poem, "salat to define the terms of ritual," creates the room of the body in which these poems take place. Let's start with the form, its intense, corporeal habitation. The physicality of the salat is indicated in brackets which provide the ritual’s instructions, beginning with the call to listen, represented in the Arabic word adhan which alerts believers that prayer is going to begin in the Mosque:


[adhan]


A calling, a culling, a billowing

minaret banner, a cigarette starter thrown

out a moving car window to prove a point.


[standing]


Rapt, trapped, evangelical

about the whole thing

really, hinged

on guilt and hoping

you'll sign the papers before

the door slams shut.


[bowing] (3)


"All this searching for my heart to be broken," Tahat continues, a few stanzas later. The ritual here persists across time and space, through heartbreak. The land may change but the salat remains stable. In these poems, one senses how the body's motions become a sort of house, a structure in which form is predictable, comforting, permissible; the house, itself, unchanged by the building or the country in which it exists. The salat takes up space and it looks elsewhere, towards a homeland where all is reunified.


In Tahat's poems—and in salat—the ritual practice ends with the statement "[salaam alaikum]," ٱلسَّلَامُ عَلَيْكُمْ, which means "Peace be upon you" in Arabic. This invokes a blessing upon the one to whom it is said. In these words, in this ritual signified by time, space, and the presence of others, the last part of salat unifies and strengthens.


Home is a reunifying gaze, and salat establishes this connection. Salat is a ritual habit which one in-habits—a sort of structure that one lives inside and becomes. This emphasis on structure brought to my mind Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space, where Bachelard describes the first childhood house as the place where we learned to listen and first became aware of sound, and how the "geometry of echoes'' becomes a template we discover in the world. These sounds, these things which touched us as children, become the treasures we carry forward. The house we are born in is "physically inscribed in us" through unconscious habits and beliefs. (see endnotes)


In Tahat's poems, these sounds and echoes are personal commitments to heritage. They are intentional, not whimsical. The poet inhabits the poetic space at the level of habit (or habitual practice) which recreates the home (or self in place). In this inhabitation, Tahat also makes the salat a poetic form for language.


3.


The ritual frame enables the narrator to live in a more natural, less artificially-assimilated form. For the immigrant, living as one's self means abiding in connection to loss, in tandem with rupture, and in communion with ancestral displacement. I was intrigued by the setting of salats in different rooms, and how the form both interacted with and replaced the rooms.


"salat on the first day of school" begins with a transposition of the adhan in the foreign context of a classroom—the first day of school's ringing bells and the recitation of the pledge of allegiance to a piece of red, white, and blue fabric. The poet carries us through the continuous alienation of the day, contrasting their interior rituals with the bullying playgrounds, the breaking of three ribs, the voice singing "Welcome to America, bitch!" (6), the blurring of the narrator's body and the salat. Tahat gives the reader a childhood experience of racism on their own terms, in their own language, as inhabited by salat.


"Desperation is the start of grief / is what I learned in a room like this," Tahat writes in "salat during deportation proceedings," where the young narrator witnesses their parents' shame and fear (13). Here, the deportation room (like the earlier classroom) is layered against the body's allegiance. The tension between the "pews and pews, lawyers and snakes" rests in the evocation of religiosity, the sacralization of American courts—this idea that our system of dark robes and prisons can deliver anything near justice. Through a powerful use of imagery and metaphor the poem effectively desacralizes the court-room, and focuses the sacred space, again, within the inhabited salat, that gaze towards reunification.


4.


The way Tahat uses the body through language—painting the nooks, crannies, drawers and spaces which hold salat—renders the poems, and ritual, luminous. In "salat in the name of the father," Tahat tells us "the threshold is still a floor" still a space against which one presses a forehead, but the poem begins with a throat:


[adhan]


The sound of his name starts at the bottom of your throat

where it opens and the air settles the moment

before a word like adhan or allah or akbar floats

into the open dawn. (17)


They continue in the next stanza, noting the father is "lodged" in their throat. This reference to the throat returns, recurs, a constant hallway in the house of the inhabited Muslim body—the carrier of sound, the intercessory roadway, the landing strip of a wail, "my throat like oil slick A-rab," the "busted tailpipe throat" (in "salat as a youth of the world dancing and singing and imitating natural objects"). Tahat modifies the throat in order to describe the emotion. I kept thinking of how effectively they use the throat as a vehicle for silence, hope, love, heartache, and the traffic between what is divine and what is irrevocably human.


5.


Bachelard said it was impossible to describe the most inhabited house. "To describe them would be like showing them to visitors," and it is easier for us to show others the present then it is to speak of the past. As a result, the first house, the "oneirically definitive house, must retain its shadows." The most that can be communicated to the reader or to the outsider is "an orientation towards what is secret without ever being able to tell the secret objectively." In this sense, the salat offers us secrets in the poet's own language, in the forms and shapes the body assumes inseparable from the ritual itself.


The body's relationship to pain carries into Tahat's relations with their children, as they tell a daughter where certain words may be found, and the narrator locates themselves "the roof of her mouth," that is where "my middle name" lives, set apart from the poem in the right margin. The positions of the body in these poems are foregrounded, provided almost as a tempo which is divine (when in harmony with salat) and painful when in tension with it.


And there are ways in which the prostrations make space for all; they are capable of carrying everything from weeping with relief upon learning that their ex-wife doesn't have cancer to expressing gratitudes after takeoffs and anxieties brought on by the news, as we see in the riven "salat the morning after a terrorist attack:"


"I search for the closest mosque

by listening for the weeping" (24)


The final poem, "salat as a youth of the world dancing and singing and imitating natural objects,” opens into a more expansive joy. The narrator returns to images from previous poems, particularly the American flag colors, and settles claims to their loyalty:


[bowing]


I am at the base of some valley

flooring the sky with my face.

If you'll allow me to speculate

for a moment, I'd drown the blue

out myself. I am all red, and no,

dear reader, there is no blood in this

poem. I will not let there be blood

in this poem. (34)

Paraphrasing “Defence of Poetry” by Percy Bysshe Shelley, and speaking in dialogue with Lena Khalaf Tuffaha’s Water and Salt, Tahat winds through this last salat in a loosely ecstatic polyphony, addressing the reader directly, drawing them closer:


Attend to this, o friend, this song,

this burial, this holy water be praised

stretching farther into the collapsing

distance than we ever could

have imagined. (34)


We all want to be known in our language. Perhaps an expansive poetics of space which includes the structures of ritual creates a way of inhabiting our displacements. What Tahat accomplishes in Salat is defiant, sweeping, exemplary.



Alina Stefanescu was born in Romania and lives in Birmingham, Alabama with her partner and several intense mammals. Recent books include a creative nonfiction chapbook, Ribald (Bull City Press Inch Series, Nov. 2020). Her poetry collection, dor, won the Wandering Aengus Press Prize and is forthcoming in July 2021. Alina's writing can be found in diverse journals, including Prairie Schooner, North American Review, FLOCK, Southern Humanities Review, Crab Creek Review, Virga, and others. She serves as Poetry Editor for Pidgeonholes, Poetry Editor for Random Sample Review, Poetry Reviewer for Up the Staircase Quarterly, and Co-Director of PEN America's Birmingham Chapter. She was nominated for 5 Pushcart Prizes by various journals in 2019. A finalist for the 2019 Kurt Brown AWP Prize, Alina won the 2019 River Heron Poetry Prize. She still can't believe (or deserve) any of this. More online at www.alinastefanescuwriter.com.