Poetry Sunday: “Blue Date Cake,” “Standing Tall,” and “Over Damascus,” by Tamam Kahn

Poet’s Note

Poetry seemed to me the most direct way to share the tangled, complex story of the women in early Islam. I was inspired by poetry-as-biography with such examples as Lucille Clifton’s poem about Joan of Arc, “to joan;” Marie Howe’s book of poems, Magdalene; and Darwin, a Life in Poems, by Ruth Padel—Charles Darwin’s great-great-granddaughter.

How many American women had the good fortune to spend several weeks in Damascus before the war? I was there as one of four leaders on a “Peace Pilgrimage” in 2003. At that time, I was researching Prophet Muhammad’s wives for my first book (Untold: A History of the Wives of Prophet Muhammad, Monkfish Press 2010). As I began to research the Prophet’s daughter Fatima, I entered the core of the Shia/Sunni conflict. Each group often told a different version of incidents in her life, viewing her as either a heavenly mother or a woman with blisters who labored to haul her own water from the well. Fatima’s Touch is a biography bringing the different stories together in one book. Many accounts of incidents in her life are translated perhaps for the first time in English by the scholar Dr. Arthur Buehler, who received a 25-volume biography of Fatima from Qum, Iran, and shared his translations with me. (See “Blue Date Cake,” the poem that appears above.) In Fatima’s Touch, an introductory paragraph or page prefaces each poem, and they are included here as notes following the poems. The dance of poetry takes the reader deeper into history and these early Muslim women’s stories. The reader may dissolve stereotypes associated with early Islam and how women are viewed. May bias be removed!


Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Fatima’s Touch: Poems and Stories of the Prophet’s Daughter is a remarkable book, painstakingly and lovingly researched, beautifully produced, and rich with deeply-felt and skillfully-rendered poetry that draws on the ancient history and culture of Islam. Each poem is presented with a note, often the translation of story, myth, or hadith—anecdotes and sayings attributed to the Prophet Mohammad and his family—that inspired the poem. But they also include commentary and interesting contemporary details such as where one can see the ancient swords mentioned in a poem, or how a shrine has fared in recent conflicts. Sometimes they recount a story that gave rise to a poem, and sometimes it is a story about how the author, during her travels, found the story that gave rise to the poem. It is in the notes that Kahn occasionally offers details that show how she was proofed by life to be able to write with authority about terrible sorrows such as the loss of a beloved son. Where needed, Kahn defines Arabic words and terms and provides explanations; she does this with a light touch, and always with her eye on the goal of making these stories, and the life of Fatima, fully available to a wider audience. She comes well prepared for the task, having been a follower of the Sufi path for 40 years, and for the last 15, a serious “explorer” and collector of the stories of what she calls the “first women” in Islam. These are true explorations involving extensive travel as well as scholarship, and also a deeply-cultivated spirituality.

The book is divided into four sections: “A Cup of Grace,” “In Exile,” “The Hungry Years,” and “Fruit of the Garden.” It begins with a preface written by the author and closes with end notes that show careful research and even, where applicable, identify the poem’s form and meter. For the most part, the poems are sequenced chronologically, following the events during and after Fatima’s life. Of the book’s 53 poems, 33 are metered, and many are executed in received forms like the pantoum, the gazal, the prose poem, and the sonnet. I want to emphasize, though, that they never feel stilted; Kahn’s style is muscular and tight, and her diction tends to be vernacular. The poems are spare and almost never occupy more than a page. Many employ sophisticated rhyme or metrical schemes—one example is “Pregnancy,” composed entirely in Sapphics, and the next one, “Fatima tells of Interruption,” is a gazal—but even the free verse poems tend to be carefully shaped and ordered into regular stanzas.

Although she shows great respect for the traditions she studied and consulted, Kahn brings a modern sensibility to the notes and poems, as in the wonderful “Joy Thief” that recounts how Mohammad defended his daughter’s decision to wear red clothing. At times, a quiet but resolute feminism interrogates things traditionally taken for granted, like the practice of never showing Fatima’s face as anything other than a white oval in artwork. Most often, Kahn presents the facts and events and allows readers to come to their own conclusions.

According to its end notes, “Blue Date Cake” takes the form of rhyming iambic stanzas in a metrical arrangement inspired by a poem by Marilyn Hacker that was, in its turn, modeled after James Wright. Here, lines are organized into six-line stanzas bound by a complex rhyme scheme. You could say that each stanza rhymes as abcabc, but that would not capture the wealth of slant rhyme that supersaturates sound repetitions and further integrates the lines. The first stanza, for example, actually rhymes according to this pattern (where prime symbols designate slant rhymes): aba’aba’. In each sestet, a truncated third line creates a dramatic pause. The first stanza describes a speaker sunk in grief following her father’s death. In this state, she experiences an other-wordly visitation from “three women,” whose gift of a date cake lifts the speaker out of her sorrow and even “right out of time.” The last stanza explains how it worked: one source of the speaker’s pain was a loss of the “father’s love-words,” but the taste of that seedy delicacy in the speaker’s mouth revived her, expressed in a metaphor that wonderfully exploits the sweetness—and abundance of tiny seeds—found in most things made from dates: “One seed opened inside and sweetened me.” How I love the sound and sense of that line!

“Standing Tall” is a brief poem that the end notes tell us is in the form of iambic pentameter tercets, and the rhyme pattern is aba. In just nine lines, Kahn extends the metaphor of nails sunk into a board into a near-parable that manages to be both mildly critical of the suppression of women and at the same time movingly assured of their enduring power and place in their society. Having counter-sunk a few nails in my time, I appreciated this metaphor, especially that moment where we hear the hammer ringing on the nail heads even after they have been hammered flush with the wood. You can tamp us down, the poem seems to say, but you cannot silence us.

“Over Damascus” is a Petrarchan/Shakespearian hybrid sonnet rhymed abbacddceffegg, further complicated by the fact that several lines also slant rhyme with one another. You could, for example, chart the end rhyme in that first stanza as a a’ a’ a. You’ll also find rich internal assonance, such as that between “heart” and “sharp” in lines 11-12, and the poem’s closing lines weave a rich tapestry of repeated sounds. The diction is sharp and vivid, dramatizing a scene that feels current even though it occurred centuries ago. Another element contributing to this poem’s immediacy is its syntax; Kahn injects four sets of two-word exclamations at intervals in the poem: “Dark foe!” at the end of line 6, “God judges!” in the middle of line 8, “Please come” near the beginning of line 13, and “Such pain” at the very beginning of the poem’s last line. It’s an effective strategy made even stronger by the way Kahn takes pains to vary the placement of these two-word units.

I hope these poems give you a sense of what I felt when I finished Fatima’s Touch: it was as if a door had been opened onto a world I had previously apprehended only dimly, if at all, and a living, breathing woman had taken my hand to lead me through. The book is a marvelous virtuoso accomplishment and a deep joy to read.

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