by Alli Cruz

Tahat, Dujie, Salat. Tupelo Press, 2020. 39pgs $12.95

Dujie Tahat’s chapbook, SALAT, which received the 2020 Sunken Garden Chapbook Award, opens with a calling—“[adhan]”, the Islamic call to prayer. Each poem in the collection begins with ‘[adhan]’ and loosely follows the movements of salat. From the chapbook’s notes: “Salat, or salah, is the physical and spiritual act of prayer, which according to the five pillars of Islam is meant to be conducted five times a day.”  

Tahat’s poems are not restrained by this unique formal device, so much as grounded within it. To call SALAT merely poetry that takes the form of prayer, or prayer that manifests on the page as poetry, would be too fixed and convenient a categorization for this strange, spiritual, lively work. Tahat’s SALAT bends the spaces between poetry and prayer, and calls upon the reader to look inside and listen. 

Consider the opening of the first poem, “salat to define the meaning of ritual”:

[adhan]/ A calling, a culling, a billowing / minaret banner, a cigarette starter thrown / out a moving car window to prove a point. [3]

Tahat’s swift repetition deftly ties this opening together. The clauses seem to morph in and out of one another. The “calling,” which becomes “a culling,” which then becomes a movement, “a billowing,” exemplifies Tahat’s linguistic grace. Their language embodies movement. The act of the “calling” builds to “a billowing / minaret banner, a cigarette starter thrown.” In this third line, Tahat’s ideas and images again morph through each clause. First, a minaret banner is ‘billowing’; the banner’s movement is enacted through the graceful repetition of the second line, each clause returning back to “—ing” in the end. Next, the billowing becomes a throwing. The movement of the cigarette starter is held in suspension as “thrown” hangs on the end of the line. 

The juxtaposition of the two images, minaret banner and cigarette starter, is startling, yet again finds connection in the sonic ending (“—er”), as well as the subtle suggestion that ritual comes in many, everyday forms. Here, the beauty of Tahat’s lyricism is revealed within the unexpected movement of language and image, and moreover, through the act of returning. In that fourth line, “o” sounds change and morph, “thrown / out a moving car window / to prove a point,” yet they always return to their new context. This repetition, or returning, of sounds mimics a kind of echo, the way a hymn might travel through a holy space. 

Throughout SALAT, Tahat’s speaker plays with language and sound within the bounds of ritual (“[adhan]”, “[sitting]”, “[prostration]”), demonstrating the ways in which form can house new and refreshing expressions of creativity. The result is lively:

You’ll sleep when you die / but form is death. The gap / between every prayer / is sleep. The joke is: no such / thing as sleep. / Dead be dead [4]

Even while speaking of death, Tahat’s speaker maintains a playful wit. This stanza, also taken from “salat to define the meaning of ritual,” reads like a riddle, relying on yet another form: the joke. Tahat’s speaker packages this joke through setup and punchline, still situated within the larger poetic form of salat. This layering of forms opens a new and exciting space of poetic exploration for Tahat’s speaker, who makes the bold claim (‘no such / thing as sleep’) and earns it. The arrival at ‘Dead be dead’ feels true and darkly funny. That Tahat’s speaker undercuts their own assumptions — here, namely, that sleep exists — perhaps speaks to another, crucial theme in Tahat’s work: the violence of assumption.

This violence is clearly seen in “salat departing LAX the week after an attempted terrorist attack,” which paints a painful scene wherein Tahat’s speaker (bearing the same name as the poet) is singled out for their “too-hard-to-pronounce name” [22]. Chillingly, the speaker adds: “You don’t believe in the nature of my identification. / Neither do I” [22]. 

The speaker’s name is often at the mercy of others, as in “salat during deportation proceedings”: “The judge gets my name right this time— / the whole thing” [13]. The “whole thing” here, positioned as a joke, points to a painful irony: the accuracy of pronunciation does not allow the speaker to be fully seen, or whole, in the context of the courtroom. Later in the poem, the form of the joke reappears between the speaker and their lawyer; this time, with a clearer violence:

Between jokes, my lawyer / asks me about my case / on the elevator / ride down. / He always / steps on / the punch line. [13]

In this excerpt, I am simultaneously struck by the levity of Tahat’s language (which bounces from line to line) and the double meaning of “punch line”: namely, its ability to cause pain. Again, Tahat’s ability to play with language and form proves both lively and dark. The contrast formed between the speaker’s casual language (“It’s always dramatic metaphor with family” [14]) and the severity of the situation, i.e. the threat of deportation, further highlights the violence done unto them and their family. 

Reading Tahat’s work, I am reminded of the poet Natalie Diaz, who said about English in an interview with NPR: “it’s the language I know best and I trust least.” This sentiment feels especially true in Tahat’s poetry as they work and rework language. In one poem, “salat to be read from right to left,” Tahat writes after Marwa Helal and her invented form, The Arabic, which in Helal’s own words: “vehemently rejects you if you try to read it left to right.” In another poem, Tahat’s speaker reworks language via the fluidity of naming: “my father who is different from my pops the way a bar is / different from a rod depending on what /direction it’s swung or what end the I is” [7]. The speaker’s father is called Ibrahim, pops, or father, depending on the context. In yet another poem, the speaker collapses the distinction between themself and their daughter (“I throw / my littlest self higher / onto the deck—” [10]).

The subject of naming, and being named beyond one’s own control, also appears in “salat on the first day of school”:

The bell rings and before I am introduced to my classmates, they recite / in unison a pledge of allegiance to the flag. / [standing] / Before I become the boy / with the funny name / I am the boy without a name / standing at the front / of the classroom [5]

In other sections, directives like “[standing]” seem to house, or protect, themselves within bracketed walls. Here, however, the directive “[standing]” pushes the poem into an unsettling scene of patriotic ritual. It reads almost like a stage direction in a script. The abrupt “[standing]” reveals a mechanical quality in this particular embodied ritual. Through the speaker’s eyes, the pledge manifests as a violence; an extension of empire; a ruthless separation between speaker and classmates. That the students “recite / in unison a pledge of allegiance to the flag”, as mandated practice, is unnerving.

By way of visual separation, “the boy” and “a name” almost becomes an isolated stanza, shifted away to the right. In this reading, Tahat’s speaker is just “the boy” reduced to “a name.” Visually, the ‘boy’ hovers just above the untethered ‘name’ — simultaneously untouched by this ‘name’ and yet also defined by proximity to it.

In a literal sense, the speaker is only allowed their name in the context of this American classroom once they are recognized and thus, othered, by the “[standing]” ritual of introduction. This act of being named, of at first being “without / a name,” demonstrates the precariousness of the speaker’s place as the new kid, the immigrant kid — as Tahat, who immigrated to the United States during childhood, once was.

One curious line sticks with me: “There are metaphors and then there are / metaphors” [6]. The speaker’s conclusion arises just after their young self has endured 3 cracked ribs at the hands of their new classmates. Before receiving the diagnosis, they recall the image of their father’s hands: 

I don’t remember the words anymore—only the motions / my father made standing next to the x-ray machine. His hands / moved everywhere as the crosshairs on my chest closed in. [6]

In SALAT, there are rituals and then there are rituals; prayer and then prayer; poetry and then poetry. Tahat’s work plays both within and outside of these definitions to create a new poetic space that, like a father’s hands, holds them all. 

Alli Cruz is a recent graduate of Stanford University, where she studied English & Creative Writing, Theater & Performance Studies, and was a Levinthal scholar. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, The Boiler, and Blackbird.

Dujie Tahat, winner of the Sunken Garden Chapbook Award, is a Filipino-Jordanian immigrant living in Washington State. The author of Here I am O My God, selected by Fady Joudah for a Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship, their poems have been published or are forthcoming in POETRY, Poetry Northwest, ZYZZVA, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. They co-host The Poet Salon podcast.

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