There is something about circles
The Beloved likes.
When Hafiz wrote these words during the composition of his poem “Circles” in the fourteenth century, he was probably not aware of the lasting power they possessed. Five centuries later, in the mid-1800s, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote his first collection of essays which included one of his most well-known works. This essay was titled “Circles.” And so began a spiritual and intellectual movement in the world.
Khawaja Shams ud-Din Mohammed Hafiz-e-Shirazi – also known as “Hafiz of Shiraz” – was widely acknowledged as one of the greatest medieval poets of Persia (now Iran). At an early age, he learned the Koran by heart, and from the little that is known about him, he was a devout admirer of the Sufi mystics Rumi and Saadi. It is said that Hafiz knew all the works of these Sufi poets by heart. His poems are filled with Sufi ideas of divine union with the Beloved, and Emerson found his God – the oversoul – in the poetry of Hafiz.
A passionate disciple of the Sufi mystics, I began reading Saadi, Rumi, Omar Khayyam and Hafiz at an early age. Years later, while conducting research on Emerson for my Early American Literature class at the University of North Florida, I came across an essay that began like this:
The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end
Goose bumps exploded all over my skin. I reached into the depths of my memory and rummaged around until I pulled out a thin, weak strand of memory. It was a collection of broken but shockingly similar words by Hafiz I had read a long time ago:
…a pregnant belly…fruit…plump and round…something about circles…Beloved likes…
With feverish excitement I came home and pored over the yellowed pages of Daniel Ladinsky’s I Heard God Laughing: Poems of Hope and Joy, a translation of Hafiz. I reread the poem “Circles” and then returned to Emerson’s essay, also titled “Circles.” The resemblance was unmistakable. The only difference was this: for Hafiz, circles are God’s signature upon the world, while for Emerson circles are the very nature of God. Perhaps it was the love of Sufi poetry, or a frantic anxiety at the possibility of unearthing a possible relationship between Sufi thought and Western literature, that this otherwise unremarkable discovery sparked a personal interest in Emerson. I went through his early essays and poetry, and this led to the translations that Emerson had produced on the works of Hafiz.
The poem that has most drawn its influence from Hafiz is Emerson’s completed “Bacchus.” It is an imitation of one of Hafiz’s verses in the Saki Nama (transliterated as The Book of the Cupbearer by Joseph von Hammer). “Bacchus” is acknowledged as an imitation and not a translation of Hafiz, as Emerson himself wrote to Elizabeth Hoar in a letter. Of particular interest in the poem is the imagery of the wine. The meanings attributed to wine in Persian poetry can be traced to their connection with the Sufi mystics. In Sufi literature, wine symbolized a union with divine love and knowledge through direct personal experience with God. “Bacchus” celebrates the wine of Hafiz and regards it as more than the mere juice of the grape, seeing in it instead the power of union with the divine. For Emerson, the oversoul is “that Unity within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart.” And so, the wine of Hafiz becomes Emerson’s oversoul. In this context, the term oversoul is understood as the collective indivisible Soul, of which all individual souls or identities are included. Oversoul has more recently come to be used by Eastern philosophers as the closest English language equivalent of the Vedic concept of Paramatman. (In Sanskrit the word param means “supreme” and atman means “soul”; thus Paramatman literally means “Supreme-Soul”).
A comparison of Emerson’s translation “From the Persian of Hafiz, I” and its imitation “Bacchus” reveals an uncanny influence of Sufi thought on the latter. Both poems regard the wine as a symbol of divine ecstasy. Both celebrate the intellect’s agility, the spirit’s delight, the dissolution of ego, the singing of the soul. If wine is the spring, oversoul is the first sip. If wine is the womb, oversoul is the umbilical cord. The end is always the same – ecstasy.
Today, the presence of Sufi poetry in the world is more palpable than ever. The body of work that Coleman Barks has produced on Mevlana Jalal ud-Din Muhammad Rumi from 1976-2003 is a monument to Sufi poetry. In his introduction to The Essential Rumi, he calls Rumi’s poetry food and drink, nourishment for the part that is hungry for what they give. Barks describes his love for Rumi a different level of soul-connecting and a sense of reckless longing. Elif Shafak’s The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi is an imaginative story of the spiritual encounter between Rumi and the wandering dervish, Shams of Tabriz. The book was an instant bestseller in Turkey, selling more than 750,000 copies. It was published in the U.S. in February 2010 and in the UK in June 2010. As contemporary writers like Barks and Shafak discover, translate, and rethink Sufi thought, it is becoming increasingly evident that modern readers want less of that which is ephemeral and seek more what is eternal – the soul.
I started college four months after my seventeenth birthday. I tried to be as inconspicuous as possible, but I still felt like I had “minor” stamped all over me, especially when someone at my freshman orientation decided it would be fun to find the youngest student among the new meat. Now, it didn’t occur to me to just make myself very small in my seat and pretend to be, say eighteen, like all the normal people, but then I didn’t think I would be the youngest person there, either. I figured, There’s got to be some twelve-year-old genius here. But nope, it was just me. My reward for being the youngest? A tiny tote bag with the university’s logo, a matching mouse pad, a pencil. And a renewed I’m-obviously-too-young-to-be-here complex. There was no way, no way at all, that I was going to let anyone see me reading Animorphs or The Chronicles of Narnia. Even away from school, I sneaked into the children’s section of Barnes and Noble, always with a ready excuse, you know, the I’m-babysitting-a-kid-who-would-like-this kind of thing.
I’m not sure at what point I actually made peace with my love of what literary agent Mary Kole calls “kidlit.” I do remember, however, rediscovering it at some point when I unearthed my copy of Louis Sachar’s There’s a Girl in the Boy’s Bathroom. I remembered liking the book when I first read it in the fifth grade, and I enjoyed it just as much years later. But it was one of the few kids’ books that I allowed myself to enjoy.
I’ve gone through phases in the types of books and authors I read. In middle school, it was anything and everything Agatha Christie, and I eventually graduated to Ngaio Marsh. In high school, I went through a huge Stephen King kick—so much so that my first email address was named for him. I still do enjoy Stephen King, but I think one of the main reasons I was so eager to read him was to prove that I didn’t need any of that kid stuff anymore.
Then the whole Harry Potter phenomena happened (not long before I was singled out as the youngest college freshman). For several years, I turned my nose up at the whole thing, slightly bewildered when I heard friends talking about the upcoming release of the first movie, even more surprised when my parents watched and enjoyed it.
That was more than ten years ago, though, and now that I am comfortably adult (and called “ma’am” too often for my comfort), I not only read children’s literature all the time, but I write it, too. I used to think that reading kids’ books meant that I was holding onto a part of my childhood, unable to move on, and that it would be shamefully obvious to everyone around me. As Mary Kole says in Writing Irresistible Kidlit:
In the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and even the ’90s, the YA section of the bookstore was a very different place. There were some popular and candid stories like Go Ask Alice and the works of Judy Blume, but when most people thought of kidlit, they thought of mass market series like Sweet Valley High or The Babysitters Club or pulp horror from Christopher Pike…
Then came a wizard with a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead: Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived. Before Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling hit the shelves in 1998, kidlit was happily broadcasting to the school and library market and wasn’t a major player… Harry Potter showed the world—and publishing executives—that children’s books could break out on a large scale, span audiences (children’s books ain’t just for kids anymore!), and bring in the big bucks, too.
Finally, Harry Potter made it not just permissible but cool to read kids’ books. When I finally stopped being an idiot and joined the wizarding throng in late 2002, I absolutely devoured the first four books. Sometime between my freshman and junior years, it had become cool to read the stuff that I’d tried to, but couldn’t ever, outgrow.
Before I graduated from college one year later, it seemed that most people sitting in the corridors, waiting for classes had one or another of J.K. Rowling’s famous books in their clutches. It was not only cool to read kid books, but it was uncool to be out of the loop. Over the next four-and-a-half years, there was a lot of impatient foot-tapping, along with many theorizing sessions with other Potter fans. And the great thing about reading Harry Potter was that someone would see me and say, “Oh, have you heard of Lemony Snickett?” Or one year, a friend gave me a bag full of adolescent lit for my birthday.
Children’s books have become so much more than “See Spot Run.” Yes, those books are out there, too, and they do have their place, like with kids learning to read. But there has to be something between Dr. Seuss and Charles Dickens. And those books have to be good, folks, or those kids will never want to read Dickens, or anything else, for that matter.
I admit that, in elementary school, I was the kid who pulled all my picture books off the shelf for my summer reading list (no one specified which books I was supposed to read, just that I fill my list with titles). That couldn’t last forever. At some point, I had to pick up the required reading and just suffer through it. Finally, my mom found just the right book to get me excited about reading, and after that, I plowed through my school’s library with a literary hunger. There are kids out there, reluctant readers like I used to be, who just need the right book to get them hooked. The wonderful news for them is that there are more choices than ever.
There is a whole new problem with this, however, one that my parents didn’t have to worry about but that I have to consider with my kids. Since children’s literature is now so popular, so accessible, and so fulfilling for readers of all ages, how many copies of Harry Potter am I going to have to buy to keep everyone in my family happy?
The Torah begins, “When God began to create heaven and earth—the earth being unformed and void…[etc, etc].” In my heathen opinion, this says that the creation of something starts with something. That something is really nothing, though. But that something is going to be more than what it was originally. As you can see, my career as a Rabbi was cut short. If you’re a writer, you might think of it this way: “When Writing God began to create tension and plot—the plot being unformed and void, with a white page over the surface of the deep… and Writing God said, ‘Let there be… um… I guess I could write that story about the narrator being a ghost and not knowing it.’ And so it was!” The most famous story (biblical tale) is of course of Franz Kafka (The Writing One, Blessed Be He) telling his best friend (disciple) (St.) Max Brod to burn his work (on the holy altar) when he died (and eventually would resurrect), but Brod would come to publish the work. We are all writing gods with empty page memories that start as nothing, but with the potential to begin with a first line. The words ‘void’ and ‘unformed’ are worrisome though. They mark a beginning that might never live up to its intended end. It could drive a writer to want his work to be sent back to the dust.
How to say it? In Devin Johnston’s book Creaturely And Other Essays, the question of how to say it is addressed as other-worldly, beyond the human. Not God, but on the wavelength of animals. Johnston is a poet, but his book is a collection of essays about him observing the nature of St. Louis on his walks that escape closed-in spaces. His language is often short, exact, and leaves the reader with the sense each line was an effort in perfection. A writer who is trying to find those right words. And with those right words, there is a personal style that might turn off readers. The beautiful swoop of an owl really has nothing to do with the vomiting of a homeless man below him. But with that fluid and exquisite flight, there are the words which resonate a singular experience.
But beyond the selection of words, Johnston relies on perception. In his essay Creaturely, Johnston states, “If sight is evidential (I saw it with my own eyes), smell moves us closer to essences.” Sight only takes us so far. Even though sight is a certain truth (evidential), it misses many underlying aspects of life. For humans, smell is not the most notable of traits when compared to other animals. Johnston combines time and experience to show conception in the world. He quotes Aidan Higgins: “Is it even possible to think of somebody in the past?” Johnston explains that sight can see the difference between what is now and what is gone, but it is smell that “baffles time” —the object is not here, but its essence remains. When one views the world as a confusion of what is in some senses here but not, and considers that what we objectively perceive is translated through subjective sensory input, without the awareness of other senses and senses that humans don’t even have, then it leaves one grasping for the right words.
Johnson sees the world as the inversion of anthropomorphism: we shouldn’t perceive the world as human. I don’t believe he means for us to flap our pretend wings at night and eat bugs in the air, rather each animal has unique features that open the world through the different ways they experience time and with the senses and behaviors they use to translate their environments. With science, it’s possible to understand how crows learn and what squirrels can map. With enough observation, a group could gather like starlings. But I’m still bothered. The way we use science, the way we learn, is human. And before you bomb this website with dolphins and bonobos, just know that no other animal wants to write like humans do. No other animal wants to pencil and paper their world or sit at campfires to explain the deep crack in the earth near their village. Maybe all animals have words or calls and their own flavors of cognition, but maybe humans are the only ones to question what they call.
How to say it? Some artists were convinced that the only way to truly experience the world is through the innocence of an infant. His senses are pure and new; the world is writing on a fresh piece of baby paper. Others asked, “What is the mind?” Such a question ignored if mind even existed or if it was the right question to begin with. Others wrote pieces with the help of opium, a supposed gateway to believed new perceptions. But the underlying thought is that humans are on the outside of a fenced-off community village. A belief that one must get through the fence to find all the goodies one lacks and to have a final “a-ha!” moment of release. But when it comes to cognition, it is what it is. Our brains, like all animals, have evolved in a certain way, and that’s how they will stay. And I say they will stay the same so as not to predict our evolutionary future, which is another pipe dream. Cognitive tests show what the majority of people will most likely perceive. Dan Dennett, philosopher and cognitive scientist, shows these tests in his TED talks and, in general, does a good job proving that what we want to perceive is not always the truth. To constantly hope for a way beyond our own humanity is fantasy.
I’m falling down the rabbit hole to keep up. When Alice fell, was it that it was deep or that she was falling slow? She has knowledge of the world, but as she falls, is it the right knowledge? In the rabbit hole, in the vacuum of our own world, we assume, and inside, a glimmer hopes it is right. I often sit in the dark and fold my hands to hear nothing in the world, to quiet my mind, in hopes that I will be ready for the right words. But I’m okay if there are no words at all in the void of my own writing god.
“Yes, They’re Real: A Collection of Creative Nonfiction,” now available in paperback, is a uniquely provocative collection of short stories from up-and-coming authors in Northeast Florida. The twelve original works are forever linked by each author’s perspective of what the genre can resemble and their personal vision of the journey that takes place while writing creative nonfiction.
The collection, edited by Fiction Fix author Travis Wildes (FF7) is available in paperback from the Creative Writing League. Below, the CW League shares with us the anthology’s introduction, written by Mark Ari.
Self-publishing is for wusses. It’s the first recourse of the frightened or impatient, the last retreat of the desperately disappointed. It means you couldn’t find one house, not one no matter how small, with folks who thought enough of your work to want to share it with the world. Or you didn’t bother to look. Plainly, your work sucks.
What a load of crap. None of that matters. Composers want to be heard, painters want to show, and writers want to be read. For the most part, they do. So the question for writers is how best to get their work in front of strangers’ eyes. There are plenty of topnotch scribblers who began their careers with self-published works or who took that route later for one reason or another. I’m not interested in providing a list. Google it if you care. And hold your hand to your heart, because the results will astonish you.
The muscled independents are those authors who put their own labor into the process of design, printing, marketing, distribution, etc. Others pay some company, the so-called “vanity press,” to do all that for them. That’s why we view vanity publishing with such disdain. We imagine the well-to-do and doddering neophyte’s yawn, the passed wind of misanthropic self-regard, and the easy-access of cash slapped onto barrelheads with soft, fat fists.
I don’t like soft, fat fists. But some artists have them. Some artists are chumps, too. Some are assholes or dopes or worse. I don’t ask for the author’s CV before I read a story or essay. Later I might get curious, but mostly I don’t care. All that matters up front is the work. Does it ignite the spark gap to spill its charge and burn deep and long? Does it pluck feathers from a human heart to build white pigeons that come to me with lighted eyes? Does it tear my shirt open?
The works in this collection can do those things.
I know every author here. I’ve joked with them. Banged skulls with them. Hovered over their hunched shoulders to witness shaky paws smoothing the creases of crumpled memory. Laughed until my lungs throbbed. And when they thought I wasn’t watching and scuttled to the corners of the room, signaling to one another with signs they made on the air with their fingers, I ignored it. I know when to look the other way.
Travis got it into his head to publish stories and essays he and others shaped in my workshops. He chose the pieces to include. That’s what editors do. And like a good editor, he inspired his writers to make their manuscripts the best ones they could make, and he nurtured them along in the process. He conceived this book as a vehicle. Then he found the means to construct it and roll it out onto the public road. Editor AND publisher. Not the easy way. No deep pockets here. Just sweat and desire. This is where possibilities begin.
There is terrific work in this collection. Such distinct voices. Such varied approaches to putting thoughts into words. But because these authors have worked shoulder-to-shoulder in the same workshops, they are bound together in a unique way. Better than most they understand the work of art—the story, the essay—as a meeting place, a means of connection, a chink cut into the bone crust between writer and reader to let leak, retina to retina, the light of singular minds.
There’s a lot of love in a book like this. I’m astounded at the depth of it. And it’s a damned good read.
When you live in an apartment building like mine, where a new saxophone player is so desperate to learn his scales that he practices them for four hours to get them right, you know that silence can be wonderful. Especially when you’re trying to read. However, if you’re like me, you also know that silence isn’t always possible in New York City, so you need to find the perfect music to filter through your headphones and crank straight into your brain. And finding that perfect music for reading is no small feat— you need something that allows you to focus on your book while simultaneously complementing it. Below, in the first installation of our series “BookTunes,” we’ve compiled a lovely little playlist with samples of artists that are perfect for listening to while reading. Take a listen, and see what fits.
Musette, “Coucou Anne” from Drape Me In Velvet
Musette – Coucou Anne
Chopin’s “Minute Waltz” performed by Henrik Mawe
Abbey Simon – Waltze No. 6 In D-flat Major, Op. 64, “Minute Waltz”
Ravel’s String Quartet in F (1903) Assez vif. tres rythme
Quatuor Ysaÿe – Ravel: String Quartet in F major (1903) - 2. Assez vif. Très rythmé
Yann Tiersen’s soundtrack for Amelie
Yann Tiersen – La valse d’Amélie (Version piano)
Sufjan Stevens’s The BQE
Sufjan Stevens – Interlude I: Dream Sequence in Subi Circumnavigation
Billie Holiday – My Man
Edith Piaf – La vie en rose
Bon Iver, “Re: Stacks” from For Emma, Forever Ago
Bon Iver – Re: Stacks
Sigur Ros – Hoppípolla
Lisa Mitchell, from Wonder
Lisa Mitchell – Pirouette
Radio Dept. from Pulling Our Weight
The Radio Dept. – Pulling Our Weight
Real Estate – It’s Real
The xx – Intro
John Coltrane – Blue Train (Enhanced CD Version)
Andrew Bird, from his instrumental album Useless Creatures
Andrew Bird – You Woke Me Up!
C418, from Minecraft - Volume Alpha
C418 – Subwoofer Lullaby