Anyone pulled from a source longs to go back.
I have been here before, listening to Coleman Barks’s slightly Southern voice reading out loud his translations of Jalaluddin Rumi, the 13th century Persian Sufi poet. I was nineteen and had just traveled around the world on a ship, visited Shinto shrines in Japan, rubbed the bellies of plastic Buddhas in Taiwan, placed hands over flame in temples in India, and drawn sketches of whirling dervishes in Istanbul. I had ended up, somehow, in Athens, Georgia. It was a bit like being dropped into mud after the freedom of the open seas, but there were moments when the boundaries of the little Southern city fell away and the outside world slipped in.
There are love dogs that no one knows the names of.
Give your life to be one of them.
Barks was teaching at UGA when a friend told me about the reading. It took place at night in a bookstore with a witchy bent that sold dried herbs from glass jars and tarot cards in addition to the left-leaning books. The lights were off, candles lighting up the faces of the young crowd as we sat on the floor amidst the stacks, passing a jug of cheap red wine hand to hand while Coleman read. It all seemed terribly romantic.
The minute I heard my first love story,
I started looking for you, not knowing
how blind that was.
When the reading was over, the non-smokers followed the smokers outside to stand under a full moon that ruled the sky, casting our shadows upon the pavement. Cleavers reached out from the edges of the parking lot and clung to the hems of our jeans.
When it’s cold and raining,
you are more beautiful.
All the images of Jalaluddin Rumi portray an old, wise man with a full white beard, but at eighteen, or eight, depending on the telling, he was a young exile on the move. It was 1219 and the borders that separated nations and states were shifting under Genghis Khan’s domination; would continue to shift, only the delineation between land and sea remaining the same as the new maps were drawn over the centuries that bring us to today. Rumi and his family left their home in Persia as the Mongols invaded, moving westward until they reached Turkey. In the journey was the learning, was Hajj, were the chance meetings that shaped his life as a Muslim.
Let the lover be disgraceful, crazy,
absentminded. Someone sober
will worry about things going badly.
Let the lover be.
I haven’t heard or read Rumi for years. The three volumes of poetry I bought that night are scattered – one lent and never returned perhaps, two more in a box in a basement somewhere, I think, maybe. But on the second evening of the Jaipur Literature Festival in Rajasthan, India, a couple of weeks ago, Barks is onstage as I remember him, rotund and bearded. The night air is cool as I sit with friends from New York on cloth-covered folding chairs set up on the lawn of Diggi Palace. Colorful fabric is draped overhead, lit up with white lights. It is all terribly… royal. Barks reads from memory in the deliberate cadence of the poet, looking across the stage to Turkish reed flute player Kudsi Erguner, who leads a group of musicians in accompaniement to Rumi’s words.
Gamble everything for love,
If you’re a true human being.
leave this gathering.
It is at once transcendent and trite. Is it my stubborn refusal at surrender? My unwillingness to spin, one handed turned to heaven and the other to earth? But I admit my appreciation for any search for God that involves love-making and wine. I wonder, again, hearing this, seeing the images throughout India of Krishna and Radha wrapped in each other’s arms, where did the sex go when God went west? How did it come to be, a bachelor God with no mate? A mother who was a virgin?
Without a net, I catch a falcon and release it to the sky, hunting God.