Thursday, March 17, 2011

Kazim Ali Leaves an Important Message

I returned home after poetry class, arms loaded with backpack, purse, cell phone, and the mail I’d just snagged on the way up my steep and icy drive. Inside the kitchen, boots stomped off, I hit the blinking play button on my answering machine, all the while opening cupboards, looking for quick food.

A man’s voice streamed out of the machine, his base pitch, the clipped words, and I didn’t recognize any of it, but he was speaking to me about things he thought I should know, something about his mother's heart surgery and not to worry, she was doing fine, but there was more bad news…

At this point, I hit the play button to start over, and what I heard was this, “Hello Elizabeth, this is Kazim Ali, and I just wanted to let you know that my mother had surgery on her heart…”

He continued speaking, but all I could hear were the questions whizzing through my head. Kazim Ali, Kazim Ali, why is Kazim Ali calling me? How did he get my phone number? And why is he telling me about his mother?

The moment felt surreal. I thought about how my poetry class had recently studied Kazim Ali—how I had found much of his poetry abstruse. And yet, thereafter, my approach to writing felt cracked, as if Ali had given me permission to do something different, as if the way he granted status to individual words, and then collected them, arranged and rearranged them into objects, had revealed to me the experience of poetry. I began to think of words as having weight. I felt them relative to one another, and because of this I sensed I would never read or write in quite the same way.

Kazim Ali. Suddenly his name sounded like a mantra. Celestial guidance. Each word matters.

I suppose at this point I poured myself a glass of wine, pulled up a chair, and sat-down next to the machine. Now, I tenderly nudged the little red play button for the third time.

“Hello, this is Kazim Ali…”

Yup, it was him alright. He was telling me about his mother, and her heart surgery, and what was this? He had more bad news. Cousin Burl—drove to the store—felt sick—didn’t actually go into the store—instead Cousin Ettie did—she came out—found Burl slumped dead at the wheel.

Wait a minute, I knew these people, Ettie & Burl. How did Kazim Ali know them? Oh my God, poor Kazim, cause Burl had a way of making my sisters and me feel really twitchy. From childhood on we’d known him as the older husband of our older cousin—the guy with the leering grin and roaming hands who made redneck comments about anyone who wasn’t white, Republican, Protestant, and in love with mounds of bacon on a giant dinner plate. I felt really bad for Ettie, finding her husband like that. But for Burl, I just hoped he was in the part of Heaven with all the Denny’s.

It was in the swirl of Burl that I began to release the idea of Kazim Ali, and as dawning always happens, abruptly, I knew a famous poet could not have left this message. It was from someone else, but who?

I hit the play button one last time, and now the mental image of a middle-aged man, drawn from another day counting numbers in some corporate office, speaking as efficiently as possible so as to say many words in the shortest period of time.

“Hello Elizabeth, this is Cousin Lee…”

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