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Review – The Voice of Sheila Chandra by Kazim Ali

Kazim Ali’s body of work revitalises how we, as readers, perceive history, narrative, and the lyric. His innovations are captivating, encompassing multiple genres, and swiftly entwining poetry and prose, dramatisation and autobiography. I was especially struck by this a few years ago, when first reading Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities (2012)an earlier collection that challenges any particular notion or expectation of genre; a collection of lyric essays or prose poems, but still not wholly either of those things. In an interview with John Fry, Kazim Ali distinguishes genre in a loose, uncategorical way attuned to sound and rhythm: ‘Prose’ he writes, ‘helps you flow through a thought and poetry interrupts with silence.’ 

I feel this swift ebbing away from the predictive elements of genre again, while reading The Voice of Sheila Chandra. This newest collection is challenging in that it ruptures how I might normally approach reading – systematically, horizontally, tending to internalised unspoken rules. Instead, I lean into the pattern of ‘flow[ing] through a thought’ versus ‘interrupt[ing] with silence’, and let the wave and break of such a pattern map the poems within. I let those sprawling notions guide, also how I experience Ali’s experimental syntactic and grammatical choices. 

The Voice of Sheila Chandra is an inventive poetic text, one rife with music, and also with invocation, recitation, silence, enquiry? – articulating threads that feel unbound by physicality and time. 

Structurally, the book unfolds in deliberate strides, which feel led by an implicit rhythm, an overarching story. In total, it consists of seven poems – three long pieces, each with their own intriguing forms, that alternate with four short interludes. Although it is easy to focus on the longer poems, there is a heightened energy in what Ali calls, in a conversation with Karthik Purushothaman, the ‘small interstitial poems.’ They exist in between, and hold important positions as preface, breath, and epilogue; as such, they resonate deeply with Ali’s articulation of poetry, interruption, and silence.  

The opening piece, a short poem titled ‘Recite’, foregrounds one of the collection’s prevailing themes of voice, and arguably even more centrally, voicelessness: 

All my forgotten prayers 
Not prayers really 
Nothing to ask for 
No one would answer 

In his essay, ‘Faith and Silence’, Ali suggests that ‘talking to God is always essentially talking to someone who isn’t going to answer.’ Similarly, throughout The Voice of Sheila Chandra, utterance is followed closely by adjacent silence, and the interrelation between music, sound, and silence is one of the collection’s most intriguing narrative threads.  
This is perhaps most concretely configured through Sheila Chandra in the titular poem, a long sequence of forty sonnets that are tightly wound with their own music. Chandra developed a rare neurological condition called Burning Mouth Syndrome at the height of her career, and this condition left her voiceless. ‘Chandra / Lost her voice around the same / Time I found mine’, Ali writes, weaving their lives together. In ‘The Voice of Sheila Chandra’, he simultaneously captures Chandra’s music – 

She merged with the vibe 
Ration of the drum a hum a 
Home womb and um 
She OM moaned in the loam  
Dark earth come Sheila  

and meditates on its absence through evocative, associative imagery:  

Is a voice just muscles and shape and 
Breath to phrase a song boats assemble
At the mouth of the harbor mouth in 
Earth you who wrote an ode to silence 
Never wrote of what is silenced … 

In this newest collectionthe real stories of athletes, musicians, artists, and activists enjamb into one another, and into mythologies and figureheads. As a result, each poem and subsequent breath of space manage to hold multiplicity – they journey through infinite moments that are at once brought together by Ali’s precise lyrical voice.  

I am drawn most to how Ali intersects these moments, these reimagined stories, with the particulars of his own life – navigating the multiplicity of time and space, leaning into alternate readings or reclamations of history. This is apparent, for example, through the ambiguous character of Sanjay, a man that Ali was mistaken for in his real life, who ghosts at the edges of the sonnet sequence, a kind of doppelganger that represents presence and absence both. 

The other poems in The Voice of Sheila Chandra build upon similar themes, particularly in rewriting or reclaiming history and time. The long poem ‘Hesperine for David Berger’, opens with a provocative stanza that tests the physical limits of the body – of linearity. In this piece, the poem’s consistent structure of long lines, and almost paragraph-like stanzas, suggest a single and concrete narrative – however, such notions are constantly subverted by Ali’s play with language, particularly with syntax and grammar, and the aforementioned flow/rupture of breath: 

And at this moment on the sea I see in the water a reflection 
of every face I’ve known each wave contains another wave each 
moment of violence contains 

The echoes and the doubling of words seem to both propel the poem forwards and provide moments of resistance and interruption, a reading practice that seems to capture the water itself. The repetitions (reverberations) too signal a kind of (re)shaping of time, illustrating how, even at the level of the poem’s rhythm, its music, time and space are constantly rewritten.  

However, though layered with meanings and often resistant to any single interpretation, his articulations about changing history and renarrativising the past – as well as the present, and future – are clear: 

Begin with the dining room attendant at the ivy-covered 
university who smashed the stained-glass window because we are 
now actually going to change history 

The Hesperine is a form that Ali innovated himself, and it is one that promises both fluidity and a sense of breakage. In the interview with Karthik Purushothaman, Ali suggests how this new form creates meaning by way of fracture and fragmentation. The Hesperine form, he outlines, ‘includes formal elements such as long lines with no punctuation, non-linear arguments, lack of narrative hierarchy, rejection of the question and the answer and actual mysterious verses from the Quran that have no accepted meaning.’  Such elements accrue across the long poem, providing readers with somewhat slippery, but captivating, tools of interpretation.  

In his impressive oeuvre, consisting of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, Kazim Ali continually challenges typical notions of form and poetic architecture; his lines flourish between and across genre. For me, it is exactly this quality – at the level of the clause, the line, the sequence – that heightens my experience of reading his work, drawing me into each new multi-genre collection, and ultimately renewing, again and again, my perceived limits of genre.  

The Voice of Sheila Chandra by Kazim Ali. You can buy the book here.

Alycia Pirmohamed is the author of the pamphlets Second Memory, Hinge, and Faces that Fled the Wind. Her debut collection Another Way to Split Water will be published by YesYes Books (US) and Polygon (UK) in 2022. 

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