Dervish Lions by Tiel Aisha Ansari,
Reviewed by Betsy Fogelman Tighe
Fernwood Press, 2022, 150 pages
Available at www.fernwoodpress.com
I have had the privilege of being in writing response groups with Tiel Aisha Ansari for more than a dozen years. I had summarized her as a nature poet or even a science poet who plumps up many poems with the little-known fact, the surprising detail that expands to become the truest of metaphors. However, after reading Dervish Lions, I realized that I have been underestimating Ansari’s range. Her latest full-length book––coming in at an impressive 150 pages– is an ecstatic exploration of time on earth, a kind of extended prayer arising from her Sufi practice. As Paulann Peterson says in the foreword, “We’re in a world lit by reverence, compassion, and awe.”
Dervish Lions is divided into three sections: “Kingdom of Wind,” “Countries of Origin,” and “Province of Saints.” The first two sections land themselves more firmly in the environment: the first section mostly in Oregon and the second section in ancestral lands which include the more exotic locales in which Ansari spent much of her youth. These sections employ many of Ansari’s regular devices, including simple narrative, mostly declarative sentences, and a flatter diction; for example, For some time I’ve wanted to climb the Marquam Trail/to the top of Council Crest (“Death on the Marquam Trail”). The third section contains most of the more spiritually yearning poems and lifts the book to another level.
The opening poem in the first section, “Paper Birches,” is the entry into the book and alerts us to the fact that we are in mystical territory. In this prose poem, Ansari describes the white birches outside her building:
….On a clear afternoon, the west sides of the slender trunks blaze with sunlight; the east sides glow with soft light reflected
from the building windows. There is no darkness around these trees. Moss will never grow on them….
I hold up a poem and one side is lit by reflection from the faces of listeners. The other side is brilliant with divine radiance.
In this transaction I illuminate nothing. My fingerprint on the paper is only a shadow. The poem is incandescent. The poem is
a white birch.
Perhaps the most proper use of poetry is to transport and connect us to the “divine radiance” of the All, whatever each of us may call that.
Then, near the end of the book in a poem called “Radiance,” Ansari embeds a shorter poem in the longer one by bolding the first word in each line. In the process, she affirms the precious ties between life and death.
If you wake up, really wake up
the world seems changed.
Radiance is everywhere. The smell
of roses. The fragrance of
a garden overflowing with the
thousand songs of Milarepa.
Suns dance hand in hand. You
were sleeping all this time. Wake
to see the bubbles of time
burst. Kick-start yourself
into eternity, into perpetual motion,
the dream of engineers forever.
Sky is the only limit
that the awoken recognize. Who
would dream on when they could
like this? Who would choose
the comfort of dreams over the
splendor of reality? Which
of us sleeps and which watches
the clockwork of the universe?
Mighty God, Most High
One of many Names
I lie wide-eyed at your feet. I
am your dog, your slave. I have
become your lover.
Death is only
the gateway to eternal life,
shatterer of chains, opener
of doors. Wake. The radiance of new
Reading the bold words vertically, the shorter poem says, If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst into the sky that would be like the splendor of the Mighty One I am become Death the shatterer of worlds. Then the larger poem affirms that Death is only the gateway to eternal life…opener/of doors. Wake. The radiance of new/worlds awaits. The form of the two poems might mirror the way each individual is nestled in the larger radiant reality Ansari calls God.
One of my favorite poems in the book is in the third section: “Waiting for the Bus with Yunus Emre.” Ansari engages the 13th century Turkish Sufi poet in a dialog that attempts to get answers about her own poetry. For example:
I never know if my poems are any good.
When you have brought the pearl to the surface
a jeweler is needed to know its worth….
Yunus, what’s the use of poetry anyway?
Let the deaf listen to the mute
a soul is needed to understand them both.
But what makes a really good poem?
We entered the house of realization. We witnessed
Like Ansari, aren’t we always questioning ourselves? And isn’t the answer always, in truth, that we are just small parts of a very great whole? Dervish Lions give us the realization and experience of this truth––and both are of tremendous value.
Betsy Fogelman Tighe has published widely in literary magazines, including TriQuarterly, for which she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and Rattle, for whom she traveled to LA to read. She has won a third-place and a first-place prize from the Oregon Poetry Association. Her full-length manuscript has been semi-finalist for the Snake Nation Press Violet Reed Haas Poetry Prize and the Hidden Rivers Willow Run Book Award. (She looks forward to winning one someday.) Ilya Kaminsky chose a poem as a finalist for the 2020 Loraine Williams Poetry Prize. Tighe’s essay about her mentorship with James Wright appears in the Spring, 2018 issue of The Georgia Review. She works as a teacher-librarian in Portland, OR, where she also pays some notice to her garden and dotes on two young adult children.