Silver Road: Essays, Maps, and Calligraphies by Kazim Ali
Tupelo Press, January 2018. 117 pp.
Reviewed by Luisa A. Igloria

How to Travel Through a Breakable Universe

Any reference to the tower of Babel often goes with the story of the origins of the world’s many languages. But in trying to imagine the logistics for such a construction project, I wonder how the multitudes of workers were brought together in the first place—did they see an ad on Indeed.com, were there county hiring representatives, did they simply hear of it by word of mouth? Regardless of how they were enlisted for this labor, what’s striking is that they were brought together by the same audacious idea: that of building an edifice higher than the Bhurj Kalifa in Dubai, or the Shanghai Tower in Lujiazui, or the Lotte World Tower in Seoul; an edifice taller than any in the world, high enough to reach the heavens.    

But the story is also one about the thwarting of human desire: God supposedly “cursed the builders by fracturing their language so they could no longer communicate with each other to build—” and thus, says Kazim Ali in his lyric/hybrid text Silver Road: Essays, Maps, and Calligraphies, poetry was born out of “the human urge to actually reach the geography of the divine.”  

Which is to say, poetry is what comes in the aftermath of any great longing—the human is unable to forget what she aspires for beyond the world of the actual to which she has once more been consigned. The poet writes: “…neither body nor spirit is absolute concept or actuality. Nothing is. Even considering that, I do not want to forget myself; I do not want to erase the physical in favor of the spirit nor the spirit in favor of the actual world. I want to live in time and space since if in the actual universe there is neither, then this one minute might be my only chance.” The poet-traveler is “a two-faced supplicant… eternally alarmed and never ameliorated, committed beyond reason to the actual world yet all the while praying to be abducted curly-locked and fabulous into Heaven.” To journey with him in these in-between spaces which have opened up, there can be no more appropriate vehicle than a text-in-fragments.

Award-winning poet Kazim Ali, who is professor of Literature and Writing at the University of California, San Diego, unveils a multitude of facets in this jewel of a book. Silver Road invites readers to examine and mull over a variety of forms and fragments, molecules of compressed thought and feeling. Lyric essays and meditations, journal entries, prose poems, and prismatic detours convey us through a variety of settings: In a wood, musicians attempt to interpret Yoko Ono’s first score called “Secret Piece” (created in 1953 and described as containing a “musical staff and two quarter notes with the note with the accompaniment of birds singing at dawn”). In the house where he lives with his partner, as he practices yoga on the third floor, he invokes the presence of student boarders who used it as a dormitory in the early 1900s after it was built; there, he also imagines the daughters of the first owners watching from the staircase a funeral on the first floor which they were forbidden to attend. No matter how solitary or lonely the experience of being time- and place-bound, we are never completely alone even when we think we are alone. 

From juncture to juncture on his Silver Road, Kazim Ali considers the infinite network of connections that binds things to each other as well as jars them loose. The book is a quantum universe where poetry and music, complex family relationships, and climate change are discussed together; where glaciers become rivers as they “cross the border from Chile down into the lakes of Argentina…transitioning throughout their journey from liquid to ice to liquid again, rolling down with the same deliberate and thunderous force that plates of continents roll together.”

A “tongue” is where a break or ablation occurs, “and with that silver tongue the glacier speaks. Every once in a while there is a thunderous sound—a crack from the blue heart where the glacier is melting, refreezing, cloud sky, mountain, and river.” From another story, silver, too, is the trail of footprints left by Brahma’s consort Saraswati: entering the forbidden temple, she too enacts our same longings for inclusion in the space of the intimate and sacred. 

Whoever we are, wherever we hail from, whatever languages we speak and whatever alliances and identities we forge, Kazim Ali understands that “[t]o walk in the world is to find oneself in a body without papers, not a citizen of anything but breath.” Dwelling in a post-Babel universe can feel frightening and chaotic because of its indeterminacy, and so it is comforting to have Kazim’s Silver Road as travel guide. Its goal is not so much to bring us closer to any sense of arrival, but more to the realization of how it is that we can give thanks for “[o]ur bodies [that] are so lovely and breakable” because then they can become “the vessel for poetry.”


Luisa A. Igloria is the winner of the 2015 Resurgence Prize (UK), the world's first major award for ecopoetry, selected by former UK poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion, Alice Oswald, and Jo Shapcott. Natasha Trethewey selected her manuscript What is Left of Wings, I Ask, as the recipient of the 2018 Center for the Book Arts Letterpress Poetry Prize. She is the author of the full length works The Buddha Wonders if She is Having a Mid-Life Crisis (Phoenicia Publishing, Montreal, 2018), Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser (selected by Mark Doty for the 2014 May Swenson Prize, Utah State University Press), Night Willow (Phoenicia Publishing, Montreal, 2014), The Saints of Streets (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2013), Juan Luna’s Revolver (2009 Ernest Sandeen Prize, University of Notre Dame Press), and nine other books. She teaches on the faculty of the MFA Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University, which she directed from 2009-2015. www.luisaigloria.com