A modern mystic poet: Yahia Lababidi

When a few fateful retweets put me into contact with Egyptian-American poet and “seeker” Yahia Labadidi, I didn’t expect to come across an author whose work sounds such depth.

A work of 21st-century mysticism grounded in earthly reality, Lababidi’s latest collection of poems, Barely There, directs us not to the transcendental “upwards” but all around and within. With its tender word choice, simplicity and calm layout, Barely There (Wipf & Stock, 2013) whispers truth with an echoing boom.

“Poets and philosophers have in common a life-long struggle to build a bridge between the two worlds (the visible and the invisible),” the author tells me.

For Lababidi, beautiful words are akin to prayer. In uniting earthly form — in this case, words — with beauty, a divine trait from the Islamic perspective, he seeks to “collapse distances from the apparent to the infinite.”

The 40-year-old poet, born and raised in Egypt, has been writing aphorisms in English since his college days at George Washington University. At the time, he used to fast from words for days at a time, unconsciously mimicking a Sufi rite called “sawm al-kalam,” which aims at suppressing the ego and kindling the divine self. During these word fasts, Lababidi would record only those thoughts that were true and necessary, often jotted down in the spur of the moment “on random scraps of paper — the back of a napkin, receipt, or whatever else was handy.”

These bursts of luminescence were eventually compiled into his first book of aphorisms, Signposts to Elsewhere (2008), the bulk of which Lababidi says he composed before his 22nd birthday. Since then, he has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize by World Literature Today magazine, and published a book of essays called Trial by Ink: From Nietzsche to Belly Dancing (2010), a poetry collection titled Fever Dreams (2011), and a collection of conversations, The Artist as Mystic (2012). Some of Lababidi’s work has been translated into Arabic.

Barely There’s 75 short poems blur lines between form and the formless, reality and divinity, words and silence. The towering trees on the book’s cover fade into a swirling glow of forest mist, echoing Lababidi’s philosophy: Like them, humans also exist on this earth only in passing, to be swept away by white light — or perhaps the point is to get swept away while we’re here and breathing. The mystic’s path thus entails cultivating our souls’ desire to ascend and reunite with their source. The poems suggest that as our angelic spirit soars to lighten our being with knowledge of reality and love for it, it leaves the worldly, carnal soul crouching in retreat, leaving us “barely here.”

To realize union — or shunyata, muaarafa, haskalah, jnana or gnosis, as humans of different religious traditions try to describe the mystic aim — means ultimately reuniting with the divine essence at the core of each self while still embracing our day-to-day lives. As the author states in an aptly-titled one-sentence poem, A metaphor:

Where ocean and shore greet
a metaphor
for where Spirit and body meet.

To live with the spirit, the poem suggests, is to live in a reality constantly shaped by the Divine Ocean’s tide while maintaining a balanced footing on the earth’s shifting shore.  

In his opening, hymn-like poem, Breath, Lababidi alludes to an interconnected “tapestry” of reality linking all in each waking breath:

the prayer of all things:
trees, ants, stones, creeks and mountains alike
All giving silent remembrance
each moment, as a tug on a rosary bead
while we hurry past, heedless of the mysteries.

Trees, however sturdy, bow to powerful gusts of a storm; ants’ intricate forays are squashed by wandering footsteps and the creek’s song is silenced by winter’s cool stare. Even the rock-solid mountain might be pulverized by the earth’s quaking shivers. Like nature’s wonders, the human must:

not by pushing
does one get ahead,
but by allowing
oneself to be pulled
by the constant
tug of all things.

Rather than trying to dam the river of destiny with our arrogance, Lababidi’s poetry suggests, we should attempt to navigate like skilled kayakers maintaining balance around its sharp rocks and treacherous curves.

Lababidi’s crystalized thoughts point to expanding consciousness, to the numinous aspect of existence.

It’s easier to be fearless
when we remember
that we are deathless.

He beckons us to remember that without fear or habit,

there would be daily glimpses
of the indestructible world
and intimations of immortality.

The interested reader will find compilations of the author’s aphorisms around the web. Lababidi calls social media the “ballroom of dancing consciousnesses” and chirps about everything from art and literature to politics. He tells me he plans on releasing a new compilation of aphorisms in the near future.

To Egypt, which he left eight years ago, Lababidi addresses his final lines:

You are the deep fissure in my sleep,

that hard reality underneath
 a stack of soft-cushioning illusions.

Self-exiled, even after all these years
 I remain your ever-adoring captive

I register as inner tremors

across oceans and continents —

the flap of your giant wing
 to be free and know I shall not rest until

your glorious metamorphosis is complete.

Al-Sharif Nassef 

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