by Athena Kildegaard
Some poets travel to distant lands and bring back exotic sights and smells. But others go to witness turmoil or violence, to be at the center of political or social change and to bring back the news—not as journalists do, but shaped through language and image in ways that awaken our sensibilities and our emotions.
Bloomer Yahya Frederickson lived in a distant land and has brought back something completely different.
The grandson of a Norwegian, a Dane, and two Swedes, Frederickson grew up and went to college in Moorhead, a small city on the Red River in northwestern Minnesota. In an effort to try something new, he went off to Montana to earn an MFA. Then, because his taste for adventure was whetted, and since he’d never traveled outside the United States and was eager to see the world, Frederickson skipped the continent to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer—and where he landed happened to be Yemen. That first year he experienced his adopted country as a tourist might, paying attention to what made Yemen different. Gradually he made friends and began to see Yemen as a home filled with people no different in their desires and thirsts from the people in Moorhead and Missoula.
Then the Gulf War began and all Peace Corps volunteers had to leave the country. Some of that group did not return, but at the first opportunity, Frederickson went back—in his year at home he discovered that he’d fallen in love with Yemen. So he completed his two-year obligation to the Peace Corps and stayed. In the four years that followed, while he taught at Sana’a University, he made lifelong friends, met his wife and married, had children, and converted to Islam.
His conversion was not the act of a rebellious young person, nor was it a rejection of a faith he’d grown up in, since his family was not particularly devout. In an interview some years ago, Frederickson spoke of living in a country that was 99% Muslim. At first, he found the calls to prayer exotic. “The calls to prayer . . . would start . . . in what seemed to be the middle of the night. Just the . . . loud but hauntingly beautiful call to prayer, the ‘Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar’ in the dark and you’d wake up because you’ve never been awakened by anything in the middle of the night like that before.” Eventually, though, the call “turned out to be something that I really grew to appreciate despite my apprehension and distrust of it at the beginning.” Frederickson was drawn to this ritual devotion and its relaxed attitude toward worldliness, toward business and commerce; an attitude that was less fraught, less demanding than in the United States. He saw that “they weren’t running, running, running all day long . . . there was a social value . . . to sitting with people and discussing things, having conversations.” Frederickson realized, “I’d been looking for something to believe in and something to use. You know, a faith that will direct your life, not just direct your faith.” In the Islamic faith he found a way to connect his spiritual life to his bodily life.
After six years total in Yemen, Frederickson returned to the Midwest with his family and went on to earn a Ph.D. at the University of North Dakota. He now teaches at Minnesota State University Moorhead and has returned to the Middle East as a Fulbright Scholar—to Syria in 2005 and to Saudi Arabia in 2011.
When I asked Frederickson to comment on the current coup underway in Yemen, he replied: “Yemen has been in turmoil almost as long as I’ve known it.” After the first Gulf War inflation and high unemployment made life difficult for many Yemenis, and a civil war in the mid-1990s added unrest to the instability. Following the Arab Spring of 2011, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s president for the past 35 years, was forced out of office, though his successor has had his share of troubles as well. Relations between Yemen and the United States are delicate, in part because, while Yemen has been an ally in the “war on terror,” Yemenis have been victims of failed drone attacks.
“I’ve learned,” says Frederickson, “to see that people are not their governments. People are people, with the same hopes, dreams, fears, and feelings as anybody else.” This knowledge, he says, is what he is trying to convey in his most recent, full-length book of poetry. “And isn’t this realization—that people are not their government—something that we’d want people in other countries to realize about us?”
The Gold Shop of Ba-’Ali, winner of the 2013 Idaho Prize for Poetry, follows Frederickson as he becomes a member of the community, converts to Islam (and relinquishes his given European name for “Yahya”), marries, and has children. Yet the book is not memoir or confession. Readers won’t find here a speaker wrestling with his identity or his faith, and while there are a few poems that consider the political life of Yemen, the book is not the poetry of political witness. What then, is this remarkable book of poems, how do we understand it?
The book begins with two hadiths: “Be in this world as if you are a stranger or a wayfarer,” and “ The people of Yemen have come to you, and they are gentler and softer-hearted. Belief is Yemeni, and wisdom is Yemeni” A wayfarer, or one who journeys, is an apt description of the speaker in these poems: one who moves through the world—through his life. But he’s not alone, in the journey of this book, the people of Yemen come to him—friends, students, new family members, shop owners, even a man at prayer with a Kalashnikov.
In the first poem, “Crossing,” the speaker describes a dry riverbed where sheep “lip leafless stems” and where a boy “without pants or sandals / pees into the ravine.” The speaker follows this boy into the souq, or market. The poem ends:
To earn a living, all a seller needs is a word
and the throat to wield it. Let mine answer why
I am in this life so far from my own,
why I enter every day, no desire to buy.
The poet sets out here one purpose for the book: it is an opportunity for the poet to make sense of why he’s here, in this place, far from his “own.”
The first section of the book is filled with poems that enjoy the sensory particulars of Yemen: “waxy taffy slabs” in the market; the “booty” of shops: “mutton on hooks, / shelves of jarred honey, carpets from Turkey”; the smell from a hookah: “the smoldering tang . . . tendrilling around us.” Amidst this sensory lusciousness are moments that pull us back, that refuse an urge to revel only in what’s beautiful and exotic. At an outdoor restaurant, a man named Hamoud joins the speaker. “In English tempered by movies and rap, he’s cursing his father’s homeland, its soldiers who don’t like what might be hiding behind his car windows’ purple tint.” In the living room of a friend hangs a poster that shows “Saddam Hussein atop a white stallion, greeting a clapping throng.”
In the prose poem “The Last Time,” the speaker goes to the apartment of his friend Ahmad, only to find that Ahmad’s older cousin Salih, “an officer in the military,” is there with a woman, “poised like an empress . . . dressed in a gown of turquoise satin.” Things turn strange:
Salih leaves the room. When he returns, he is no longer wearing his olive uniform but a white terrycloth bathrobe, his belly protruding over the cinched belt. Our presence will not alter his objective. I cringe to picture it. Our queen looks too fresh to be a prostitute, too comfortable to be a victim. For her delights, how much will he pay?
Also in the room is another man, a cousin, unnamed, who is there “maybe to watch, maybe to wait his own sloppy turn.” The speaker and Ahmad go to another room where they pick up guitars and try to make music, but their songs “don’t merge.” The poem continues:
We try a Bob Dylan tune that both of us know, but even that is hopeless: inside the room closed tight as a small fist, our discordant notes crumble onto the floor. We can’t even keep time anymore.
Frederickson perfectly captures this moment of cultural and social awkwardness.
He does the same in the poem “All-Night Teashop:”
Under the lone fluorescent bulb,
an army transport rattles to a halt,
emptying its cargo of young soldiers.
Their carbines sleep across their laps
as they devour sandwiches of jam
and cheese, glasses of mango juice.
Watching these young soldiers prompts the speaker to ask, “And what am I?” The answer: “I offer no opportunities, // nothing, except maybe / the forgiveness I see, no greater wish / in the world than tea.” This wayfarer speaks with a gentle, humble voice, a voice of one willing to look honestly at the world.
In the second section of the book, the speaker learns to be a member of the Yemeni community. “I’ve learned the futility / of proof, a commodity no one hoards,” concludes a poem about passing through checkpoints. He has followed the lead of others in passing through checkpoints with aplomb. At the end of “Malarial,” the speaker is on the beach practicing his Arabic with a boy, following fishermen to a mosque, and watching as “an old man hacks melons open, / sings wedding songs.” The poem’s quiet, observant reporting ends with the speaker watching fishermen return with their catch:
They’ve come to devour
sweet red flesh.
No reason to remember names, places.
Only the nectarous juice running down
the brown cords of their arms, the fever
their foreheads press into damp sand
for the God who brought them back.
This quiet comment on prayer reveals the speaker’s own slow turning toward the faith.
And thus it is that in the third section, the speaker describes his conversion—quietly, almost incidentally. In “Embrace,” the speaker’s student remarks that he dreamt the poem’s speaker was a Muslim. Says the speaker, “Last night, who worried more / about my eternity than he?” The tourist is no longer a tourist, but a member, loving his new faith and community, entering into both their purity and imperfection:
Like this, I fall in love
with every pure
but imperfect intention:
every stone staircase
with uneven steps,
every mud wall built
to lead me away,
every peel and pit
strewn in the fruit souq
because the buyer couldn’t wait,
every bent key
to open a gate.
The narrative of this wayfarer ends in a fourth section that begins with the speaker marrying. “We will learn / that love means what we have begun.” His father misses the wedding because of illness, and the bride’s father is not alive: the two young people must begin their lives together without fathers. And it is just as well, since it is clear that neither would have approved. The two poems that capture this familial difference are followed by a prose poem in eight parts entitled “Secession.” This poem captures the time, from May to July in 1994, when Yemen was engulfed in a civil war. While anti-aircraft guns go off, the speaker helps carry a judge’s paralyzed wife for a bath, boys throw rocks at dogs, a neighbor tapes her windows with black Xs to “prevent them from shattering, neighbors leave for rural villages,” and “in a small mosque, old men read Surat Yaseen in unison for those whose homes Monday’s Scud exploded over them.” The poem gives us an honest experience of life under siege, neither maudlin nor prettifyied:
The whitecaps of your nightgown roll toward the warm beach of night. I make plans by praying. Plans with you and falling water, flattened trees, the earth of a different brown country. Whatever manner of flesh will rekindle our blackened bones, Allah can raise it above the pounding, cover it with the coolest mist.
In the last poems of the book we witness the survival of the speaker’s premature twins. While his son is being examined by the doctor, the speaker goes outside, to escape the smoke of other men in the waiting room. “A garden nearby perfumes the night with lemongrass, / jasmine, and onion. I know he’ll be healed.” This appearance of the onion helps us to understand the last line of the final poem in the book, “Praying Beside a Mujahed:”
Were I to turn my head to the left, I could gaze
deep into the dark eye of the Kalashnikov.
Never think that a trigger tripped, a skull separated
onto plush carpet, is an accident, for destiny
allows no accidents. After the prayer, we’ll say peace.
His hand will shake mine with vigor. Until then,
closing my eyes, all I can see are onions, glorious
and sweet, thundering in the damp loam of Heaven.
What sort of a book is this? A speaker journeys to another part of the world and as he looks around, as he meets the people there, he changes and grows, he converts and joins the community, he marries and has a family: even with its seemingly exotic, politically charged content, the collection has all the elements of a bildungsroman, a universal coming-of-age story.
But the book is also a lesson in understanding and forgiveness. In recent days we’ve watched how easy it is in this world to castigate a whole people, a whole community, for the actions of a few. Forgiveness requires intimacy. Frederickson is suggesting, among other things, that we can come to know and forgive others, people who are strangers, if we journey to them and learn up close their gentleness, their soft-heartedness. And of course, we must make that journey bringing our own attitude of gentleness and honesty, just as Frederickson does in these surprising and beautiful poems.
Athena Kildegaard is the author of three books of poetry, Rare Momentum (2006), Bodies of Light (2011, a Minnesota Book Award finalist), and Cloves & Honey (2012). She teaches at the University of Minnesota, Morris.
Athena Kildegaard’s previous features: J.C. Todd: Rising into the Light, The Art of Losing, the Art of Holding: Karen Skolfield’s Frost in the Low Areas, Ruth Stone: Poet of Wonder and Grief