The Millions

There Must Be Sacred Art: On Peter O’Leary’s ‘Thick and Dazzling Darkness’

“We prayed in Arabic everyday,” the poet Kaveh Akbar once wrote, “a language nobody in my family spoke.” His family spoke Farsi and English. Prayer, then, was a transformation: “From an early age, I was saying this mellifluous, charged language that was meant to thin the membrane between the divine and me. I didn’t understand what I was saying, but I understood if I spoke it earnestly enough that it would do that.” Akbar writes elsewhere of how another poet, Kazim Ali, explained that the Arabic word ruh “means both ‘breath’ and ‘spirit,’ and this seems absolutely essential to my understanding of prayer—a way of directing, bridling the breath-spirit through a kind of focused music.”

Read a few lines of a talented poet charged with God—from the otherworldly on forward to Akbar himself—and you see what faith can do to language. There’s a lift. A particular lean. A curious mixture of confidence and humility. A strangeness borne of awe. ’s book of criticism, , considers what it means when religious poets continue to write such charged verse when the broader world reacts with skepticism, and perhaps derision, in response to such devotion.

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