The Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse is a portable, ancient, and fluid sangha. It seats a dynamic chorus at its pews and cushions, prayer mats and kitchen tables. Instead of gathering spiritual verse through a religious lens, the editor, poet and scholar Kaveh Akbar, prioritizes spiritual inquiry—the words of monks and laymen, the exiled and incarcerated, the highly decorated and anonymous. This curation reminds us that a call toward the divine is democratic. No credentials are required. The poets are bound together in their longing to trace the predicament of living, and of suffering. Akbar urges us to pay attention to this conversation “that has been ongoing for forty-three centuries and counting.” While the histories, sensibilities, and questions of these poets are resonant with their specific cultural context, I find myself startled at what tethers them. It is their deep commitment to the profundity of being human, forever marked by alternating desperation and faith.
In this context, where traditions brush against one another, each poem sustains an impact from the ones preceding. Through vivid cross-pollination, each is refreshed with meaning and allusion. Sappho is transformed into a Zen project. Akbar writes, “Sappho was by all accounts one of history’s greatest poets, but the entire corpus of her work burned with the great Library of Alexandria, so today we know her only through the bits of other writers.” Confronted by her poem “Fragment 22” I was presented by the limits of a page eaten by fire:
if not, winter
] no pain
Her burned text, which arrives to us twenty-six centuries later in wisps and gaps, expresses the ideals of the Buddhist philosophy Wabi-Sabi (typically defined as “flawed beauty”). Author Richard R. Powell writes of Wabi-Sabi that it “[nurtures authenticity] by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.” I experience Sappho’s resilient, communally archived text in the way that Wabi-Sabi intends: with a reverence for impermanence, incompletion, and imperfection. It moves me. Not just an ancient lesbian’s crooning reaching me today, but the collective act of reconstruction. Amidst the fractured text, jumps in cognition, and brackets holding air, loom Wabi-Sabi practitioners: the translators. These translators choose to fall through Sappho’s impermanence, incompletion, and imperfections—in short, choose to fall in love.
As I turned the anthology’s pages, the experience of Wabi-Sabi emanated beyond Sappho. The Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse appreciates gaps. Not just in Sappho’s stunning recoveries (what we like to call poems), but in the gaps between poets whose conversation has been cloaked by timeline and geography. While Rumi and Wumen Huikai wrote in the same century, nearly 3,000 miles divided them. In this anthology, their proximity echo-locates hidden dimensions in both voices. Major truths arrive, unassociated with doctrine. The Sufi advises:
Open those that contemplate the invisible
So no mosques or temples or idols remain,
So ‘this’ or ‘that’ is drowned in His fire.
—translated by Andrew Harvey
Nearby, Huikai’s Zen koan trembles. It too seeks to demolish all notions of “this” or “that” by proclaiming:
This isn’t mind; This isn’t Buddha; This isn’t a thing.
I imagine Akbar stitching these masters together across great distances—Iran and China—while delighting, as I did, in their overlaps. To hold this book is to hold multiplicity, a mosaic arranged divine shard by divine shard. Through Akbar’s arrangement, longing itself is emphasized. The poets invite us into a heartfelt practice: to layer disparate truths until they cohese, or won’t. To allow ] where there is mystery. To ache. To admit we don’t know. To enter our hours with all the grace we can muster. To add our glint of divinity to the pile.
This collection continually reminds us that war is the backdrop of all spiritual bowing. Metaphysical poets are embraced, but not at the cost of poets “for whom an exploration of the divine necessarily included explorations of the body and the body politic.” The insistence on poets who were brutalized by war, genocide, incarceration, and slavery underscores that spirituality must be worthy of the soil it walks. When Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, who composed most of his work in jail, writes, “I hear voices—” it is neither ethereal nor prophetic. He follows it up with “not from the blue vault but from the yard / the guards are beating someone again.” Hikmet is not seduced by the fantasy of voices in the sky. He can discern the voices of brutality from the voices of heaven. He is a clear witness of injustice. His sobering observation evokes his spiritual neighbor Yosa Buson, who writes:
The worthless monk
is beating his worthless
iron begging bowl
Buson is not tricked by appearances of permanence, or selfhood. Where others might see a monk’s solidity, or hear the clang-clanging of a bowl, Buson redefines “worthlessness,” and so, value. For both poets, real value comes from unmuddied attention. Vastly separated by circumstance, geography, and time, a depth of stillness summoned both to language. Akbar emphasizes that this anthology is strategically curated in “opposition to the colonial impulse.” With that comes a refusal to skip over the cruelty spirituality can enact in its own name. We find Frederick Douglass unmanipulated by cheap, spiritual-sounding claims. His poem “A Parody” highlights hypocrisy during the Antebellum South. Douglass writes:
They’ll church you if you sip a dram,
And damn you if you steal a lamb,
Yet rob old Tony, Doll, and Sam
of human rights and bread and ham –
Kidnapper’s heavenly union.
Under Douglass’ pen, “church”—instead of a noun connoting safety—becomes a pejorative verb. His poetic twists interrogate false heavens whose gatekeepers are kidnappers. The perversions of faith are laid bare as the demand for true spiritual living rings through the air.
To hold a spiritual tome that spans forty-three centuries is a wildly humbling thing. In my hands are words that shouldn’t have necessarily reached me; some from those who survived what probably should have trespassed and dismantled their spirit; others from poets drunk on speechlessness, all that dizzying grace. They all staggered, step by step, through daily life toward something worthwhile. It’s still right here, waiting for us, to be tasted and named. Something impermanent. And incomplete. And imperfect.
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