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Review: Mystical Poems of Rumi 1

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Recent books: Judges; I Timothy; Schlatter, The Theology of the Apostles; John R. E. Bliese, The Greening of Conservative America; Shusaku Endo, Silence; Norton selections from Spenser, The Faerie Queene; excerpts from The Mystical Poetry of Rumi (trans. Arberry); Brust, The Lord of Castle Black;


I won't actually be reviewing Rumi, since I have at least that little
modesty remaining to me. Not only is Rumi practically a saint to Afghans,
this particular volume is considered part of the UNESCO Collection of
Representative Works. Big international culture mumbo-jumbo. Frankly,
the opinion of masses of ignored Afghans matters more to me. So. Rumi.
Big stuff. Mystical. Also, hyper-popular. Probably the only Muslim
writer other than Mohammed known to 98% of the country, and he's
practically the whole category in bookstores for "Islam/Sufism/Rumi".

And translation is a heck of a thing. And that moderates my guilt for
what I'm going to say: I wasn't really moved by a lot of the poetry in
this Rumi collection. The verses on the back cover actually reflect the
dilemma in Rumi's best style:

My verse resembles the bread of Egypt -- night passes over it, and you
cannot eat it any more.

Devour it the moment it is fresh, before the dust settles on it.

Its place is the warm climate of the heart; in this world it dies of cold.

Here is the startling simile -- a twist of words, names hooked to notions
and things -- and the injunction, an urgent, passionate plea for the
listener, or a straightaway truth exposed, the critical elements in Rumi's
poetry. This, this torrent, or even just a rivulet, of words, makes me
want to know the original. Badly. It was back when I was thinking of
going to Afghanistan and studying up on it that I met Rumi, on homage
pages in many of my Web sources about Afghanistan's people. And I feel
like I'm letting them down; as when you don't love a book or song pressed
into your hands by those you love. Just exactly that feeling. I wanted
to like these poems more, but... well.

And I can't really blame A. J. Arberry, now can I? Certainly not when
Rumi warned us about the bread of Egypt. Happily, though, even in English
the fish still twitches. This first selection has some 200 poems in it,
in a little over 160 pages (plus intro, notes, and index). Though I might
not have found 200 new poems to fall in love with, there are many jewels,
though sometimes just a handful of lines captivate.

So, buy? Not necessarily. But, find some Rumi and get to know him. I
know I have an unworthy palate -- but you may not, and a rich reward
awaits those who can catch the spark from Rumi's words.

Jalal al-Din Rumi, Mystical Poems of Rumi 1. Trans. A. J. Arberry.
U. of Chicago, 1968. ISBN

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