Book Review

Tiel Aisha Ansari, High Voltage Lines, Barefoot Muse Press, 2012

Reviewed by Susan Delaney Spear

Tiel Aisha Ansari’s High Voltage Lines is aptly titled, for these poems afford one pleasant shock after another. This collection, packed with ghazals, villanelles, pantoums, sestinas, and more, is evidence of Ansari’s comfortable command of received forms. She is a Sufi and the transcendent sings descant in her work, but she is not a sober pedant or a proselytizer. She is first and foremost an artist, particularly adept with repeating forms and a master of musical lines. Her use of repeating forms is redolent of the Sufi practice of the whirling dance used in worship. Ansari writes winningly about content as diverse as the natural world, second hand clothes, convention delegates, Faust, Penelope, burying a dead fox, and a bitter cup of coffee. She hints at what these poems, and perhaps lyric poems in general, have to offer:

            But lyric lines—at least so I suppose—
            May faintly echo something that transcends,
            For you to hear. (But only Allah knows.)

Ansari manipulates punctuation to multiply meaning and to interject surprise. In her subtle handling of the repeating line in “Southbound Train,” Ansari compounds the meaning and makes these poignant lines look deceptively effortless simply by moving a punctuation mark.
            Love letters lie in the rain
            photographs float on the breeze
            ink eddies dark down the drain.
            Love letters lie. In the rain,
            a slow-moving sad southbound train
            leaves from the platform where these
            love letters lie in the rain,
            photographs float on the breeze.

In stark contrast is the delightfully sarcastic “Roomba” (I had to look up the title, which I mistakenly thought was a type of dance). But no—a Roomba is a robotic vacuum cleaner which Ansari compares to a significant other who swoops “around a polished floor / in search of any lint to grab,” lint being the speaker’s faults which the Roomba seeks out and holds against her.  

Ansari writes convincingly a full range of tones. In “Lamia on Keats” she uses the haunting persona of the mistress of Zeus who explains that after she had orchestrated Keat’s medical education, he “[turned] it to poetical caprice / with science as villain of the piece!” She grapples with the concept of “cosmic justice” in a narrative about a fox killed by a speeding car. The indignant speaker digs a grave and buries the fox, but it “hits [her] hard to say the last good-bye.” She raises the question that victims and those with a mind for justice consider: will the perpetrator get what he deserves? Or in this case, “doesn’t he / get karmic tickets for the fox he hit?”

“Up”, one of the collection’s final poems, calls to mind God’s questions to Job in the Old Testament book of that title, although any direct connection is dubious:
            “Where were you when the fires rose up?
             Where is the image before it shows up?”

The couplets speak of things that literally or figuratively rise: shoots, children, fire, and more.  True to the ghazal form, the couplets in this poem can stand alone, though they are loosely connected with the use of the word “up.” In the final couplet, the poet moves from the concrete to the transcendent, which is part of the seamless fabric of this collection. Ansari adds her voice to poets throughout the ages who effectually and potently combine poetry and prayer:

            “I am dust and a shadow walking
            call me, Lord, as my spirit goes up.”

Susan Spear is an affiliate professor of English at Colorado Christian University. She earned an MFA in the Verse forms of Poetry from Western State Colorado University. Her poems have appeared in Academic QuestionsThe Lyric, Mezzo Cammin, and Relief. She also loves music and serves as a choir accompanist and church organist. She lives on the eastern plains of Colorado with her husband. They have three grown children.