Author: Salimah Valiani
Publ: Inanna Publications and Education Inc.
‘Love as an Act; Justice as a Possibility’
Recently, a social media Friend posted what, from her tone, was a rhetorical question: ‘Do people still make love these days?’ There was collective exasperation in the ensuing thread, perhaps born of the Tinder-tendency of modern relationships to glibly Swipe Left when you intend to dismiss a fellow human, and to Swipe Right for a get-together.
I’m not judging those who consensually choose the fleeting ‘relationship’, and never will; I’m simply asking whether there might still, also, be a role for more enduring and liberating forms of Love, Compassion, and Altruism.
A recent book of new and selected poems, Salimah Valiani’s 29 leads to love, provides hope for those who believe that the concept of Love, however understood, shouldn’t be retired. The well-deserved winner of the Contemporary Poetry category of 2022’s International Book Awards, Valiani’s free-verse collection offers the reader a series of twenty-nine poems, each entitled ‘on love’, which constitute twenty-nine pathways towards a better world.
Fifteen other poems are interspersed across the collection, and these deal with many of the injustices of modern living, from the vile racism of Apartheid, to oil pollution, to the privatization of essential public resources, to South African diamond mining, to ecocide… But Valiani is not content to fight vague abstractions. Rather, her own professional rootedness in the specialist field of Political Economy enables her to identify the material causes of injustice, and she is armed with figures; in one poem on the exploitation of the global poor, we learn that ‘50% of the children under 4 are malnourished’. This sporadic quoting from formal reports suggests a poet who, despite the occasional mysticism of her verse, is acutely aware of how the world’s inequality stems from that economic system, capitalism.
It is clear from Valiani’s verse that where Love is absent, you’ll find the cruelties of capitalism, which is implicitly associated with love’s nemesis, exploitative Hatred. In one poem, ‘For the Eastern Ghats’, Valiani contrasts the potentially unspoiled beauty of India’s Ghats with Britain’s colonial imposition of hut tax on a society that until then celebrated the shared abundance of sustainable resources. But she’s not content to think that the formal end of colonialism solved matters, and instead proceeds to criticise postcolonial India’s continuingly destructive practices; for example, extractive tourism, bio-prospecting and mining in today’s Ghats.
These few poems on the wrongs of global capitalism travel the world, like Valiani herself has. Her work as a free-spirited academic and poet has taken her from South Africa to Canada to our East Africa, where her parents were born, and her migratory poems range even further, featuring every continent, tracing similarities between them: similarities of suffering, but also of love, the love that, her poems imply, can pull us away from injustice and towards a more hopeful, compassionate future where love might always triumph. It is encouraging that she has about twice as many poems featuring routes out of oppression than she has poems about oppression.
And this is what Valiani’s fine collection offers us: routes out of suffering, and hand-holding leads into love. In the first of her love poems, she classically suggests that love is something ‘none can name’, and therefore she instead offers us twenty-nine specific manifestations or examples of love. The random number of twenty-nine suggests that there could be more, perhaps even infinite, types and expressions of love.
In 29 leads to love, love is always an act, is always interpersonal, and the small act of love is never insignificant, but eventually reaches all of society in time. In one short poem, ‘on love (xiii)’, a Sufi singer accepts a bouquet of flowers from an audience member, passes these along the line of performers who take one each, and ‘then the singer/ gifts the bouquet/ to the listeners.’ Valiani’s Love is always a gift exchanged between people, and this as an emancipatory currency that contrasts with the grubby financial exchanges of capitalism.
Perhaps the mention of Sufism in ‘on love (xiii)’ reminds us of Rumi’s famous saying, that ‘Wherever you are, and whatever you do, be in love’. Indeed, this seems to be the underlying message of 29 leads to love, that if we continue to love, to give the gift of it and willingly receive it, then we’ll find routes out of injustice, and that love will grow exponentially from locality to locality, across the Earth. And isn’t this another aspect of Sufistic Love, the idea that the secular manner in which we love one another as individuals has the eventual consequence of enabling us to be loved by and love God? At the very least, Valiani’s poetry reminds us that if we love the one we’re with, as the old song lyric goes, we’ll eventually end up with a global economy of love from which all society will benefit.
But perhaps the most exciting aspect of 29 leads to love is the manner in which, like all transformative poetry, it articulates similarities between ostensibly dissimilar things, and how by doing so it prods the reader to imagine alternatives to suffering. These shocks include the simple reminder that although in terms of decontextualized Form ‘a table is a table is a table’, the same table, when contextualized within the group act of eating, ‘is a gathering space’, a place of community. They further include the synaesthesia of ‘painters depicting music for the deaf’, lovingly. But they also include the final poem’s proposals for a better world, where we encounter ‘police officers practicing yoga to keep the peace’ and where ‘the only burning [is] candles and sun’. The collection then ends with the three dots of ellipsis, which function as a generous invitation to the reader to ourselves go out and perform a 30th act of love, then another…
Presently, such hopes seem like pipe dreams, and this final poem feels surrealistic as a result, but its message inspires: Just Imagine! In such a world, Tinder wouldn’t be Love’s terminus. Peaceful, joyful community would. Justice would.