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Tuesday, November 24, 2015



    When the French poet Arthur Rimbaud wrote, “You must change your life,” he set the tone for future poets, including Philadelphia’s Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore. Born in 1940 in Oakland, California, Moore’s first book of poems, Dawn Visions, was published in 1964 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Books. This was the Beat Generation era, when Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, also published by City Lights, was changing the poetic landscape. In 1972, Moore followed up with another City Lights volume, Burnt Heart/Ode to the War Dead, about the human carnage in Vietnam.
       In the late 1960s he founded and directed The Floating Lotus Magic Opera Company in Berkeley, California, and later presented two major productions, The Walls Are Running Blood, and Bliss Apocalypse.  The world was changing, and for some meant a reinvention of the Self. Moore, who was then a self described Zen Buddhist whose normal routine was to get up early every morning, “sit zazen, smoke a joint, do half an hour of yoga, then read the Mathnawi of Rumi, the long mystical poem of that great Persian Sufi of the thirteenth century,” life was about to change.
   He met the man who was to be his spiritual guide, Shaykh Muhammad ibn al-Habib. “The man looked like an eccentric Englishman,” Moore writes. “He too had only recently come out of the English version of the Hippie Wave. He was older, refined in his manners spectacularly witty and intellectual, but of that kind prevalent then who had hobnobbed with the Beatles and knew the Tantric Art collection of Brian Jones firsthand. He had been on all the classic drug quests-peyote in the Yucatan, mescaline with Luara Huxley-but with the kif quest in Morocco he had stumbled on Islam, and then the Sufis, and the game was up. A profound change had taken place in his life that went far beyond the psychedelic experience.”
    Moore converted to Sufi Islam in 1970, riding a wave of spiritual self transformation that affected other writers and poets in the Bay area, most notably Eugene Rose, an atheist and Marxist whose devotion to Nietzcshe nearly drove him mad before his discovery of the wisdom of the early Desert Fathers. Rose, who would go on to become an Orthodox priest and co-founder of Holy Trinity monastery near Redding, California, is now considered by many to be a future saint of the Russian Orthodox Church. As for Moore, his spiritual transformation inspired him to travel to Morocco, Spain, Algeria and Nigeria, but finally back to California where he would publish The Desert is the Only Way Out.   
      In many ways, Philadelphia would prove to be Moore’s desert, although he did not become a Philadelphian until 1990. Before that date he lived for a while in Boston’s North End, where he remembers meeting the poet John Weiners, the shy gay Irish Catholic poet whom Allen Ginsberg once referred to as “a pure poet” and who was really the Walt Whitman of New England.

     Moore told me that he met Weiners in 1965 when Weiners was working at Filene’s Basement in Boston. He was in a “circle” of poets with David Rattray, Steve Jolas, etc. and we meet a few times at a poetry afternoon at Jola’s place… … I walked with John and [the famous poet] Denise Levertov to the train station where John took a train back home, and probably to be institutionalized for a while… I didn’t know him well, but he came to our apartment in the North End a few times and said little, wrote a poem once, and left… Once he came when we had a little room with Christmas lights on the ceiling, and he went in there, lay down, and we forgot he was there until an hour later he appeared in our little kitchen and left… He was a wraithlike soul… He died alone in the snow after a New Years party….on his way home.”

    The Milton, Massachusetts-born Weiners, who studied at Black Mountain College with Robert Creely and Robert Duncan, was part of the Beat poetry renaissance in San Francisco but always called himself a Boston poet. Boston, an elder sister city to Philadelphia (by 50 years) with many historic similarities, was dear to Weiners.     
Boston, sooty in memory, alive with a
thousand murky dreams of adolescence
still calls to youth; the wide streets, chimney tops over 
Charles River’s broad sweep to seahood buoy;
            the harbor
With dreams, too...

Slumbering city, what makes men think you sleep,
but breathe, what chants or paeans needed
            at this end, except
you stand as first town, first bank of hopes, 
            first envisioned

     While living in Philadelphia, Moore published The Ramadan Sonnets (Jusoor/City Lights), and in 2002, The Blind Beekeeper (Jusoor/Syracuse University Press).  San Francisco poet, playwright and novelist Michael McClure has written that Moore’s poems are like Frank O’Hara’s, where “there are no boundaries or limits to possible subject matter,” and where “imagination runs rampant and it glides.”  

 In his poem Great cruelty and Heartlessness, Moore writes:

We’re living in a time of great cruelty and heartlessness
where instead of a sun they’re throwing up
Instead of sunlight there’s the sound of
hammers beating
Instead of walking there’s kicking
Instead of thinking there’s talking
It’s almost as if there’ve never been times like
these before
Even shadows thrown by cartwheels on dirt roads
resemble the grimaces of armies as they
slide across rocks
In the palaces of power clocks go off but no one
Decisions are made by pouring acid down drains
or waiting for nightfall in a room lit by
neon tubes
If anyone speaks all eyes are upon them
I saw a sparrow fly over a fence
An ant stop and not go on
But laughter has turned to pebbles
falling on zinc
And children have been torn from their futures
 One might say the line “torn from their futures” refers to destroyed lives through drugs. This poem reminds me of a talented musician acquaintance of mine, “T,” who threw away a lucrative career as a Hollywood filmmaker when he turned to heroin. “T” left Philadelphia for a post-rehab life in Austin, Texas with his recovering girlfriend, but the swearing off of drugs didn’t last long. After just one month of bathing in frothy Texas streams, strumming guitars and playing with an adopted ferret, the drug demon returned to haunt “T” with a vengeance. When this happened, the girlfriend took off for parts unknown (ferret in tow), leaving my friend desolate and, as his Facebook page indicated, in a major depression. He has since dropped out of sight after a posting a disturbing October 11 Facebook message. Since then his distraught mother has contacted me and asked me to pray for him. I’m not good at praying for people, much less myself, but I will give it a try at my local Orthodox parish.  
    I profile Moore’s poetry extensively in my new book, Literary Philadelphia (The History Press).  As a believer in something beyond himself, you might say that Moore is not a poet of empty things and ideas like some modern poets. Instead, aspects of the spiritual and the divine seem to invade every word he writes. He also finds a way to say  the unsayable.  Moore, it is said, was viewed as a legend in the California of the 1960s, in part because he was able to be “spiritual” without losing his sense of humor. One could almost say that he is the spiritual poet with the comedic wink.   Others call him a surrealist of the sacred.

    In this age of ongoing dialogue among Muslims, Christians and Jews, the sacred personage known as the Virgin Mary, mentioned some thirty-four times in the Koran, stands out as important on the historical and the dogmatic plane. The sacred person concept is not lost on Moore, who writes in Five Short Meditations on the Virgin Mary:

I saw Mary board a bus at Broad and State
her head covered and her face radiant
small and held within herself
careful and preoccupied
a heaven seeming to be wrapped around her
her cheeks red her lips dry her eyes lowered
interior moisture her preferred cloister
the bus passengers sudden ghosts before her
her shoes small and tattered
her hands carrying a book
If any had spoken to her she might have become lost
If she had spoken to anyone
they might have become saved.
    Maybe my friend “T” will meet a mysterious woman wearing small and tattered shoes during his lost travels in Texas.