PLUVIOPHILE by Yusuf Saadi | Review by Bill Neumire

Yusuf Saadi
Nightwood Editions, 2020

Deifying rain and language, Yusuf Saadi’s debut poetry collection, Pluviophile (lover of rain), flows with a playful dedication to the music of words. In an interview with Ariel Gordon, Saadi said, “I don’t have a theory of language or understand it at all, really, but I do often find myself enamoured with language. I think languages’ surfaces, irreducible to utilitarian meanings, contain the kinds of truths I’m after. I trust what the musician says about God more than the theologian.” And thus, Saadi’s poems in Pluviophile are little acts of trust in music. Covering a world of earthly terrain and incorporating frequent words and phrases from his maternal Indian-Arabic heritage–the cooking of haleem and aloo pakoras as the adhan is recited at breakfast–the book proceeds in three sections engaging with an assortment of forms, from sonnets to prose poems to Nerudian catalogues of questions often attuned more to internal rhyme, alliteration, and assonance than concerns of semantic meaning.

Winner of the Vallum Chapbook Award, Saadi has his speaker ask, “What would / heaven be without the sound of rain?”. Rain is essential to our existence, and its historic recycling within our planet’s atmosphere gives it an eternal, ethereal quality. Enamoured with the magic of rain, the speaker follows up with, “Haven’t you heard the madman / say God is a pluviophile?”. The poet uses the common experience of rain to put readers in the position of prophets, declaring, “We are harbingers of petrichor.” The absolving, cleansing power of water allows the speaker to confront a sordid world of human cruelty with its newsreel flow of pangs cradled in poetic tenderness, such as when, in ‘Child Sacrifice,’ there appears “the girl on TV, corpse bloated / with brine, I lay her body in this line.” The approach seems practical: what can language, what can our relationship to something as simple and ever-present as words and rain, teach us about how to live our lives? Or as Saadi’s speaker asks, “Which words / will make me a good man?”. In the often demoralizing and dehumanizing world of publishing and po-biz, it bears stopping to applaud a moment that reminds us that poetry, beyond awards and publications and appointments, can be simply a way of life, a way of learning how to live well.

Saadi’s connection to language, and thus his poems, is playful and inquisitive in its variety. For instance, there’s a sense of an editor’s mind of revision throughout these poems, a liquid mentality that offers us a look into the poet’s own writing process, as in this moment from ‘Rough Draft’: “The daughter [I can’t remember her name–maybe don’t mention her at all].” With words in bold nesting in a longer prose poem, his untitled poem further shows off Saadi’s spirited flare, which is less committed to a consistency of form than it is to the whimsical moment. It’s a ranging sense of communication that even asserts that “two field cows bellowing different pitches mean music.” It’s a poetics that seeks the connected and positive: “The report tonight: poetry is news / that stays beautiful,” a statement akin to the old William Carlos Williams acorn, “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” And it’s at times quite lighthearted and funny (including a sonnet by a forgotten Twix wrapper), as here, a bit of humorous levity from ‘Joliette’: “Outside, minus twenty-three, / with windchill it’s real fuckery.” But laughter is at odds with the negative fire of “So many old ones perished without / eulogy–no holy words for holy words that burned.” There are darker languages at hand as well as, such as this moment from ‘Unpaid Editorial Internship’: “When the Visa bill arrives, lock it / in the mailbox until it grows so loud / we can’t sleep.” It’s an amalgam that includes, in ‘Breaking Fast,’ a moment when “A man screams / or sings in cryptic Arabic muffled / by radio static.” The speaker abides in an adopted home that calls back to remind him that “In [his] mother’s tongue I love / you intimates I want you as my home.”

The wordless rain becomes the percussive diction of a god throughout this book, as “beyond [his] finitude / you dream a wave and particle at once.” The religious references are overt, as when the speaker talks with his mother who explains, “Our family moved into the mountains to be closer to God.” Later, she adds, “we cannot afford to disbelieve in God. We will pray for better lives. We will feed our children shrapnel. We will teach them to dance to the sound of bombs.” This bruised cloud of war and fear skirts the edges of these poems, never taking center stage, but rather backdropping the joy and faith of the essential work. It’s a collection that asks, “Who is your lord?” (26). This is as there are mundanely ruinous options such as traffic as “the new god.” It’s a darkly magical time-bent landscape where

angels prey
on sidewalks–shadowplay
from insects who weave leminscates
in the halogen above.

This book is not a research project, not an avant-garde manifesto; it is simply “Writing poetry at night / with the rust from our lives,” an exploration of linguistic play for the sake of trusting that language and what it leads to will, like the rain, return to its beginning as it attempts to “gather art to its primary source.”  It poses the possibility that perhaps the best one can do is be “busy worshipping.”

Reviewer’s Bio

Bill Neumire’s second book of poems, #TheNewCrusades, was a finalist for the Barrow Street Prize and will be out in the spring from Unsolicited Press.