The Human and the Holy: On Sarah Ghazal Ali’s “Theophanies”
By Adedayo AgarauJanuary 16, 2024
Theophanies by Sarah Ghazal Ali
The evocative, investigative title, Theophanies, refers to manifestations or revelations of the divine. Originating from Greek, “theo-” is derived from “theos,” meaning “god.” The suffix “-phany” is derived from the Greek word “phainein” (φαίνειν), which means “to show” or “to appear.” Perhaps God appears in Ali’s collection from the feminine perspective, drawn in part from her speaker’s intimate encounters with the sacred: “I’m frightened. I’m awestruck,” the speaker admits in one of the poems that shares the book’s title, striving to balance reverence with self-possession. Elsewhere, vivid dream visions and mystical experiences undergird the search for belonging. Perhaps this is the divine light the book pours over us, that it is acceptable to encounter the inscrutable, to come undone, and leave wrecked, as in “Story of the Cranes”: “Today, two colorless birds drag / their shadows across the grass.”
The collection frequently subverts and writes back to and against the grain of canonical religious texts that have constrained or misrepresented women. In “Annunciation,” Sarah, an aged, overlooked biblical figure, boldly rebukes the favoring of Mary in Scripture:
I hung my head and laughed.
When God at last
conferred my body
with fruit […]
The speaker’s animalistic, liberating laugh reclaims agency. Through dramatic monologues, Ali exposes historical restrictions imposed on Muslim womanhood while resurrecting overlooked stories of feminine power within the same tradition.
The concept of inherited identity, particularly from the maternal line, recurs centrally in many poems. The speaker cherishes her connection to this heritage, confessing in “My Faith Gets Grime Under Its Nails”:
What wilt, what putrefaction
of her will to wonder. I wonder how
to hallow the women I’ve sprung from.
Yet trauma also lingers below the surface:
I haven’t begot a thing but inherited
wounds, I can’t help but bear
what barely belongs to me.
Responding directly to an Islamic poetic tradition, Ali incorporates forms like the ghazal and the contrapuntal while simultaneously questioning the religion’s gendered narratives. In “O Gabriel,” the poet reinvents the mythological Gabriel: “O umbilical mesh / apogee of angels.” The poem connects angels to a physical female body. In “Litany with Hair” Ali uses an almost biblical anaphora to comment on the experience of being objectified in the female body:
and God said veil
said pull it over your breast
and mama said I miss it long
said wish you can grow it back
and baba said not explicit
said where does it say to?
Ali’s innovative use of mythological and religious figures like angels allows silenced voices to resonate.
At its heart, Theophanies daringly grapples with embracing tradition while breaking free from prescriptive ideas about womanhood. As a Muslim woman in the United States, Ali ultimately recovers what has been lost, particularly the diverse experiences of Muslim women erased by patriarchal theology and culture. The poems in this three-part collection dwell in the liminal spaces between worlds, the intersections of faith and doubt, past and present. In “The Guest,” she imagines welcoming a mystical visitor, only to doubt herself:
Imagine my heart in my feet
as I stepped out of bed and over a snake
that darted away so fast I doubted my eyes,
whether it really grazed my ankle
This push and pull between belief and uncertainty, visions and earthly reality interpenetrate the work. Even as a lover whispers “you’re like a furnace” in “Shirk,” hinting at the speaker’s almost divine creative force, she admits, “I was penitent” for this brief but forbidden blending of the human and the holy.
While rigorously engaged with theology and its abstractions, Ali’s sharply drawn imagery and real-world conflicts keep the poems anchored. In “Le viol, René Magritte, 1934,” she fearlessly confronts gender violence by comparing it to a gecko’s impersonal hunting. In “Roadkill Elegy,” empathy for animal deaths elicits self-recrimination: “A frog or my fingers, the blade always a blade.”
These vivid, morally complex vignettes further ground the speaker’s spiritual journey. Ali’s dense lyrical style requires slow parsing but rewards the open heart. In “Partition Ghazal,” the violent 1947 division of India elicits her grandfather’s stoic pain: “He fell silent and bitter, hastily married off to heal / the rift with the peculiar balm of a woman’s country.”
The poet’s Muslim American identity encompasses ethnic, linguistic, and national contradictions. A resultant longing to belong propels the collection. Alluding to figures from Islamic legend—such as the matriarch Hajar, abandoned in a desert, and Maryam (Mary), the mother of Isa (Jesus)—the poems relocate the displaced speaker in faith, while offering continuity through passed-down stories.
The collection comes full circle with “Epistle: Hajar,” addressed to this exiled foremother. Though the speaker has inherited Hajar’s exile and trials as a woman, simple joys like an oasis tree provide hope. Ali closes by honoring the sustaining “path to drinkable water”—faith as a parched inheritance that nonetheless nourishes. Throughout, she celebrates the ordinary beauty, humor, and compassion that enable spiritual life to flourish in even the most hostile environments.
With its bold reinvention of scripture and sympathy for the marginalized voices within a complex tradition, Theophanies marks the emergence of a commanding poetic talent in conversation with other recent important books by poets such as Safia Elhillo and Warsan Shire. Elhillo’s Girls That Never Die (2022) explores Muslim girlhood, the dangers of being a woman, and the violence enacted against women’s bodies, weaving together personal and family histories and cultural myths. Shire’s Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth (2011) dovetails with some of Ali’s ideas about women’s experiences in a patriarchal society. Theophanies expands our urgent and ongoing spiritual discourse by reconsidering a woman’s role and perspective. Ali demonstrates that faith and critical questioning not only coexist but also demand one another.
Ali, a new mother herself, powerfully evokes the rich, if complex, legacies of maternal inheritance, and these are some of the strongest in the collection. Poems like “Matrilineage [Recovered]” resurrect forgotten female stories through fragmentary yet incantatory language: “I called [ ] back // [ ] survives.” The maternal line provides an anchor amidst history’s erasures, even if profound gaps remain in the accounts of women’s experiences. In “Mother of Nations,” Sarah’s biblical laughter responds to the endless imperative to reproduce, binding women across time. Yet for the speaker, womanhood also means “I cramp. Between my legs / a clot.” Connecting herself with the biblical and the Qur’anic lineage of women, Ali acknowledges both a shared physical urge for creativity and a sense of entrapment in biological destiny.
Intergenerational trauma suffuses the mother-daughter relationship throughout Theophanies. In “Motherhood 1999,” the young speaker rebels against her mother’s force-feeding, yet is unable to articulate her resistance. The poem poignantly asks, “Who could save me from a love that forced me full?” Here, a mother’s oppressive nurturing proves inextricable from her sustaining love. In “Daughter Triptych,” this familial pain recurs through dreams of aborting sons as if to retroactively erase patriarchal inheritance. Ali avoids simplistic mother-daughter solidarity, emphasizing the complex psychic weight of maternal ancestry.
Glimmers of hope persist amid stark generational conflicts. The succoring “angels [let] in // to spectate the ache” of menstruation in “My Faith Gets Grime Under Its Nails” becomes one such maternal emblem. So too does the pantheon of foremothers who nurture the speaker’s faith in “February Augury.” As Ali movingly discovers in “Temporal,” “what I know is the brain’s / doing. What I believe bewilders me.” Through blood, dreams, and faith, the troubled mother-line both grounds identity and inspires timeless mystery.
At a moment of resurgent bigotry in the United States and worldwide, Theophanies provides an immersive counterpoint that humanizes women in the Islamic tradition and celebrates the experience of being a Muslim woman in the US today. Ali’s poems offer readers an intricate inheritance to carry forward—not rigid dogma, but new, more nuanced ways of worshipping and belonging. The poems conclude that if traditional religion has misrepresented lived experiences (especially of women), then poetry can provide shelter, helping stories and selves “survive.” Theophanies ultimately functions as a revelatory scripture in its own right—both sacred and sacrilegious. Devoted to unsilencing voices through fresh language, Ali compels us toward more generous, inclusive ways of seeing, being in, and believing in the world.
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