Monday’s Poem: ‘Breast Feeding at the Blue Mosque,’ by Ravi Shankar

Hidden from a queue to bag shoes a woman nurses a child
under a wool scarf in the shadow two fluted minarets cast
pitched towards incessant sun, a necessity somehow an insult
to sharia law, no matter what sustenance a lemonwedge
of breast, God’s own, yields, puckering a tiny mouth
until bright eyes glaze to doll loll. Fairly alien to ponder
raw biology of milk conveyed by ducts lined with capillaries,
made from pouring stuff of stars: nourishment that manifests
minerals for bone from pulsing light.
Too close to the slickheat pushing out
between the legs of nearly every woman not your wife
but her as well? How could it be that her very being derives
solely from her relation to you, that she could have no value
in the calculus but to function as temptation, or its dome-
blue corollary, disappointment? No cover covers up
those integers holding the place of zeroes, Iznik tiles or after-
life virgins. Ostrich eggs on chandeliers don’t dissuade spiders.
If the fear of the Lord is not the beginning of our wisdom,
then La ilah ha il Allah is a breast in a mouth, else nothing is.

© by Ravi Shankar.  Printed by permission of the author.

Ravi Shankar is founding editor and executive director of Drunken Boat, online journal of the arts, and co-director of the creative writing minor at Central Connecticut State University. He has published five books and chapbooks of poetry, including Seamless Matter, Voluptuous Bristle and Instrumentality, and along with Tina Chang and Nathalie Handal, he edited W.W Norton’s Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from Asia, the Middle East & Beyond, called a “beautiful achievement for world literature” by Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer. He is currently on the faculty of Fairfield University’s M.F.A. program and at the first international M.F.A. program at City University of Hong Kong. His forthcoming collection Deepening Groove won the 2010 National Poetry Review Prize and will be out in fall 2011.

Arts & Academe’s poetry editor, Lisa Russ Spaar, notes: Milk may arguably be our first language and the mouth our primal mind. Women have been breast-feeding their own and others’ infants presumably since the dawn of humankind, and while this act of sustenance and nurturing should seem the most natural of activities (“mammal” < L. mamma, breast), controversies abound across time, place, and culture regarding who, when, where, and why women should breast-feed, particularly in public spaces.

The subject of Ravi Shankar’s “Breast Feeding at the Blue Mosque” is a woman nursing her child “in the shadow two fluted minarets cast / pitched towards incessant sun” at the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (also known as the Blue Mosque because of the blue tiles and paint that embellish its interior) in Istanbul, Turkey. Out of modesty, and because she is in a public place, a site of worship and tourism, she is “hidden” out of sight of visitors lined up to bag their shoes before entering the mosque; she further conceals her suckling baby beneath a “wool scarf.”

Though the poem begins descriptively, it quickly takes the shape of an argument. By the end of line three the speaker asks how such a “necessity”  could possibly be construed as an “insult / to sharia law, no matter what sustenance a lemonwedge / of breast, God’s own, yields, puckering a tiny mouth / until bright eyes glaze to doll loll.”  Sharia, which means “way” or “path”—“path to the waterhole”—refers to the code of religious law or conduct in Islam. Although Muslims disagree about how to interpret the tenets of sharia, those guidelines related to breastfeeding seem especially complex, with the relationship between a woman and any child she nurses, her own or someone else’s, for example, codified to the extent that any infants suckled by the same woman are considered blood relatives and cannot later marry. Last spring a highly controversial “adult-suckling” fatwa that encouraged women to feed their breast milk (in a glass) to unrelated adult males in order to allow them to be in one another’s company received no small bit of notoriety.

After putting before the reader the dreamy, sated image of the woman’s nursing child, the speaker, almost as though addressing a court of law, asks the reader to ponder, however “alien,” the “raw biology of milk conveyed by ducts lined with capillaries, / made from pouring stuff of stars:  nourishment that manifests / whiteness from pulsing light.” The conflation of anatomical language and rapturous lyricism here is a deft move; our speaker insists not only upon the natural necessity of breast-feeding but also suggests that physical and spiritual sustenance are one.  That Shankar’s ecstatic, sidereal imagery could as well be describing the lustrous conical chandeliers inside the mosque, and the breast-like dome of the mosque itself, is surely no accident.

In fact breast imagery and tropes abound in the poem—those “two fluted minarets,” of course, but also the shape of Shankar’s poem itself:  two fully lineated 9-line stanzas separated by an indented line, the volta at which Shankar’s case intensifies, directing its ire to those who would find even this modest and necessary public “display” of flesh offensive and indicting larger societal gender issues as it does so: “Too close to the slickheat pushing out / between the legs of nearly every woman not your wife / but her as well? How could it be that her very being derives / solely from her relation to you, that she could have no value / in the calculus but to function as temptation, or its dome- / blue corollary, disappointment?” Shankar presses further, saying that there is no “cover” large enough to conceal the spiritual impoverishment of any system that would so utterly devalue his subject’s personhood.

Shankar  makes sure we’re back at the mosque, with its ancient Iznik tiles and legendary, talismanic ostrich eggs put up on the chandeliers to keep away the spiders whose webs are common in mosques, to make his final point. His language of argument and proofs—derivation, value, calculus, corollary, integers, zeros—culminates in a conditional syllogism that is also about the language of devotion: “If the fear of the Lord is not the beginning of our wisdom, / then La ilah ha il Allah is a breast in a mouth, else nothing is.” The richly ululating texture of the Arabic in this Muslim proclamation of faith—“There is no deity except God”—is evocative of the sounds of suckling and meant to remind us that we all, men and women, are equally children of the universe, deserving of respect, dignity, the right to praise, to nurture and protect, and to be protected and nurtured, especially in our most holy places.

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