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By Alex Carrigan
The realistic and the fantastic are both needed for processing changes in life. While it helps to understand the reality of the situation one finds themselves in, it helps to also have a retreat into the imaginary and dreamlike to help assuage any difficulties that can come about. This can involve holding onto traditions and stories in order to ground oneself in new and unfamiliar locations.
In Ayesha Raees' hybrid poetry collection Coining a Wishing Tower, Raees collection tells a loose, abstract series of grounded and fantastic tales that drift between dreamy allegory and crushing realism. The collection features 56 numbered pieces, none longer than a single paragraph, that follows three interconnected figures. The first is a figures dubbed House Mouse and reads like a philosophical fairytale. The second is about a goldfish called Godfish who entrances a cat and the moon. The last is a nameless narrator, a young woman from Pakistan who is grappling with her faith and heritage as she comes of age in New London, Connecticut. The "narratives" of these figures follow a sliding scale of the abstract and allegorical of House Mouse to potentially autobiographical with the Pakistani woman, with Godfish falling into a middle ground, and Raees uses these figures to explore themes of tradition, faith, and isolation.
This reviewer found it helped to read Coining a Wishing Tower four ways before writing about it. First was to read the collection cover to cover, then three more reads skipping around from piece to piece following one of the central figures each time. Because the pieces are interwoven, it helps to figure out the through lines and recurring images and themes of the collection.
One of the main recurring elements is how all three narratives seem to focus on isolation in spaces. All the figures are kept to specific areas and reflect on how the spaces inform them. The House Mouse is isolated in some tower high in a mountain and builds their entire identity around rituals around the tower, while Godfish observes everything from a small fishbowl. The Pakistani woman compares their homeland to America since they're able to move more freely and take in more influences, resulting in a wider range of perspectives and observations. Raees' poems explore how they respond to these environments and how the environments inform them.
The most notable way it informs them is in the process of rituals. The Pakistani woman discusses many rituals in the Muslim faith, such as bathing in a mosque during Ramadan, discussing how their faith has a lot of views on how woman view and treat their bodies, with lines like "When I entered Makkah, I was fifteen and on my period. We
had all come to pray, to perform a lesser non-obligatory pilgrimage, but I couldn’t. My mother said I was dirty." and "In Masjid-e-Ayesha, I emerged washed and clean
in a fresh abaya and everyone said, Mashallah."
The more abstract figures have peculiar rituals, such as Godfish observing the world mainly through how the sun and moon reflects on the bowl and the danger and allure of the cat. House Mouse is more about creating rituals for itself in its isolation, such as in piece #15, where Raees writes:
House Mouse knows of many rituals, but the one that gives
liberation is through the number twenty-three. House Mouse
cleans the tower twenty-three times, boils the water twenty-three
times, steeps the tea leaves twenty-three times, and drinks
it in the moonlight twenty-three times. After twenty-three
days, House Mouse puts its face against the tower’s walls and
feels its rocks lose heat. Go cold.
To fully understand Coining a Wishing Tower is to try and understand what one can and can't observe in their environment. The abstract nature of Raees' work means that everything observable can have a meaning if one looks close enough, and that a lot of that can be informed by rituals and tradition. Readers will probably find different interpretations of Raees' work each time they read, and it's fascinating to see what can emerge from these different points of view.
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