The First of Many Wells

“You know what the worst part about working with him was?
He always wanted you to use some weird fucking form.” -T. Borchers

For most people, Agha Shahid Ali’s name is synonymous with the “English ghazal” or “American ghazal”. He is the one known for bringing the ghazal to English, for teaching the Western world it’s rules and mysteries. And while, we must bow our heads in thanks to those who walked before him, it is Agha Shahid Ali who has presented us with not one, but two books of ghazals — the anthology Ravishing Disunities and his posthumous solo work Call Me Ishmael Tonight.

What makes the ghazal so foreign to American audiences is, ironically, its appeal to many poets. It is a paradox of a strict, rigid structure of meter, rhyme and refrain coupled with a non-narrative unity. The idea that each couplet should be wholly independent of the other couplets is an obscurity not many poets, as well as poetry readers, are willing to tackle. Too dependant are we on narrative and unity that the couplets of the ghazal come as an anomaly to us, if not an illness. If one simply describes the form to a reader, or a poet, the idea of wild disparateness between couplets seems like a daunting lion for the Colosseum martyr of the mind to wrestle with.

Agha Shahid Ali has given us a guide, and proof that such a task is not only possible, but enjoyable and fulfilling. Call Me Ishmael Tonight is, to my knowledge, the first, if not only, solo collection of successful ghazals, following the traditional form, written in English.

To attempt to describe this book in terms of craft issues-imagery, meter, rhyme, etc. would take up too much of the reader’s time. Any one familiar with Agha Shahid Ali’s work, ghazals or otherwise, knows of his skill as a poet. His poetry has one numerous awards, and is highly anthologized. So, rather than extolling already understood praise about craft issues, I will focus on his art as a ghazal poet.

The first thing that impressed me with Call Me Ishmael Tonight was the choice/use of refrains. Of the thirty-four poems in the book, only about half of them use prepositional phrases as their refrain. Many of the remaining poems have one word refrains that work, and also avoid the common refrains of ghazal writers. As most any ghazal writer will tell you, the rhyme-refrain part of the ghazal is possibly the most difficult to wrestle with, because one wants to keep the refrain fresh, and sometimes the rhymes won’t let you do that. Agha Shahid Ali’s choice of refrains shows literary boldness, but also a talent for working with the English language.

His use of rhyme only exposes this talent even more. While he does use some of the more common rhyme schemes in English (words ending on vowel sounds, verb lists ending with -ed, etc.) he crafts his couplets in such a way that the rhyme becomes invisible. Of course, this is the goal of any poet working in with a formal structure, but to take a series of adjectives describing bones, and make each adjective-noun combo seem original and new, takes a talent that can only be experienced.

(after Hart Crane)

“I, too, was liege / To rainbows carrying” pulsant bones.
The “sun took step of” Brooklyn Bridge’s resonant bones.

From Far Rockaway to Golden Gate I saw blood.
washed up on streets against God’s irrelevant bones.

If the soul were a body, what would it insist on?
On smooth skin? On stubborn flesh? Or on elegant bones?

“The window goes blond slowly.” And I beside you
am stripped and stripped and stripped of luxuriant bones.

So Elizabeth had two hundred Catholics burned
(Bloody Mary had loved the smoke of Protestant bones).

In the hair of Pocahontas a forest shudders.
Inventions cobblestone her extravagant bones.

They refuse to burn when we set fire to the flesh-
those flowers float down the Ganges as adamant bones.

“Footprints on the Glacier” are the snowman’s-or mine?
Whosoever, they’re found under some hesitant bones.

Someone once told us had lost his pity for
(he did not qualify with “ignorant” or “tolerant”) bones.

Migrating from me to me to me the soul asks
a bit seriously: what is our covenant, Bones?

Mustard oil, when heated, breaks out in veins which then
cayenne the sacrificed goat’s most compliant bones.

The troops left our haven hanging in the night and said
the child’s skeleton was made of militant bones.

And so it was Shahid entered the broken world
when everyone had bypassed the heart’s expectant bones.

To craft a poem that repeats, at the end of almost every stanza, an adjective-noun combo, to have said adjective rhyme and said noun be identical and still make the poem as stunning and successful as this ghazal takes a practiced skill that we, as readers and writers of ghazals, can only admire and hope someday to attain. May Agha Shahid Ali smile down upon our journey there.

It is said that when making a rug, Persian carpet makers will intentionally make a mistake, purposely flawing their rug so as not to achieve perfection, as only God is perfect. This tradition is apparently also true for Amish quilters.

It also seems to be true for Agha Shahid Ali. There are poems in this collection that are not perfect, that ignore the very rules Agha Shahid Ali himself introduced to English. There are poems that change the refrain, ignore or abandon the refrain. There are poems that show little, if no, disparateness between stanzas. There are poems that are not ghazals, but fards.

Now, we can mourn the inclusion of these poems in this collection. We can see them as disheveled rooms in a stately mansion that visitors eyes were not meant to see, but are included on the posthumous tour to indignify the once proud owner. But, as we know from Agha Shahid Ali’s other posthumous collection, rooms are never finished. There is not one ghazal in this collection that is truly perfect. Some of the gems in these necklaces shine better than others, or have a more exact cut. Some of the words are chosen out of need for the form, and are not the exact word for the sentiment the author wishes to present. So be it. We cannot admonish these flaws as bad, nor can we see them as mistakes on the part of the compiler. We must see them as imperfections that prove Agha Shahid Ali’s humanity. As one ghazal tells us, one translation of his name is “The Beloved Witness”. Indeed, Agha Shahid Ali was witness to the fact that he was made of the same dust as you or I, and never attempted to carry the burden of perfection on his shoulders.

So, for those of you looking for a successful collection of ghazals in English, true to the form, read this book. For those of you looking for perfection and absolute errorless art from the master himself, allow me to tell you another story. When asked about the one true path to God, one mystic explained that there are many wells in the desert. His sect was merely sharing the water from one of those wells, but that the water in the other wells was perfectly safe to drink, and would provide the same cool refreshment to the thirsty pilgrim. I say unto you: If you are looking for the perfect collection of ghazals, then you will perish in the desert, eventually thirsting to death when you are truly surrounded by water. Call Me Ishmael Tonight is hopefully the first of many wells that will provide the poetry world with a exhilarating collection of ghazals.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What We're Up To ...

Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!