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Call Me Ishmael Tonight: A Book of Ghazals Paperback – January 23, 2013
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From Publishers Weekly
Kashmiri-American poet Ali, who died of brain cancer in 2001, made a project of bringing the ghazal further into English, inviting American poets to contribute to the anthology Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English. These 34 of Ali's own ghazals respect the traditional exigencies of the form: semi-autonomous couplets, unified by a strict scheme of repetition and rhyme. He evokes writers as various as Lorca, Sappho, Darwish and Amichai-"I too, O Amichai, saw the dresses of beautiful women./ And everything else, just like you, in Death, Hebrew, and Arabic." He is comfortable with a supplicating lyric voice, but explicitly distances himself from its traditional religious overtones ("When even God is dead, what is left but prayer?") and from its imposed gravity: "White men across the U.S. love their wives' curries-/ I say O No! to the turmeric of it all." Many of Ali's ghazals reflect the fears and questions of a man confronting death, and the book can be read as a series of poignant addresses to friends (including James Tate, Mark Strand, Dara Weir and other U.S. poets) and elegies for the self. "If you leave who will prove that my cry existed?/ Tell me what was I like before I existed." Significantly better than Rooms Are Never Finished, the NBA finalist released around the time of Ali's death, this book is an engaged testament to a surrender to form.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
“His ghazals offer a path toward a level of lyric expansiveness few poets would dare to aspire to.”
- Michael Palmer
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Top customer reviews
Also recommended, the anthology of ghazals edited by Agha Shahid Ali: Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English (Wesleyan Poetry Series).
Call Me Ishmael Tonight was published in 2003, two years after author, Agha Shahid Ali died of brain cancer. You don't need to know this before you read his lovely collection of ghazals, but it does make these graceful verses all the more powerful to know they were written in the shadow of eternity: "Even Death won't hide the poor Fugitive forever; / on Doomsday he will learn he must live forever."
The ghazal is an ancient Persian form of poetry, and Ali uses this traditional structure to his advantage in contemplating modern life. Within the strict schema of the verse, Ali finds space to stretch his impressive linguistic muscles. In language that is both playful and elegant, timely and timeless, Ali constructs beautiful poems which are clearly the voice of a man looking back on his life with wisdom and humor.
The construction of the ghazal involves the use of a repeated rhyme followed by a refrain, usually one word or a short phrase, which Ali also uses as the title of each poem. This format creates a sense of suspense not often found in poetry, leaving you wondering how each couplet will end and whether it will make you laugh, cry, or merely wonder at his creativity. Can you possibly not love a poet who rhymes "Guggenheim" with "paradigm" and "Le Chaim?" The poems' refrains-"Arabic," "water," "bones," "by exiles," "of light" and "God," to name a few-guide us through lines packed with allusions to the Koran, Borges, and Rushdie. And at the end of many poems, Ali works in his own name, like the shadow of a ghost, leaving us to wonder who he truly wishes to address when he asks, "You've forgiven everyone, Shahid, even God- / Then how could someone like you not live forever?" Perhaps he could not, but thankfully, his verses continue to burn with life.
Each ghazal is made up of a series of couplets. In general the second line of each couplet repeats a rhyme and refrain (with the first couplet of the series using this rhyme and refrain in both lines). For example, the poem "By Exiles" ends three sample lines "...torn wild by exiles," "...compiled by exiles," and "...beguiled by exiles." At first I found the book hard to warm too. The ghazal structure itself struck me as distracting; the form seemed to call too much attention to itself and to overwhelm the content. But I found repeated readings to be rewarding and illuminating.
Ali has a vision with a remarkable multicultural sweep. Woven into the ghazals are many references--Lorca, Oscar Wilde, "The Satanic Verses," Apollo, Pocahontas, Bartleby, Borges, etc. There is a lot of religious material in the poems also, at times making it feel like some boldly contemporary scripture. Other important themes are death, loss, and language.
At times the book has an irreverent or satiric flavor. It is filled with some astonishing imagery. Ultimately "Call Me Ishmael" reads like a meeting place of cultures. At times hypnotic, surreal, apocalyptic, chaotic, ironic, cryptic, and tragic, it's a work of haunting beauty.