cover image CALL ME ISHMAEL TONIGHT: A Book of Ghazals


Agha Shahid Ali, Shahid Ali Agha, . . Norton, $21.95 (96pp) ISBN 978-0-393-05195-7

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. (Mar.)