Reviewed by Summer Lopez for Small Spiral Notebook
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.