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Call Me Ishmael Tonight [Hardcover]

Agha Shahid Ali
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

March 25 2003
This shining collection by the beloved Kashmiri-American poet (finalist for the National Book Award in 2001) is his last witness. In many of the ghazals, Ali salutes poets known and loved-W. S. Merwin, Mark Strand, James Tate, and more-while in other searingly honest ghazals he courageously faces his own mortality.

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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.

Review

His ghazals offer a path toward a level of lyric expansiveness few poets would dare to aspire to. -- Michael Palmer

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4.0 out of 5 stars Poetry at the crossroads of cultures Jan. 11 2004
Format:Hardcover
"Call Me Ishmael Tonight: A Book of Ghazals," by Agha Shahid Ali, is a truly distinctive addition to American poetry. The "About the Author" section notes that Ali was a Kashmiri-American who was born in New Delhi and held a number of academic posts in the U.S. before his death in 2001. A short note on the ghazal briefly describes the history and structure of this poetic form.
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.
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Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  4 reviews
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars verses that continue to burn with life Nov. 29 2004
By Felicia Sullivan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
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.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Poetry at the crossroads of cultures Jan. 11 2004
By Michael J. Mazza - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
"Call Me Ishmael Tonight: A Book of Ghazals," by Agha Shahid Ali, is a truly distinctive addition to American poetry. The "About the Author" section notes that Ali was a Kashmiri-American who was born in New Delhi and held a number of academic posts in the U.S. before his death in 2001. A short note on the ghazal briefly describes the history and structure of this poetic form.
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.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ingenious March 9 2012
By Thomas E. Defreitas - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Agha Shahid Ali's love for the somewhat recherché form of the ghazal, and his appreciation for his fellow poets, are most infectious indeed. One marvels at the ingenuity of these poems -- making a form whose insistent refrain can be an obstacle to appreciation, not only palatable, but downright enticing! We hesitate to choose favorites, but "Even the Rain" (with its nod to Edward Estlin Cummings) lingers in the mind long after one has read the poem. In these ghazals, one does find matters political and religious alluded to in a ludic, almost playful, fashion. And the permutations of the rhyme (for some ghazals, one must find as many as a dozen rhymes for the "qafia," or initial rhyme-word) present no challenge, but instead seem effortlessly virtuosic, in Shahid Ali's hands. Even the reader who is inclined to find the ghazal somewhat disaffecting in its "formality" cannot help but be "startled into felicity" (as Marianne Moore would say) by these unburdensomely expert, light-heartedly accomplished pieces.

Also recommended, the anthology of ghazals edited by Agha Shahid Ali: Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English (Wesleyan Poetry Series).
3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars I'll be the raincloud on this parade, I guess. Sept. 17 2007
By Robert Beveridge - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Agha Shahid Ali, Call Me Ishmael Tonight: A Book of Ghazals (W. W. Norton, 2003)

I've never been entirely sure about the whole ghazal thing. There are some strict forms that work, for various reasons, and there are some poets who are more willing to experiment with form and make it work; when a traditional formal poet writes in a strict form, however, the results can sometimes come off looking less like poetry and more like the kind of gallumphing example you'd find in the most basic form dictionary. The poet pays more attention to the rules of the form, and less to making the poem sound like poetry.

I seem to be in the minority on this, but I think Agha Shahid Ali was working in exactly that vein when he penned most of the ghazals that make up Call Me Ishmael Tonight. There's a great deal of attention paid to which variation of ghazal technique is to be used, and as much to the rhyme schemes and refrains, but it often seems as if Ali grasped at words to fit into the rhyme schemes, rather than letting the pieces suggest their own rhymes (in other words, allowing the rules to make the choice altogether, rather than suggest):

Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell tonight?
Whom else from rapture's road will you expel tonight?

Those "Fabrics of Cashmere-" "to make Me beautiful-"
"Trinket"- to gem- "Me to adorn- How- tell"- tonight?
I beg for haven: Prisons, let open your gates-
A refugee from Belief seeks a cell tonight.
God's vintage loneliness has turned to vinegar-
All the archangels- their wings frozen- fell tonight.
("Tonight")

It's like listening to loose, disintegrating hobnailed boots walking across a rough hardwood floor.

I shouldn't allow this criticism to imply, however, that this affects the whole volume. Ali was considered one of the finest poets of his generation, a master of the ghazal; no more need said than that his collection Rooms Are Never Finished was a finalist for the National Book Award. I'll probably give him another try at some point. This one, though, I'd find hard to recommend. ** 
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