All is quiet on New Year’s Day

1 01 2014

I know how to leave.

A job, a city, a relationship: I can book it with a handshake, a grin, a fare-thee-well, and I’m gone.

I also know how to deal with the run-up. I like rehearsals and planning and while packing is an enormous pain in the tuchus, I’m pretty good with the clearing out and stashing away.

All of this is to say is that I prefer the eves to the day (and not just because I’m a night person). It is the time before that I’m accustomed to, and the anticipation that I enjoy. I’m not bothered by endings—I know everything ends—and, against much of my own agoniste sensibilities, I take the view “it’s done; let’s go”.

Beginnings, on the other hand, I’m not so great at. You’d think that I can end because I know what comes next, but the coming-next is the burden, not the gift, of the ending.

New Year’s Eve? So long and farewell. New Year’s Day?

Oh shit, another year.

But let us take a more poetic look at the back and the forth; from Agha Shahid Ali’s A Fate’s Brief Memoir:


There between the planets the cobwebs thicken
Depart now. Spiders look for my heart lest
I forget the final wreck of all that’s human.

Farewell—and if thou livest or diest!
What poverty lets death exert its affluence?
The earth will receive you, poor honored guest,

and I minding my threadbare subsistence—
poor host who could offer you nothing. What brocades
spun from gasps I tear to polish our instruments. . .

threads searchlit, the universe dazzled, burnished blades. . .
Feel a new sun pounding—Dear Heart, this once!
See the famished sighs I’ll lock into braids.

Don’t forget this sight when by desolate chance
from your breath Belovéd! this evening fades.


Friday poem: Not All, Only A Few Return

15 01 2010

Yes, another ghazal.

I had great difficulty finding a poem for this Friday. I pulled out Kay Ryan, WS Merwin, Robert Pinsky, John Ashbery—but, again, returned to Ali.

Haiti on my mind, I guess, although wrongly so: I was thinking of water, not earth; flood, not quake.

Still, the notion that these sorrows will repeat pulled me to the ghazal and its repetitions. Again, however, it is not strictly the same: each moment demands its own attention.

And so it is this time, with this people.

*Note:  Mirza Ghalib was a 19th-century Sufi, and ghazal poet; his poems remain popular among Urdu readers today.

Not All, Only A Few Return
(after Ghalib)

Just a few return from dust, disguised as roses.
What hopes the earth forever covers, what faces?

I too could recall moonlit roofs, those nights of wine—
But Time has shelved them now in Memory’s dimmed places.

She has left forever, let blood flow from my eyes
til my eyes are lamps lit for love’s darkest places.

All of his—Sleep, Peace, Night—when on his arm your hair
shines to make him the god whom nothing effaces.

With wine, the palm’s lines, believe me, rush to Life’s stream—
Look, here’s my hand, and here the red glass it raises.

See me! Beaten by sorrow, man is numbed to pain.
Grief has become the pain only pain erases.

World, should Ghalib keep weeping you will see a flood
drown your terraced cities, your marble palaces.

Friday poem: Today, talk is cheap. Call somebody.

8 01 2010

So I had this here rebate card from Verizon. Fiddy bucks.

That would buy alotta kitty litter. Toilet paper. Cheese.

So did I spend it on household urgencies (and yes, in this household, cheese is a requirement)?

Hah. No.

With that card in my frosty little mitts, I headed for the Strand and feasted on books. Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, The Mapmakers, The Failure of Political Islam, and two books of poetry: Kay Ryan’s The Niagara River, and Agha Shahid Ali’s The Veiled Suite.

Thassright: I scored the collected poems of Ali.

Jealous, aren’t you?

I did, regretfully, put back Mary Oliver’s Thirst, her meditation on the death of her longtime partner, Molly Malone Cook; another day, I said.

Still, I’m very happy with the Ali. I haven’t had a chance, really, to do more than scan the pages; what follows, then, is  one I simply plucked out.

And then I cheat, and add another, a ghazal, for no other reason that the repetition which nonetheless moves you as well as returning you to where you have and hadn’t been before, moves me and returns me to where I have and hadn’t been before.

Yes, there’s a telephone in each poem, but what binds them is more the tone: the lighting upon the humorous and then the tragic, the surface slice and the deep thrust to something below.

*Sigh* I may have to add a Friday ghazal in addition to the regular Friday poem, lest I ignore all other poets in my lust for Ali.

From Bell Telephone Hours

Today, talk is cheap.
Call somebody.

I called Information Desk, Heaven,
and asked, “When is Doomsday?”
I was put on hold.

Through the hallelujahs of seraphs,
I heard the idle gossip of angels,
their wings beating rumours
of revolts in Heaven.
The I heard flames, wings burning,
then only hallelujahs.

I prayed, “Angel of Love,
please pick up the phone.”

But it was the Angel of Death.
I said, “Tell me, Tell me,
when is Doomsday?”

He answered, “God is busy.
He never answers the living.
He has no answers for the dead.
Don’t ever call again collect.”


Here’s what Ali himself had to say on the ghazal:

The ghazal can be traced back to seventh-century Arabia. In its canonical Persian (Farsi) form, arrived at in the eleventh century, it is composed of autonomous or semi-autonomous couplets that are united by a strict scheme of rhyme, refrain, and line length. The opening couplet sets up the schemes by having it in both lines, and then the schemes occurs only in the second line of every succeeding couplet—i.e., the first line (same length) of every succeeding couplet sets up a suspense, and the second line (same length but with the rhyme and refrain—the rhyme immediately preceding the refrain) delivers on that suspense by amplifying, dramatizing, imploding, exploding.

See how he runs. . . .

Of It All

I say This, after all, is the trick of it all
when suddenly you say “Arabic of it all.”

After Algebra there was Geometry—and then Calculus—
But I’d already failed the arithmetic of it all.

White men across the U.S. love their wives’ curries—
I say O No! to the turmeric of it all.

“Suicide represents. . . a privileged moment. . . .”
Then what keeps you—and me—from being sick of it all?

The telephones work, but I’m still cut off from you.
We star in America, fast epic of it all.

What shapes galaxies and keeps them from flying apart?
There’s that missing mass, the black magic of it all.

What makes yours the rarest edition is just this:
it’s bound in human skin, final fabric of it all.

I’m smashed, fine Enemy, in your isolate mirror.
Why the diamond display then—in public—of it all?

Before the palaver ends, hear the sparrows’ songs,
the quick quick quick, O the quick of it all.

For the suicidally beautiful, autumn now starts.
Their fathers’ heroes, boys gallop, kick off it all.

The sudden storm swept its ice across the great plains.
How did you find me, then, in the thick of it all?

Across the world one aches for New York, but to long
for New York in New York’s most tragic of it all.

For Shahid too the night went “quickly as it came”—
After that, old friend, came the music of it all.

(for Anthony Lacavaro)

Friday poem (Sunday): Of Snow

20 12 2009

A Friday poem on Sunday?

Why not?  The point is the poem, not the day.

In any case, the Blithes were in town on Friday, and the day began disconcertedly early—the three delightful children lacked the capacity to sleep in—and lasted late. I fell into bed shortly after Mrs. & Mr. pointed their rental car toward New Hampshire, and, waking Saturday, felt the need for a second sleep.

I was knackered, in other words. I did manage to attend a birthday party (which the birthday girl herself did not attend) in a non-Upper East Side bar on the UES, but even then, was merely contentedly slow and warm.

In any case, C. asked if a Friday poem were forthcoming. Something to do with snow or friends, I said.

It snowed here, by the way: big midwestern flakes, floating and whirling and shooting down. A proper storm

So this, a poem by by Agha Shahid Ali, an Indian poet who worked in ghazals, poems composed of thematically-similar couplets, and which are a common form across Iran, India, and Pakistan. Although he died young—at 52—in his too-few decades he wrote and published well, and opened the United States to the beauties of the ghazal.

When I wrote poetry I rarely worked in formal structures, preferring to concentrate on the sound and rhythm over the particularities of meter and verse. I didn’t disdain such formalities (at least, not once I got beyond my eighth-grade Beat phase), but considered them something to work up to. The movement toward these forms ceased along with my poetry writing.

I was introduced to the ghazal and Ali through The Nation and The New Yorker, and, while thoroughly intimidated by the rigors of the ghazal, was nonetheless swept up by Ali’s poetry. There is a gracefulness in how the words become the structure, and in so doing, simultaneously transcend and fulfill the promise of the ghazal.

See for yourself, on this day in the aftermath of the storm:

Of Snow

Husband of Water, where is your Concubine of Snow?
Has she laced your flooded desert with a wine of snow?

What a desert we met in—the foliage was lush!—
a cactus was dipped into every moonshine of snow.

One song is so solitaire in our ring of mountains,
its echo climbs to cut itself at each line of snow.

The sky beyond its means is always beside itself
till (by the plane) each peak rises, a shrine of snow.

Snowmen, inexplicably, have gathered in the Sahara
to melt and melt and melt for a Palestine of snow.

Kali turned to ice one winter, her veins transparent—
on her lips blood froze. A ruby wine of snow!

If Lorca were alive he would again come to New York,
bringing back to my life that one Valentine of snow.

Do you need to make angels, really, who then vanish
or are angels all you can undermine of snow?

I who believe in prayer but could never in God
place roses at your grave with nothing to divine of snow.

When he drinks in winter, Shahid kisses his enemies.
For Peace, then, let bars open at the first sign of snow.