Contemporary Ghazals constitutes the first English language ghazal anthology since Agha Shahid Ali’s Ravishing DisUnities debuted in 2000. Nearly 15 years after his death, Ali, the champion of the English language Persian ghazal, still looms large. It’s significant that he, through alphabetical serendipity, opens the collection and then hands the baton, as it were, off to the rest of the poets.
Modern life is effortlessly infused throughout the poems. An afternoon at the baseball park (Barbara Little), Deep Throat (Daniel Hales) joints, STDs, NASA, and even a former mayor of Toronto (Watkins) fit perfectly alongside images inherited from poets of the past: “blasphemous apostles,” Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, and Buddha, “smitten” lips (Sharma), a Turkish garden (Bill West), vipers, and Arabian stallions (Steffen Horstmann).
Poems also circle the the time-honored obsessions of ghazals. Loss and longing (Horstmann: “with my touch your ghost turned to mist today”) live alongside lust. (West: “A swan’s neck— the curve of your back, my arms around your hips,/ in my wide-open mind’s eye, you’re nude.”) And ghazals, as always, return to romance:
I keep my gate unlocked all night,
The loved one will not come, I know. (I. H. Rizvi)
Beads of dew shine in willows like the pearls
In Ophelia’s tresses of braided light. (Horstmann)
If this should be your birthday, St. Valentine’s your patron saint;
you’re well aware the thought gives you a fright, but don’t know why. (William Dennis)
Ghazals refract both the secular and the spiritual. Sharma writes, “Sages say, every idol, image, symbol is a sermon, music to the devotees./ Fill the sky with love-psalms, illustrated by the shape-shifting, pious clouds.” As with classical ghazals, contemporary ghazals knit the spiritual world, the natural world, and the natural impulse of love.
Eternity and mortality also color the everyday life of these poems. “Birdsong, transcendent paradox of mortality: Li Po/ composed eternal music to a few of Gerard’s Sparrows,” Teresa M. Pfeifer notes, while Rizvi searches the horizon and watches as the “tired sun bathed in blood is drowned,” and Watkins writes, “An immortal is molded through two-edged transcendence:/ first composing as relief, then slow decomposition.”