Sukhdarshan Dhaliwal’s Ghazals at Twilight
Ghazals at Twilight: Poetry from the Heart
SD Publications, 2009
Available from the author’s Web site.
Reviewed by Nicola Masciandaro
“The only interesting philosophers,” writes Emile Cioran, “are the ones who have stopped thinking and have begun to search for happiness. . . . They are more comforting than religions because they free us from authority. . . . The twilight philosophers — so full of shadows that they no longer believe anything — embrace you like a sea cradling your drowned body” (Note 1). Floating farther away on the same ocean, westwardly towards newer and longer sunsets, is a happy isle of hearts who have stopped searching for happiness by finding it in ghazals. I see Darshan — Sukhdarshan Dhaliwal’s takhallus or pen name — as a dweller on this island, the voice of someone deeply glad to remain adrift in the lovely atmospheres, safely but not blindly above the terrible depths, of this sea.
As my heart drifts out into the songs of universal grace,
I come to an end in the warm embrace of eternal grace.
The word darshan means seeing, vision (Cf. Greek derkomai, Welsh edrych) and refers especially to the visual encounter with a divinity or holy person whose direct presence transforms and blesses. The principle of darshan belongs to the experience of a palpably transcendent space where depth is surface and truth is appearance. Ghazals at Twilight signals its devotion to this space in many ways. Darshan, which the author always writes in quotation marks, dramatizes the proportional logic of the pen name as the appearance of a name that is more name than name (Note 2).
Darshan the Ghazal of your love will shine,
The flame of its words setting the mood right.
This candlelight mood, a microcosm of the twilight pictured on the book’s cover (ultramontane sun illuminating a cloud-shadowed sky), is the atmosphere Darshan continually desires as the condition wherein spiritual truth is magically resolved to appearance (Note 3). A floating zone where everything vibrationally dissolves
Flow along the river and enjoy its amorous melodies,
Which resonate within its ecstatic waves of sensation.
into a pleasurably vague inner Paradise.
Time, space, light, and matter as I see within, I found,
They are all flexible within their divine cosmic culture.
This desire (for ultimate truth in the form of affective appearance) persists through the ghazal sequence despite, or precisely because of, the dualism of its transcendental aim.
In a quest for eternal joy that permeates the light of heaven,
Darshan looks beyond life and its perception of liberation.
The crucial aspect of this couplet is “perception” and its relation to the poet’s looking. On the one hand, the line affirms the distinction between looking and perceiving, so that the look is legible as the movement of intention to see, preceding and exceeding perception, a desire to see what has not yet been seen, or what is unseeable, the movement of vision beyond perception as such. To look “beyond life and its perception of liberation” thus means to look both beyond the visible and beyond all (false) perceptions of freedom, to seek a beyond that is not life-based. On the other hand, insofar as Darshan is alive, the poet’s looking is perforce a “perception of liberation” rooted in life, distinguishable from all other such perceptions only insofar as it does not see what it perceives, insofar as it is only a looking beyond. The fuller effect of the couplet, then, is to express the experience of looking beyond life as the perception of not-seeing, as an undecidable interplay between the visible and the invisible. Something like this is also present in the couplet’s first line, where the search for the distant, not-present “eternal joy” is paradoxically qualified by its representation as taking place within its visible permeation of “the light of heaven.” In fulfillment of this ghazal’s first lines, such experience may be thought of as a form of ludic aporia, an impasse in the midst of play that introduces an unexpected separation between and within its very terms:
Life is a divine play within ‘three’ emotions of sensation.
In which we wait before meeting then fall in the separation.
Into the ancient concept of the cosmos as lila or divine play, these lines insert something akin to the misfortunate and inevitable fall of the player, a fall whose misfortune is doubled by its happening, not in the heat of play, but in the midst of delay and anticipation. The game goes on, but in those moments, for oneself, it both does and does not, all the more acutely because it goes on despite one’s falling down. But such moments of rupture are also exactly what energize and reinvigorate play, accentuating and intensifying its boundaries with all that is caught up and at stake within it, dramatizing the contest as more than game, as a play of the real.
One of Dhaliwal’s favorite words is elegance — “the warm elegance of life” (21.6); “your elegant eyes” (27.5); “the magic of your elegance” (33.3) — a word that exemplifies his focus on darshanic affects as well as the aesthetic selectivity of that focus (from eligere, to select, choose), which is permuted through a catalogue of conventional poetic tropes (tree, sunset, flower, candle, guitar, star, seasons, rainbow, nightingale) that insularly hover elsewhere than the so-called real world.
Darshan follow the path of ‘love’ that only can,
Set you free; with its ‘eternal elegance’ of ecstasy.
The elegance of Ghazals of Twilight, however, lies not in its aesthetic and thematic choices, which represent a kind of sincere clip-art Sufism, but in the indeterminate details that both break and preserve its paradisical vision, whether by injecting it with irreparable melancholic intensity
When I was burning within the embrace of my sorrows,
Even my own shadow left me alone within a lonely tear.
or by combining its colors into exuberant abstraction:
As the rays of the rising sun elate the hearts of dewdrops,
Their divine spectrum of joy ignites romance in the air.
These are the significant marks, the little fissures and overwrought flourishes, the unexpected gaps and welcome glitches, that, touching through facades of feeling, prove that the imaginary heavens of our desire, like the Happy Isles of medieval legend (note 4), are absolutely real and true.
Emile M. Cioran, Tears and Saints, trans. Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 50.
The phenomenon of the nickname, which is often derived from some external attribute or chance association, follows a similar logic. Its charm and utility are a function of its position within the zone of indeterminacy between essence and accident. Thus, according to Giorgio Agamben, the nickname expresses the form of identity (quodlibet ens, whatever being) proper to the “planetary petty bourgeoisie,” the classless class which “has inherited the world and is the form in which humanity has survived nihilism” (The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993], 62). The nickname belongs, Agamben explains, to “a modesty of language with respect to its referent . . . This referent is no longer nature betrayed by meaning, nor its transfiguration in the name, but it is what is held — unuttered — in the pseudonym or in the ease between the name and the nickname” (59). Such identity “represents an opportunity unheard of in the history of humanity” (64), the possibility for humans to “be only the thus, their singular exteriority and their face” (64) — a messianic potentiality that Agamben elsewhere traces to St. Paul: “The messianic separates the proper name from its bearer, who from this point on may bear only an improper name, a nickname. After Paul, all of our names are only signa, surnames” (The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, trans. Patricia Dailey [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005], 10). Cf. “He who knows everything displaces nothing. To each one I appear to be what he thinks I am” (Meher Baba, Life at its Best [San Franciso: Sufism Reoriented, 1957], 3). A similar relation between humanistic hope — “the heartbeat of a guiding humanistic polestar” (Ghazals at Twilight 39.6) — and the privileging of appearances, a conjunction synthesized in Agamben’s definition of love as “seeing something simply in its being-thus” (Coming Community, 105), is visible in Dhaliwal’s epigraph: “There is nothing more powerful than love. Even though, it burns the heart with its tormenting pain. Those who ascend from this pain become true lovers, even their shadows become sacred” (13).
To this desire may be traced Dhaliwal’s paradoxical and mysterious use of quotation marks around terms whose significance seems unquestionably literal and nominative: “Bear the pain of ‘love’ that lifts you to an immortal silence” (17.7); “Light a candle at the doorstep of your longing heart, / Your loving ‘sweetheart’ may come at any moment” (73.5); He who would lose touch with his soul’s morality, / Would also lose ‘life’s meaning’ and lie forever” (69.5), etc. These marks have a double and interesting disorienting effect. On the one hand they hyper-traditionally mark their terms as shadows, mere reflections of something ethically higher that must not be confused with its profane figures. On the other hand, they prevent and discontinue any real relation between word and thing, deepening uncertainty about the sense that language is making, suggesting that what the word senses or perceives is something it cannot at all represent, that all it represents, all it has access to, is its own mood, the emotion for which the poet chooses it. In a similar fashion, the book’s first epigraph sketches a psychology that places affect (pain and pleasure) in the position where we might expect soul, portraying the self as a strange loop of reflected feelings: “Our eyes are the mirror of our heart / which reflects the images of our emotions / that arise from our pain and pleasure” (6).
Return to the review.
Medieval discourse on the Happy Isles (insulae fortunatarum) is primarily concerned with three things: 1) describing their abundant delights; 2) distinguishing them from the true earthly paradise in the East; and 3) asserting their literal, geographic reality. For example: “The Fortunate Isles signify by their name that they produce all kinds of good things, as if they were happy and blessed with an abundance of fruit. Indeed, well-suited by their nature, they produce fruit from very precious trees; the ridges of their hills are spontaneously covered with grapevines; instead of weeds, harvest crops and garden herbs are common there. Hence the mistake of pagans and the poems by worldly poets, who believed that these isles were Paradise because of the fertility of their soil. They are situated in the Ocean, against the left side of Mauretania, closest to where the sun sets, and they are separated from each other by the intervening sea” (Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, trans. Stephen A. Barney [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006], 14.6.8)