Ghazals as Elegies: Ask Not for Whom the Word Tolls…

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Summer solstice. Midsummer’s Night. A hard day’s night into the longest day of the year. Last day of school. First day of summer reading. All this, and still living on Mars with Tracy K. Smith.

Part Two of Smith’s Pulitzer poetry collection, Life on Mars, consists of elegies of various kinds in honor of her father. One of them is a ghazal, a poetic form pronounced the way you eat your food on Thanksgiving (“guzzle”) and not the way I’d like to say it (“ga-ZAL”).

As poetic forms go, a ghazal is fairly simple. Couplets, couplets, couplets, with the last word of the second lines all following the leaders ending the first couplet’s two lines. OK, if it’s so simple, why haven’t I written one? The reason is as simple as the form: I’m leery of the effect created by all that repetition. It’s one of those forms that looks easy but can look amateurish in the wrong hands. Kind of like prose writers who imitate Hemingway (God spare us all).

The poems in this part of the book, eight in number, are bookended by ones with titles. The other six lack one. It’s a conceit that doesn’t seem conceited. Writing about death lovingly will do that to a poem. Here is Smith’s title-less ghazal about her dad:

 

What does the storm set free? Spirits stripped of flesh on their slow walk.
The poor in cities learn: when there is no place to lie down, walk.

At night, the streets are minefields. Only sirens drown out the cries.
If you’re being followed, hang on to yourself and run — no — walk.

I wandered through evenings of lit windows, laughter inside walls.
The sole steps amid streetlamps, errant stars. Nothing else below walked.

When we believed in the underworld, we buried fortunes for our dead.
Low country of dogs and servants, where ghosts in gold-stitched robes walk.

Old loves turn up in dreams, still livid at every slight. Show them out.
This bed is full. Our limbs tangle in sleep, but our shadows walk.

Perhaps one day it will be enough to live a few seasons and return to ash.
No children to carry our names. No grief. Life will be a brief, hollow walk.

My father won’t lie still, though his legs are buried in trousers and socks.
But where does all he knew — and all he must now know — walk?

 

The word “minefield” appears in this poem, and it’s a great way of describing the obstacles of simplicity. Lines approximately the same length. End lines. And that word, like the gong of a clock, appearing predictably again and again, only becoming successful if, like a clock’s ticking, it is noticed but not.

I like how Smith sneaks in some sound devices, some rhymes, and most important of all, some memorable lines. I especially like “Life will be a brief, hollow walk.” Sounds like a cheerful epigram, but then you say, “Wait a minute….” For me, it also echoes Yeats’ lines in “Never Give All the Heart“: “For everything that’s lovely / is but a brief, dreamy, kind delight.”

A kind and dreamy delight, yes. Yet brief and hollow. That’s life. That’s the loss of a loved one. All in couplets guzzled down as if to slake a mysterious thirst.

 

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