As I was reading Rachel Wetzsteon’s poem, “Cabaret Ludwig” [October 2010], I recognized the form but wasn’t sure where I had seen it before. I have been researching medieval Sephardic poetry from al-Andalus (Islamic Spain) and came across a form called the muwashshah, which is Arabic for “girdle poem.” A mid-tenth-century Sephardic poet, Dunash ben Labrat, fused this Arabic prosody into Hebrew poetry, which became a fad among the Jewish poets of Andalusia. The form uses end monorhyme and creates a line pattern using short and long syllables.
One of the cool things about this form is that in the Hebrew adaptations of it, it expressed multilingual culture. To paraphrase Jonathan P. Decter, the concluding verse (kharja) of the Arabic muwashshah changed from classical to vernacular Arabic. However, the Hebrew poems actually changed languages, from Hebrew to Arabic, in their final verse. Like her predecessors, Wetzsteon changes linguistic registers and uses slang in the last stanza:
I’ve had my share of quacks and hisses;
whereof mouth cannot speak, it kisses;
hop to it, man, and realize this is
a lovely bit of luck.
In reinvigorating a medieval form in contemporary language, Wetzsteon has added to the possibilities for what contemporary English poetry can do, especially by being solidly rooted in something other than French or English.