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Je t’aime, asshole: Notes Towards a European Ghazal
Typed up my post, then it vanished. An account of meeting Agha Shahid Ali. I wrote it on my home blog, pressed the wrong key and it was gone. Then I came here, wrote it out again, from scratch – what the poet said at night, on a loading dock at Wells College, about the ghazal – and now, once again, it is gone. Where did it go?
Perhaps this accompanies the question of the poet’s body. Where is he?
“He is in the thunder and lightning. He is in the branches of the trees.” — Ghazal 2.b.
I think of typing up my second book, Incubation. And how it vanished. That first version. I pressed something: what? The computer whirred then stopped. It broke. Renee Gladman wrote something along the lines of: “Dear Bhanu, not to worry. We can publish your work the year after next. It’s clear you will not be able to get it to us in time.” I re-wrote the book – a new book – in a two week sitting. Numb, the single mother of a kinetic four year old, and newly divorced/stunned: I’d come home from dropping my son at his preschool, close the door behind me, take off my clothes, lay my clothes over the arm of the sofa, walk through the house to the alcove with the table, strip it of its red tablecloth, wrap myself in the tablecloth, climb on a chair, get down the Maker’s Mark, and pour out a ritualistic tablespoon. To drink.
Write then go.
Did you write a book that vanished? Did language return to you? How? Where do words go when they are deleted? Or disappear. Do they recirculate? Are they wet? Are they dead? Can you communicate with language that has gone in the same way that it is possible to communicate with a person who is no longer there? Is it possible to retrieve words that have been lost, to the processes of time, culture or fate?
Describe the pathway of touch – light touch – that allows them to return. Return as vibration. Not vibration. At first, you cannot hear a thing.
The phonemes of Zong! that are the matter of the page.
Though it’s my aunts’ and mother’s stories of epic, colonial and daily life that persist, it’s only my grandfather’s Urdu, Farsi and Persian couplets that have a physical, written presence in his yellowing notebooks on a shelf in India, now Colorado, next to his orchard notes. His list of the seeds and the year he bought them. A pencil drawing of the space and its boundary lines. A mathematics of the mango grove. I want to give this notebook to Matias Viegener and David Burns for their Fallen Fruit project.
Or, on the other side of the family, Kapil Muni, my ancestor, chanting OM NAMAO SHIVAI a thousand years before Christ, off the coast of Bengal. The flame set upon the waves of the sea in a boat of banana leaves and tiny roses tied in bundles with red string, the tendons of a plant that grows near the sea. When I meditate, he sometimes meditates with me. Does he?
A dialect. Language 52.
I touched the bark of an oak tree with my fingertips a thousand times or more on the way to school. One day, a robin flew down out of the lowest branches and landed where I stood upon on my arm. My shirt. My dark green sleeve. Its beak. And sang. Since that time, I have felt great sorrow, in early spring, to see a robin dead on the street. But joy when I see the blue eggs. In the nest by the door. In the garden. In the rain.
The risk of the ghazal, in English, is that, as above, it ends on a lyric note when, in reality, it should be torn from the body like a sob. It should never be written down. It should never be read aloud in a person’s ordinary speaking voice. It is more like a scream than a song. Lisa Robertson: “Form is improvisational.” She said it at CCA, giving, as I recall, one of Trish Salah’s ghazals as an example, to a class of students that included Erin Morrill. I had accompanied Erin to the class because I loved Lisa Robertson’s R’s Boat but had never met her (Lisa R.) properly. Similarly, I liked the example, but began to cough. I coughed and coughed. I left the room. In the bathroom, leaning over the sink, unable to catch my breath, choking, I threw up. When I returned to the class, my face was streaked with mascara and Lisa Robertson asked me if I was okay. I said yes. Then, outside, on the sidewalk, I met Dodie Bellamy and felt so weak I could not greet her like a normal person. My arms were limp. All I could think was: “I just barfed and now I am meeting the author of the BARF MANIFESTO.”
A ghazal is an Indian form. An oral-aural form. An 11th Century Arabic form. I am interested in what people understand themselves to be doing when they write one. Don’t they know how dangerous it is? How much further their hearts could break?
“You never belonged even to yourself though/as you abandoned me your cry was I’m for time,” wrote Ali.
He wrote it down.