Pale hands I loved beside the ShalimarPale . . . Shalimar The epigraph is from a 12-line poem entitled “Kashmiri Song.” There are allusions to “Kashmiri Song” throughout this poem. The Shalimar Garden, in Lahore, Pakistan, was built by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir in 1619 for his wife Nur Jahan.
                         —Laurence Hope


Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell tonight?
Whom else from rapture’s road will you expel tonight?

Those “Fabrics of Cashmere—” “to make Me beautiful—”
“Trinket”—to gem—“Me to adorn—How tell”—tonight?

I beg for haven: Prisons, let open your gates—
A refugee from Belief seeks a cell tonight.

God’s vintage loneliness has turned to vinegar—
All the archangels—their wings frozen—fell tonight.

Lord, cried out the idols, Don’t let us be broken;
Only we can convert the infidel tonight.

Mughal ceilings, let your mirrored convexities
multiply me at once under your spell tonight.

He’s freed some fire from ice in pity for Heaven.
He’s left open—for God—the doors of Hell tonight.

In the heart’s veined temple, all statues have been smashed.
No priest in saffron’s left to toll its knell tonight.

God, limit these punishments, there’s still Judgment Day—
I’m a mere sinner, I’m no infidel tonight.

Executioners near the woman at the window.
Damn you, Elijah, I’ll bless Jezebel tonight.

The hunt is over, and I hear the Call to Prayer
fade into that of the wounded gazelle tonight.

My rivals for your love—you’ve invited them all?
This is mere insult, this is no farewell tonight.

And I, Shahid, only am escaped to tell thee
God sobs in my arms. Call me Ishmael tonight.
“Tonight" from Call Me Ishmael Tonight: A Book of Ghazals by Agha Shahid Ali. Copyright © 2003 by Agha Shahid Ali Literary Trust. Used by permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Source: Call Me Ishmael Tonight: A Book of Ghazals (W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 2003)

Writing Ideas

Using Ali’s poem as a model, write your own ghazal. For another example of a modern ghazal, read Patricia Smith’s “Hip-Hop Ghazal”. Be sure to include your name in the poem’s final couplet.

Discussion Questions

1. “Tonight” is a ghazal, a traditional Persian form composed of couplets ending with the same refrain phrase (the qafia), which is preceded by the rhyming word (the radif). What is the effect of the qafia “tonight” at the end of every second line?

2. Ghazals also traditionally express the beauty and pain of loss and separation. Why might repetition be an appropriate form for expressing “beauty and pain”?

3. All formal poems present unique challenges to the poets who choose to use them: the structure of a sonnet often requires that the poem make an argument or resolve a problem while the sestina’s intricate ordering and repetitions render a sort of aural and narrative claustrophobia. What sorts of challenges might a poet face in using the ghazal form?

4. In the last couplet of a ghazal, a poet traditionally includes his name. How did Ali adapt that tradition here?

5. Why might Ali have referred to the opening sentence of Moby Dick (“Call me Ishmael”) in the last line of his poem? Could Ali also be alluding to the Biblical figure of Ishmael? After researching these allusions, ask how they might affect or influence your interpretation of the poem’s ending.

Teaching Tips

1. Have students listen to the audio recording of the poem at least twice, marking the text with question marks (something that evoked a question), hearts (something pleasurable), and exclamation points (something that rings true). Have students discuss possible antecedent scenarios for the poem, answering the question “Who is speaking, why, and what is he/she speaking about?” Use chart paper to record findings. After a day of research, students will revisit their initial ideas about the speaker and the scenario that led to this utterance.

2. Provide computer access to students and have them research unfamiliar words, allusions, the ghazal as a poetic form, the biography of the poet, and so on. Debrief in a large group, ask students to share their findings and add, subtract, multiply and divide their original description of the poem’s scenario. This exercise might make a great platform for introducing various schools of criticism.
3. Have students create a group performance of the piece. Allow students to begin by developing a physical vocabulary, three physical images that visually underscore the major themes of the text.  For example, revenge might look like a fist, waiting might look like hands on hips, love might look like arms crossed on the chest, et cetera. Have students present performances that incorporate this physical vocabulary, using movement as well as various vocal arrangements to convey a sense of the poem.

More Poems by Agha Shahid Ali