‘Every existence speaks a language of its own’: on the ghazal pt. 4

February 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

8/4/68 for Aijaz Ahmad

If these are letters, they will have to be misread.
If scribblings on a wall, they must tangle with all the others.

Fuck reds    Black power    Angel loves Rosita
–and a transistor radio answers in Spanish: Night must fall.

Prisoners, soldiers, crouching as always, writing,
explaining the unforgivable to a wife, a mother, a lover.

Those faces are blurred and some have turned away
to which I used to address myself so hotly.

How is it, Ghalib, that your grief, resurrected in pieces,
has found its way to this room from your dark home in Delhi?

When they read this poem of mine, they are translators.
Every existence speaks a language of its own.

— from Adrienne Rich, “Ghazals: Homage to Ghalib” in Leaflets: Poems, 1965-1968

The most powerful ghazals I’ve read, including those by Ghalib, despite the generally true observation that the couplets in a ghazal tend to be somewhat random or lacking in unity, do hold together in quite powerful ways, creating an emotional or political tenor akin to an electrical field. Thompson is listening to the radio late at night and catalogues his random thoughts; Ghalib describes the sounds of his own grief.

The poem I’ve recorded above is from a sequence by Adrienne Rich called “Ghazals: Homage to Ghalib,”  written in July and August of 1968, on the heels of May ’68 and the student uprising at the Sorbonne which inspired the mass worker strike across France; the Prague Spring is on (the Soviet Union will invade Czechoslovakia on the 20th of August with over 200,000 troops to put down the revolution 16 days after this poem was written); there are student sit-ins and protests across North America; the Vietnam war continues.

Rich inscribes the date for each ghazal, indicating how the ghazal functions for her like a transcription of a given day, a given time, as urgent and compelling and as necessary as the news of the day (“what is found there”). The ghazals in her sequence document moments of this revolutionary summer — “the clouds are electric in this university;” the heat; the graffiti, with poetry as analogue, in fact, graffiti as poetry (graffiti in May ’68 at the Sorbonne: “Nous somme tous les juifs allemands,” “Il faut baiser au moins une fois par nuit pour être un bon révolutionnaire,” “Fuck each other or they’lI fuck you”); private moments between lovers.

The power of these ghazals lies in their status as field notes where an urgent political graffito can exist on the same plane as a radio bulletin announcing a war very far away and a private moment transcribed — a single line — in which lovers lie back to back in the heat of a summer night. This is how we live.

The ghazal is ephemeral and points to the essence of lyric poetry as trace: “These words are vapour-trails of a plane that has vanished;/by the time I write them out, they are whispering something else.”

“When you read these lines, think of me/and of what I have not written here.”


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