Three-Petaled Love Ghazal
All Other Loves
The Infant Warrior sings in every tongue, inflames all other loves.
Beware ravishings of the swaddled One who contains all other loves.
When did my desire turn on me with its green hunger, its hollow teeth?
My craving craves me back: pinched and jealous god who slays all other loves.
Poplars glint and shimmy in their spangled chorus line. They shiver, swept
by gusty fingers of a flirting sylph who disdains all other loves.
I abandon my mandrake garden. Now cankered roots poison the ground.
Juicy djinn's eggs, stolen for my silver bowl, red-stain all other loves.
Moses said. Moses said. He's dead. All the Earth is Egypt in the egg.
O Exodus hatched from the plagues of those gods, unchain all other loves.
Language ladled into Karen like alphabet soup from deep Word wells:
bright clad children queue to crazy-quilt the looped refrain, "all other loves".
This day is the end of my life: boundary enclosing the center.
All my days sigh, fall in spent rings around me, exposing the center.
Hankerings crowd my heart at cross purposes to draw and quarter me.
Warring loves clash! Which contentious itch is this bulldozing the center?
Your Spirit in me waits; crouches low like a pilot light: patient fire,
while each ignited cell in me, a hearth and pyre—glows at the center.
Such insatiable satiation! Can't say no to the rhumba urge.
Weight, mass and swivel merge—with gravity presupposing a center!
Listen, heart: who deep-carved into you these toxic runes and puzzling wounds?
Hold still for the ghazaling therapist who's diagnosing the center.
If you're reading this, it means I've died. In lieu of tears, Karen sends you
colors full of joy till in time all arrive, disclosing the center.
Arrive at Love
Inching, inching down to the well far beneath the fog, I strive to love.
Crouched light on its lip till you tell me to tip and I nose-dive to love.
A filmier face leans out of yours; it winks and scolds me: "You're dead, dear!"
snaps back as I slip slow through the narrows of the night, deprived of love.
Once said, these words are in the way: snapshots stalling a silent movie.
Words of all my yesterdays lie yellow-edged in the archives of love.
The city sings: a thin-skinned orange; juicy sharp high C inside. Wait.
Six wafer moons pass; peel back rind of the unexpected life I love.
Hidden to elude pursuit, I hang this hasty bamboo curtain and
peek quick-eyed at you from between the slats till I can survive your love.
Karen, pivot here on the hinge Contingency. Simplify to this:
you do not reduce to one, but us. Hinge on this kiss; arrive at love.
Copyright 2012 by Karen Winterburn
Critique by Laura Cherry
As forms go, as with Olympic sports, each has a different level of difficulty. Fledgling poets might, for example, start exploring the world of form by trying out the haiku or the rondeau; some time later, they might move to the sonnet or villanelle. This is not to say that it is easy to write a superb haiku or rondeau, but that it is possible to learn the very clear tenets of these forms and to create satisfying versions fairly soon. The more difficult the form, the harder it is to execute it in a way that will add something new, surprising, and lasting. Practice, diligence, and lavish amounts of reading are needed to progress in trickier, more demanding forms.
Somewhere far away up the ladder of difficulty, hanging out on a rung near the sestina, is the ghazal, a Near Eastern form which until recently was not widely known in the West and which still remains relatively obscure here. The ghazal (you will impress your poet friends if you know to pronounce it "huzzle") dates back to seventh-century Arabia; famous ghazal practitioners included the Persian poets Rumi and Hafiz. There has been passionate debate (fascinating for poetry geeks) about how to translate the usage of this form from its traditional Arabic or Persian into English. My own understanding is indebted to Agha Shahid Ali, a skilled writer of English ghazals who worked to bring the form to greater prominence in the West. Unlike some other definitions of the ghazal, Shahid's English interpretation of the form has a number of quite strict rules that must be followed.
To simplify to the core components: Firstly, ghazals have "timeless" subjects such as romantic love and mysticism. The ghazal form itself is made up of a series of long-lined couplets (at least five but no more than fifteen); the lines' meter is unspecified but should be roughly consistent. The same word (or phrase) is used as a refrain to end both lines of the first couplet and the second line of the remaining couplets. And finally, the poet's name appears as a "signature" in the last couplet. Simple, right? The trick here is to do something far-reaching and unexpected and mind-blowing with all that repetition, within the expansive space of those long, leggy lines. What does this look like in practice? Take a look at Shahid's untitled ghazal for an allusive, elegant example. Or you might check out Karen Winterburn's series of ghazals under its umbrella title "Three-Petaled Love Ghazal". In fact, let's look at Winterburn's approach to the core components of the ghazal to see how she handles them.
For her subject and theme, Winterburn gets extra points from the judges by choosing romantic and religious love, interwoven, or an eroticized version of religious love. This plunges directly to the heart of the ghazal's traditional intention, with the Western twist of incorporating Christianity as the religion of concern. There is something audacious yet entirely fitting in this choice, and Winterburn executes it with confidence.
Winterburn uses the requisite long-lined couplets, in a neat arrangement of six per ghazal. With her end words, Winterburn achieves a higher level of difficulty by not just incorporating the same end word or phrase into each couplet, but prefacing it with a refrain that rhymes but does not repeat—a feature of the Arabic ghazal that is not always used in English. For example, the refrains in the first ghazal, "All Other Loves", include:
contains all other loves
slays all other loves
disdains all other loves
unchain all other loves
Winterburn's rhymes are mostly true rhymes, though occasionally she will use assonant rhyme (as in "slays all other loves") or another variant. Winterburn also includes her signature at the end of each ghazal, first referring to herself as poet ("Language ladled into Karen"), then addressing the beloved ("In lieu of tears, Karen sends you / colors full of joy"), and finally addressing herself directly ("Karen, pivot here on the hinge Contingency").
It's also instructive to look at Winterburn's titles. Ghazals in their original form are not titled. Shahid, in his English ghazals, tends to use a ghazal's refrain word or phrase as its title, at least in a collection of ghazals where differentiation is useful. Winterburn uses this same convention for her individual ghazals, while giving the sequence an overarching title that evokes the Trinity and introduces the poem's romantic elements.
Of course, you can put together a perfect form without bringing a poem to life. Winterburn's poem is not empty form, but uses the ghazal as a structure or strategy for ranging widely across her theme. With each refrain, she pushes the poem in a slightly different direction. From the start, the "Infant Warrior", a symbol for Jesus, is seen as containing "all other loves", some of which include erotic desire, cravings, and stolen treasure ("juicy djinn's eggs"). The poem's images are wild, complex, ecstatic, and despairing.
In the first ghazal as throughout the poem, the language is a delight, full of deft assurance and lively music. A sentence like "Poplars glint and shimmy in their spangled chorus line" creates pops and spangles in the mouth if read aloud, even as it draws a vivid, glimmering picture of that row of trees. The last couplet of this ghazal describes the process of assembling the ghazal itself: "crazy-quilt the looped refrain, 'all other loves'". In the second ghazal, "At Center", the poet dies a symbolic death, drawn and quartered by conflicting desires, which are alternately warm, patient, satiating, enlivening, puzzling, and joyful. Each stanza's refrain works to bring its pinwheeling emotions and images back to the theme. Fittingly, the refrain "at the center" gives the poem its heart.
The third ghazal, "Arrive at Love", serves as a culmination of the sequence, the poet's arrival at what has been yearned for. In this ghazal, the images and lines become especially hermetic and surreal, as if following a private code: "A filmier face leans out of yours; it winks and scolds me, 'You're dead, dear!'" Here again, the form is followed precisely. The end refrain, used to explore the theme, never becomes tedious.
However, I find this last ghazal more striking than satisfying. The last six couplets are well executed but resist interpretation or a sense of what is being arrived at, and with whom. Is this an ecstatic spiritual moment? A long-delayed acceptance of the earthly beloved? A post-mortem reflection on the life of the senses? Deprivation, pursuit, and hiding are all elements of the plot, but it is not clear what it means to transcend these for the indicated arrival. I'd very much like to feel, with the speaker of the poem, what is going on in this final acceptance, the "nose-dive to love."
Does Winterburn stick the landing? I enjoy the last couplet, its provocative pivot on the hinge of a kiss, and the lovestruck reduction not "to one, but us". I just wish I understood more clearly what has led up to it.
Here is a note from the author on writing ghazals: "When I saw I needed a whole lot of images that needn't be related or unified or developed, I mined my old 'dead' poems—some even from high school (many moons ago!) in which I might have had a couple of good images but the poem itself never went anywhere. It's fun to collect all those and recycle them." Note the discovery that Winterburn quietly makes about the assortment of images her poem requires in order to develop breadth and range to counter the repetition. This is a key pleasure of form, if you can manage it: to discover and learn from the poem itself what it needs to sing.
For extra ghazal enjoyment, find Agha Shahid Ali's collection Call Me Ishmael Tonight or his anthology Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English.
Where might a poem like "Three-Petaled Love Ghazal" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Jeffrey E. Smith Editors' Prize for Fiction, Essays & Poetry
Postmark Deadline: October 1
The Missouri Review awards $5,000 in each genre; online entry accepted; suites of thematically related poems have done well in this contest
Joy Harjo Poetry Award
Postmark Deadline: October 10
Colorado-based journal Cutthroat offers this contest named for a well-known Native American poet and activist, with prizes up to $1,250; online entry accepted
This poem and critique appeared in the August 2012 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).