Agha Shahid Ali’s “Call me Ishmael Tonight”

January 4, 2012

This was his last book of poems, published posthumously.   Agha Shahid Agha had died of brain cancer on December 8, 2001.

How important was Moby-Dick to the Kashmiri poet?  Probably less than what Melvilleans would like to think .  Agha Shahid Ali came from a background not likely to be dominated by a single figure, or a single cultural force.  Persian and Arabic are mentioned in the same breath in his poetry; Islam is never unaware of Hinduism.   Among Western authors, it was James Merrill, by all accounts, who gave Ali a sense of direction, who enabled him to see what kind of poet he might become.   As Amitav Ghosh recalled, in Ali’s Brooklyn apartment there were several shrine-like niches filled with pictures of people never out of his mind; Merrill was there, along with Ali’s father and mother.  From this poet and his play with formal constraints, Ali would return to the ghazal, a Persian form with stringent rules governing the rhyme and repetition in its couplets.   He says: “once a poet establishes the scheme—with total freedom, I might add—she or he becomes its slave. What results in the rest of the poem is the alluring tension of a slave trying to master the master.”

Call Me Ishmael Tonight is a book of ghazals.  It is a tribute to Melville, just as it is a tribute to Hayden Carruth, Donald Hall, Edward Said, Mark Strand, W.S. Merwin, and many others.   And it ends on a claim of survival — “And I, Shahid, only am escaped to tell thee / God sobs in my arms.  Call Me Ishmael tonight” – when Ali knew that he was in fact dying, that he was guaranteed to die in a matter of months.  What survives, then, will only be that name, Ishmael, with its resonances from the Qur’an no less than from the Bible, and its endless afterlives in poetry no less than in prose.  Agha Shahid Ali is suggesting one way to read Moby-Dick, after all.

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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