Frank Stella, Agha Shahid Ali: Moby-Dick into ghazals

Feb 20, 2014

Stella’s “Fedallah” isn’t anything like Melville’s: not the “tiger-yellow” apparition “with one white tooth evilly protruding from its steel-like lips,” but a fluid, dancing figure, with some dark streaks and shadows, it’s true, but otherwise resplendent, impressive.

Not sticking to the original is probably an act of generosity here — Melville’s portrait of Fedallah isn’t why we’re reading Moby-Dick.  Stella’s reference point seems rather to be his own trip to Iran — modern day Persia — shortly after which he began his Protractor Series (1967-71), brightly-colored, circular shapes based on the circular plan of ancient Middle Eastern cities, each named after one of the these.  The Moby-Dick Series followed in the 1980s, but Persia never quite disappeared.   In the 1990s Stella would come back to it in a big way, in the Ain Ghazal Variations.

I don’t think Stella and Agha Shahid Ali have ever met, and now there’s no chance to, but I’d like to think of them in the same room talking about those ghazals: Stella’s visually vibrant, mixed-media installations, at once ancient and modern, and Ali’s more traditional, text-based poems, also both ancient and modern, that he collected in Call Me Ishmael Tonight, published posthumously after his death in 2001.

Of the ghazal form, Ali says that the rhyme, refrain, and line length set up by the first couplet impose a constraint on every succeeding couplet, one that “delivers on that suspense by amplifying, dramatizing, imploding, exploding.”

Stella would have agreed.

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
This entry was posted in abstract expressionism, adaptation, Arabic, Classics, Middle East, Modern art, Near Eastern poetry, Poetry, twentieth century art, Twentieth century literature and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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