2nd Annual NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: DAY 12 :: Abigail Welhouse on Suzanne Gardinier
“‘What defines the ghazal is a constant longing,’” Suzanne Gardinier writes in a letter to her friend, poet Agha Shahid Ali, written after his passing – a line of Ali’s from years earlier.
The traditional ghazal form follows strict meter and rhyme, and consists of two-line stanzas. Each stanza ends with the same word, called the radif. Recalling Ali’s frustration with ghazals that ignore formal constraints, Gardinier apologizes for her tweaks of the form in the introduction to her book Today: 101 Ghazals. She maintains, however, that she’s stayed true to the essence of the ghazal: longing.
The longing in the biblical Song of Songs reveals its influence immediately in the first epigraph of Today. She borrows from chapter 4, verse 7: “Thou art all fair, my love; there is no spot in thee.” Gardinier also draws epigraphs from the Koran and the poetry of Spanish mystic poet St. John of the Cross. She sews together different traditions, binding them with her own religious and sexual imagery. Always, the thirst for intimacy — whether with God or a lover — cannot be quenched. In the first ghazal in the book, she writes:
I can hear you but I can’t see you
That’s your plan for me isn’t it
The branch of the cherry along the path
is interrupted by blossom isn’t it
Three cardinals on sand in my dream last night
Night is a lesson in thirst isn’t it
Two chairs One where I sit and wait
This is your idea of love isn’t it
Pruned forsythia Sprays of carbon monoxide
A Columbus Avenue dialogue isn’t it
If I could put my lips to your shoulder
That’s also a shirt between us isn’t it
If I can’t see you shall I make you up
That’s a red bird stammering isn’t it
The speaker calls the lover closer, but it doesn’t seem to be working. The voice becomes more and more rueful, citing both emotional and physical barriers to intimacy. By the end, the speaker is ready to discard the toxic lover (“Sprays of carbon monoxide”) in favor of imagination. The radif “isn’t it” gives the poem a sense of uncertainty, and makes readers question the truth of each line.
I share Gardinier’s love for the Song of Songs, as well as her interest in biblical figures, which she explores further in her bookDialogue with the Archipelago. I can hear her influence in my own attempt at a Biblically-inspired ghazal:
if your rib became me,
why am I without you
your voice once told me when it was morning
I can’t tell time without you
Like Gardinier, I’ve bent the rules about rhyme and meter, and instead chosen to focus on longing. A few years ago, I heard actress Charise Smith read Gardinier’s work as part of the Sweet! Actors Reading Writers series. The poem got so utterly stuck in my head that I read every single one of Gardinier’s books trying to find it again. Eventually, I became so obsessed that I wrote to Gardinier to ask what the poem was, and how I could find it. (It was part of the title poem in an upcoming book, since published —Iridium & Selected Poems 1986-2005)
I still reread that poem from time to time, and like all her work, I’m struck by how the language sings. She captures the sense of longing that’s characteristic not only in ghazals, but also — I would argue — almost all poetry. It’s a homesickness for a place I haven’t been yet.
Emily Dickinson wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?” (L342a) Like Gardinier in her letter to Ali, Dickinson defines poetry not for what it is, but for what it does — and what it creates.
Abigail Welhouse studies poetry in the MFA program at the City College of New York. Her writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in the Heavy Feather Review,Keep This Bag Away from Children, Big City Lit, and The Rumpus.
Suzanne Gardinier is the author of five books, most recently Iridium & Selected Poems 1986-2009. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College, where she directs the Sarah Lawrence in Cuba program, and lives between Havana and Manhattan.