Roger Sedarat, Ghazal Games: Poems. Ohio University Press / Swallow Press, 2011
Sedarat’s collection contains 53 ghazal games. These poems are games in a double sense. First, any poem is a “game,” structured by the poet to be “played” by the reader; second, many of these poems present the reader with overt games, such as filling in blanks, playing hangman, or creating cartoons.
A game requires a set of rules (or conditions or constraints), some sort of items to manipulate, and one or more players. One could look at any writing as a game, in which the writer uses “rules” to create games for the readers. Perhaps each poem is an instance of a game, or each reading of a poem is. The “game” of poetry has several players: the poet sets the rules and situation, the readers play according to their own goals and values.
The poet may well work with “rules” inherited from tradition, as is the case with formal poetry such as ghazals. Sedarat uses the Persian ghazal-form with great fluency and wit. The reader who plays these ghazal games openly and attentively will be richly rewarded. Readers not familiar with this form can find explanations here, here, and here. You’ll find many other resources on the Internet.
The Persian ghazal is an intricate and repetitive form. It consists of couplets (shers), each of which is independent of the others. In its full version, it uses both a monorhyme (qafiya) and a repeated word or phrase (radif), as well as the poet’s signing each poem with a pen-name in the last couplet. These repetitions open a potential for humor, as repeated, insistent rhyme in English easily becomes funny. Sedarat handles these intricacies adroitly; the humor in his ghazals is better described as “wit,” as in this example:
Watch out where she steps or you’ll touch cold feet.
(She broke my meter with her crutch-cold feet.)
In this first couplet of “Cold Feet,” Sedarat makes an unexpected rhyme and plays with various meanings of “feet.”
Romantic love and wine, and both as vehicles of experiencing the Divine are traditional ghazal topics. An example from this collection is “Disease of Self”:
The world’s infected. A disease of self.
O divine love, grant us release of self.
This first couplet is very straight-forward, almost somber. Here are two more, the fifth and the last:
At the bare minimum, serve each other
As co-workers, fire the big cheese of self.
I’m somewhere folded between my childhood
And future, wrinkling this faint crease of self.
(Note that Sedarat uses the simple first-person pronoun for the “pen-name” of the traditional form.) The last image has a tactile, kinesthetic quality that expresses well the sense of “self” in this ghazal.
What about the “Games”?
What indeed. Twelve of the ghazals are titled “Ghazal Game” with a number and further title specific to that poem. Some sample titles:
- “Ghazal Game #2: Pin the Tail on the Middle Eastern Donkey”
- “Ghazal Game #5: Product Placement”
- “Ghazal Game #6: Hangman”
- “Ghazal Game #9: Illustrate the Comic Strip”
“Ghazal Game #5″ gives, in ghazal form, instructions for a game of hangman. Here’s the first couplet:
First, hang your head like Hester Prynne’s letter
In shame. You belong to her sin-letter.
And the third:
If some nun wants to sign the cross over
Your unchristian, heathen heart, then let her.
As well as the “Ghazal Games,” there are experiments such as “Inverted Ghazal” and “Vertical Ghazal.” “Inverted Ghazal” puts the repeated word and monorhyme at the beginning of the first line of each couplet, rather than at the end of the second. On reading it outloud, one will hear how the effect still is that of a ghazal. “Vertical Ghazal” is exactly that, each line printed vertically a letter a time, with a first visual impression like Japanese or Chinese calligraphy. This ghazal also relates to concrete poetry in its use of the visual.
Not All Fun and Games
I do not want to leave the reader of this review thinking that Roger Sedarat’s Ghazal Games is all fun and games, playful versions of ghazal. (Not that there’s anything wrong with being playful!) There are more serious ghazals here as well, although they are not without their playful moments. An advantage of the disjunctions between couplets is that tone can shift drastically. For example consider “Martyr’s of Iran” and “My Father’s Face.”
Here are three couplets from “Martyrs of Iran”:
Forget their sins in this transient world.
The spilled blood absolves martyrs of Iran.
Basiji kids buy toy Evin prisons
Where you torture doll-martyrs of Iran.
The thread of incense spelled Allah’s ninety-
Nine names, linked to all martyrs of Iran.
This topic is grim; Evin Prison has been a site of brutality since the time of the Shah. The couplet mentioning it shows how adult actions affect children, suggesting the transmission of brutality through generations.
In “My Father’s Face,” Sedarat explores the links between generations:
At the end of his life, my father’s face
Appears in my mirror (my father’s face).
There’s much else in this rich ghazal; this opening couplet expresses tenderness and the bemusement a man has at “seeing” his father’s face in his own. Further, there is also the deft handling of the radif (repeated phrase), which must be at the end of each line of the first couplet. The parentheses emphasize the reflection, the doubling of the image.
Poets writing in English have dabbled in the ghazal form for sometime. The late Agha Shahid Ali
was distressed at the ignorance of some of these poets and vigorously explained and advocated the traditional Persian form. I first learned of ghazal in Lynx
in the mid-1990s; that information was very incomplete. I began The Ghazal Page
in 1999 to explore the possibilities of the ghazal as a form for English poetry. This background is simply to make the point that the ghazal has been established as a form for poetry in English. Roger Sedarat’s Ghazal Games
is an outstanding example of the genre. May it be followed by many more.