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I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say
Canarium Books, $14 (paper)
If Anthony Madrid had his way, reviews of his debut, I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say, would consist of nothing but “the best lines from the book, cherry-picked and re-typed by the reviewer.” The “gallery review,” for which Madrid agitates in a recent blog post, demands that opinion take the form of evidence rather than vague praise, and privileges work in which key effects are available in short, epigrammatic units that can be recirculated in other contexts without much loss of life. It rewards work modeled on whip-crack rather than waterslide.
I Am Your Slave is an ingenious collection of ghazals, a good choice for a poet who loves the whip. Traditional Urdu, Persian, and Arabic ghazals consist of a series of end-stopped, metrically uniform, thematically autonomous couplets, each bonded to each by a rhyme and refrain at the end of every second line, each delivering a witty twist or pathos-laden punch line. Like sonnets, they typically speak of love’s torments—as in the following ghazal by the nineteenth-century Indian poet Ghalib (in Ralph Russell’s unrhymed translation):
I may be good, I may be bad—I live in ill-matched company
A flower thrown on the bonfire, or a weed among the flowers
Asad, I am prisoner, enslaved by beauty’s kindnesses
Her loving arm’s embrace is like a collar for my neck
In each couplet things become their opposites by a logic of ill-matching: we see the dejected poet identified first as a flower and then against flowers; we see a loving embrace likened to a “collar.” In “What With This New Body,” Madrid adapts the rhythm, parallel structure, and a body part from this Ghalib translation into the new body of his own poem for more exuberant but similarly pyrrhic ends:
I am impatient, I am irreverent, I am addicted to giving pleasure.
You could say I haven’t the scholar’s cast of mind.
I wouldn’t even let ’em put a cast on my broken arm! I said: Better my bones
Divert their course around the stones in the river of life.
The lover’s collar becomes the “scholar’s cast of mind,” but freedom from it sounds at least as painful as its bondage; being “addicted to giving pleasure” demands the poet embrace the pain of his “broken arm” rather than let those scholars brace it. (Madrid holds a PhD in English from the University of Chicago, where he had the pleasure of being a graduate student for the last twelve years.) It’s no stretch to regard that “broken arm” as a version of the broken line that makes verse what it is, or to see the scholar’s “cast” as a version of dutiful adherence to molds Madrid prefers to treat as malleable.
The title I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say touches on several power-distribution contradictions native to the ghazal—the male love-poet who professes to be “enslaved by beauty’s kindness” yet dictates how she appears in verse, the female lover who performs submission to get her way, the poet-monk who prays to the Almighty because he wants a favor—and these in turn figure the transgressive respect with which Madrid treats the ghazal genre itself. Madrid does to the Urdu and Persian ghazal what Shakespeare (and others) did to the Italian sonnet, modifying some of the form’s rules—notably, its rhyme and refrain scheme—while tying its other conventions into knots of his own devising. Like traditional ghazals, his 64 poems often speak as a lover-poet-hero (named MADRID or MARDUD) from a horizon of erotic or spiritual dejection—dishing out ironic aphorisms and perverse counsel, affecting to enjoy his wounds, pining for the beloved woman or wine-bearing boy, worrying over a rival “seventeen feet tall and tricked out with half a mile of tattoos.” Like those ghazals, his inveigh against “moral-know-it-alls,” defend male gazing and mutual pursuit of erotic pleasure, and complain of being misunderstood or oppressed by the village literary critics. Like those ghazals, his draw from innumerable sources—including Sa’di, Hafez, Sunzi, Lacan, Kalidasa, Sara Teasdale, David Bowie, John Marston, François Truffaut, Odysseus Elytis, Ted Greenwald, and Abdul-Majd Majdud ibn Adam Sanai Ghaznavi.
Perhaps the most important formal characteristic of the ghazal Madrid maintains is its couplet autonomy. In a recent interview with his friend and fellow poet Michael Robbins, Madrid explains his fondness for the ghazal as in part a function of the form’s couplet-based solution to the problem of infelicitous delay—also known as filler:
First lines, beginnings—they’re good. Whatever energy was required to make the thing jump out of the water in the first place pretty much ensures a good first line. But then it turns out the rest of the poem is just the poet struggling to make that first line make sense. . . . The ghazal solves this problem. You start over, every two lines. The poem itself is almost a first-line index.
Paul Valéry describes the first line of a poem as a piece of fallen fruit the poet has never seen, and the poet’s task as creating the tree from which that strange fruit fell. Madrid makes trees entirely of fallen fruit.
The whip-crack of rhyme can happen anywhere and often.
Reading Madrid’s couplets in their natural habitat can feel like perusing a book of independent aphorisms—except these aphorisms sustain uncanny connections. “They Have Built A Public Fountain” seems to shift focus at every stanza break, but keep an eye on the oedipal undertones:
They have built a public fountain with the stones they threw at my father.
I have tasted the water of that fountain; I found it sweet.
Famous cousin, we see you studying that dictionary in deadly earnest.
We see you assisted by a single lit filament, in the small hours of the morning.
A hornet lives all her life with a multiplex of daggers in her vitals.
Who swears to avenge her younger self must fly | through miles of empty air.
What are the connections between these couplets? Does “that dictionary” stand as an optional metaphor for “that fountain,” which is itself a metaphor for some other term not named? Is the female hornet with her vitals full of daggers—tools for avenging younger selves in “deadly earnest”—analogous to the famous cousin? Are filaments and daggers analogues for couplets? The next lines of the poem might be a warning against pinning down this multiplex of options with certainty:
It’s no use counting seeds; they won’t all come up. Better say:
“Gardener, they’re happy to count themselves, if only you’ll stand out of their light.”
No need for devilish alphabets or any code whatever.
They are right not to play at games who are certain to get no pleasure.
MADRID! Like you and every other preacher, I am eaten up with guilt.
I have eight sacks of lead shot hung about my heart.
A lot of play in these lines emerges from trying to figure out the code by which these couplets lie planted beside each other—so long as you remember that code is for whip-crack more than cracking.
As with most of Madrid’s ghazals, this one ends with a takhallus or pen-name—a ghazal convention by which the poet names himself in the terminal couplet, often while ventriloquizing his imagined community. Here’s a classic example from Russell’s Ghalib: “The word went round that Ghalib would be hacked in little pieces / We went to see the sight, but there was nothing there to see.” Madrid’s “I’m My Own Gal I Answer To Nobody” repeats this scene of poet-termination with a lighter touch and longer line than usual: “And now MADRID’s ascending into heaven. Here’s our chance to look up his dress! / Oh, but God! The thing I see there—! It’s like a shark shaking the life out of the back wheel of a tractor!” Such ventriloquism balances MADRID’s aphoristic authority with a choral counterpoint.
Ghazal purists might object that Madrid’s poems forego the rhyme and refrain scheme constitutive of the form in other languages. “Once a poet establishes the scheme” wrote one well-known Anglophone proponent of the of the ghazal, “he or she becomes its slave.” But Madrid is too shrewd to abandon that scheme without beckoning it back by other means (emphasis added):
Beneath your parents’ mattress is a stairwell leading downward.
That bed is like a door on which your parents knocked to summon you.
Moles are a kind of meteor. Their careers are knots in the earth.
Because the earth is a ball, the way out of the maze is straight up.
In Madrid’s ghazal, the whip-crack of rhyme can happen anywhere and often. Sonically bonded together, these closed couplets open to the play of optional metaphors: the juxtaposition of like sounds and antitheses pressures us to ask after other connections—for instance, between that meteoric mole who must go “straight up” and the “you” who had to climb “the stairwell leading downward” to be born.
About one fifth of these poems maintain a single rhetorical thread from start to finish; the rest jump cut from one thread to another every one-to-three couplets, letting the reader play with possible connections and sort the metaphors from the metonymies.
Much of the fun here involves listening to Madrid suffer and enjoy the anachronistic grandeur of his pose. You can hear a note of self-satire in his highest tones: “Does not the open mouth of the cave sing? It sings, goddamn you. / And each black and fluttering note has its own radar.” But once we’ve been trained to hear his seriousness as comic, we come upon un-ironized insight: “Immaturity’s not knowing your motives? No, it’s something rather worse. / Immaturity is not knowing that your motives are transparent.” Also sudden tenderness:
Oh Nadya! come outside with me! let’s hold hands and have a look
At our pretty little brown-haired clarinet-playing daughter!
She made a little Baby Jesus and put it in an owl’s nest;
Now she wants to set it afloat, but we say no . . .
“Anthony, what can this mean? This language amazes me.”
It means I wish I could give you a daughter exactly like yourself.
Like Ghalib, Madrid often recurs to the possibility that we, like Nadya, might not understand what he’s saying all the time. But how much parsing does pleasure require? On first looking into Madrid’s ghazals, I found myself reading their couplets at parties and reciting them from memory to friends, saying with delight what the mind can only almost penetrate but the tongue and ear adore. Wisdom or nonsense—or wisdom and nonsense—it’s pure pleasure to say what MADRID does:
Well, cock-a-doodle-doo, Sacagawea! Fuss factor fifty, and you coulda got us all killed.
You know many and many an astonishing thing. But now the CHILD wants to lecture you for a while.
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