1056: Ghazal for Mothers & Tongues

1056: Ghazal for Mothers & Tongues

1056: Ghazal for Mothers & Tongues


I’m Major Jackson and this is The Slowdown.

One of my great joys in writing poetry is the manipulation of sounds into a pattern that plays ordinary language into an intricate song. Poets are deft at creating sonic effects that are natural as wind over a summer field. Yet that seeming naturalness is…an illusion. I, and many other poets, work with established poetic forms to sonically weave words in an arrangement that ideally feels inevitable and not forced. These patterns are deeply embedded in the seasons and rhythms of life, such that poems appear to tap into some inner awareness.

We can thank the late poet Agha Shahid Ali for popularizing one of the most beloved poetic forms in books, anthologies, and literary magazines: the ghazal! So much so, I cannot hear a ghazal and not think of Agha who I was lucky enough to meet several times in my life. He was a big-hearted and kind human being, and not to mention, a superb poet. Every ghazal I read feels like an homage to his presence in American poetry.

A ghazal, which originated with 7th century poets writing in Arabic and later was embraced by Persian poets, is a form of couplets that repeats the same word at the end of each stanza. The ghazal also embeds an internal rhyme so that multiple layers of music are heard. It is a poem that concludes with a signature line; the poet embeds their last name or some variant in the last stanza much like an artist’s signature on a painting.

In America, we tend to put blue jeans on poetic forms to serve our purposes, to feel, well, less formal. But Agha Shahid Ali was adamant that American poets not appropriate and disfigure the ghazal, which he described as a “ravishing disunity.” He urged poets to adhere to its stringent rules.

Today’s fine poem is gorgeous for many reasons, but one is the way the poet enriches our ears with the sounds of words. Poems that are designed like today’s poem turn language into more than just a tool of communication — and into a ceremonial and opulent form of human address.

Ghazal for Mothers & Tongues
by Sahar Muradi

It may be a broken, a shrill mother tongue,
But I’m raising my daughter in my ill mother tongue.

Translating Seuss and Nagara on the fly.
“Siya-o-safeyd” I’m fine, but at “zebra” I’m still, mother tongue.

The air is English, the water too.
How will you get past her gill, Mother Tongue?

Morning and night, I call Maadar.
What’s the word for guilt, mother or tongue?

A bat is a leather butterfly; turtle, a stone frog.
Dari, 1; English, nil. Mothertongue!!

We are writing our own kitab, you and I:
Oh, the Things They Try to Kill: mothers & tongues.

“Pappa climb zeena, get moon,” she instructs. 
I’m over the mahtab—each sprinkle of mother tongue.

Nafasem kee ast? I ask. Soma Ali! she beams.
In a word, my breath; and my dil, a mother’s tongue.

“Ghazal for Mothers” by Sahar Muradi from OCTOBERS © 2023 Sahar Muradi. Used by permission of University of Pittsburgh Press.