The title of Elizabeth Spires’s poem “Ghazal” does not indicate anything about its subject but describes the style in which it was written. A ghazal is a form of poetry that originated in Iran many centuries ago and made its way throughout the Middle East and Asia primarily through the extension of the Muslim influence in that part of the world. Over the years, people of other cultures and geographies began to experiment with ghazals, and today they may be found in the United States and many other western countries. The basic structure of a ghazal is generally retained by contemporary poets, although not many adhere strictly to the ancient rules of the original Persian poets.
Spires’s “Ghazal,” which appears in her most recent volume of poetry called Now the Green Blade Rises (2002), is a reflection on the death of her mother, as well as a contemplation on the inevitability of the poet’s own aging and eventual death. It is elegiac in tone and filled with quiet solitude, recalling specific moments of the tragic event: the phone call informing her of the news, the airplane flight to her mother’s town, the funeral, the jewelry she inherited, snippets of pleasant childhood memories. All of these thoughts are conveyed in brief images presented in couplets and maintaining some of the formal structure of a traditional ghazal.
The structure of Spires’s “Ghazal” will be addressed later in detail, but one cannot analyze the poem’s meaning without acknowledging the importance of its style. Contemporary writers of ghazals take some liberties with the original standard form but leave enough intact to make the framework recognizable. In this poem, Spires uses a pair of homonyms instead of rhyming words in the couplets, and the like-sounding terms she has selected greatly strengthen the work’s message and tone. “Morning” and “mourning” produce an intriguing play off of one another throughout, and the controlled shift from one to the other conveys the overall somber mood of both words.
In the first two lines, the setting is doleful, with the speaker hearing her “name in the black air,” or the darkness of “early morning.” She claims it is “called out,” but it is ambiguous as to whether her name is actually spoken by someone in the room or on the telephone or she has only dreamed she hears it. Line 2 suggests the latter, and it sets the tone of the remainder of the poem: “a future of mourning” brought on by a foreboding “premonition” of death and sorrow. These lines also mark the first use of the word “black,” which will appear twice more in keeping with the general melancholy of the work.
These lines introduce a second person into the poem, later disclosed as the speaker’s mother. Line 3 implies that every time a mother and daughter meet over the course of their lives and say their usual goodbyes, they are actually “rehears[ing]” for the final time they will utter the words. Line 4 describes the last time the speaker sees her mother alive. They are “in a desert . . . on a white September morning,” apparently before the daughter is leaving to go home. Note the description of the morning spent with her mother as white—completely opposite the black morning air that surrounds her upon her mother’s death. This is the first juxtaposition of black and white in the poem. It will occur again, but with an interesting shift in context.
The gist of these lines is that the speaker has been informed of her mother’s passing, and she must fly out West for the funeral. But the images are more intriguing than that. The “call” in line 5 refers back to the speaker’s name “called out” in line 1 and adds to the ambiguity of whether the latter is an actual word spoken or simply part of a bad dream. In literal terms, it makes no difference; but, poetically, the effect is intriguing, even enigmatic. To retain the ghazal style, the word “morning” (or “mourning,” in this case) needs to appear in the second line of the couplet. Here, Spires works it aptly into a scenario about flying west through time zones and finding the time of day upon arrival the same as it was at...