The ghazal is an M.C.’s form: repeating words, a rhyme scheme, the self-referential last line that signals the end of the bars. When done right, every single line is a prayer. I learned the form from Shahid, when I was in prison and he was already living only in verse. I’d long been telling men to call me by the name of a man I’d never met, already near begging that “G-d, limit these punishments, there’s still Judgment Day/I’m a mere sinner, I’m no infidel tonight.” Selected by Reginald Dwayne Betts


By Agha Shahid Ali

Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar

—Laurence Hope

Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell tonight?
Whom else from rapture’s road will you expel tonight?

Those “Fabrics of Cashmere—” “to make Me beautiful—”
“Trinket” —to gem—“Me to adorn—How tell” —tonight?

I beg for haven: Prisons, let open your gates—
A refugee from Belief seeks a cell tonight.

God’s vintage loneliness has turned to vinegar—
All the archangels—their wings frozen—fell tonight.

Lord, cried out the idols, Don’t let us be broken;
Only we can convert the infidel tonight.

Mughal ceilings, let your mirrored convexities
multiply me at once under your spell tonight.

He’s freed some fire from ice in pity for Heaven.
He’s left open—for God—the doors of Hell tonight.

In the heart’s veined temple, all statues have been smashed.
No priest in saffron’s left to toll its knell tonight.

God, limit these punishments, there’s still Judgment Day—
I’m a mere sinner, I’m no infidel tonight.

Executioners near the woman at the window.
Damn you, Elijah, I’ll bless Jezebel tonight.

The hunt is over, and I hear the Call to Prayer
fade into that of the wounded gazelle tonight.

My rivals for your live—you’ve invited them all?
This is mere insult, this is no farewell tonight.

And I, Shahid, only am escaped to tell thee—
God sobs in my arms. Call me Ishmael tonight.

Reginald Dwayne Betts is a poet and lawyer. His latest collection of poetry, ‘‘Felon,’’ explores the post-incarceration experience. In 2019, he won a National Magazine Award in Essays and Criticism for his article in The Times Magazine about his journey from teenage carjacker to aspiring lawyer. Agha Shahid Alis final collection was ‘‘Call Me Ishmael Tonight’’ (W. W. Norton & Company, 2003). He died in 2001.

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