a ghazal for the desert of the soul 

love made man: molded as the weary earth,

imbued her with all wildlands of the earth.


spend life! reach longingly in sky-t’ward twist,

crawling up the mist; fly, blooms! from the earth,


your winking flowers, folded, forged for you,

bursting forth: innermost-light to the earth,


but then falling, wilted (dead in heartbeats);

grown stilted, godlife less glowed to the earth,


yea, love made man: formed as the flower’s birth,

but then abandoned? desert-turned the earth!


no. not left here sandy and desolate,

just with love for bleak nothings of the earth:


(a conversion: new eyes, new blooms, opened!)

for grey rocks, sky-nights, wastelands on the earth.


filled emptiness—love out of flower’s death—

emerges in your sojourn on the earth,


realized longing in the soul’s darkness:

luke’s loved in desolation of the earth.


I figured that one of my pieces would take the form of a poem, but I assumed it would be a masnawi, or just a free verse response to another course theme. I’m surprised I ended up choosing the ghazal. The form is beautiful, but also very difficult (at least, so it seems to me). The continual repetition of the last phrase in each couplet, plus the radif, ensured I would always be limited on some level, and if I wasn’t careful, it could easily sound kitschy or sing-song. An interesting poetic challenge to undertake—and (haha) I’m not sure if I fully succeeded.

For my ghazal (which I have entitled a ghazal for the desert of the soul), I decided on a simple metrical rule of ten syllables per line. Thematically, I wanted it to be a divine love poem as is traditional for the ghazal, though in terms of imagery I think I diverged from convention somewhat.

My continual devotional obsession is with apophatic thought and apophatic prayer. In my native Christianity, I have heard apophatic prayer called the prayer of the desert. This is because to enter apophatic prayer is to enter a spiritual realm without much imagery, and without much color. It is a wasteland where there is you, there is God, and there isn’t meant to be much else.

I note in the work of J.T.P. de Brujin that in the expression of radical divine love, ghazals often feature imagery that reverts or subverts the values of traditional piety: drunkenness as the ideal state, the drunk as the divine lover, the Zoroastrian mage as the spiritual adept, et cetera (76). I love how somewhat unexpected images are utilized to convey the beauty of mystical experience. I also note that “to the ghazal poet, Nature in particular is full of analogies to his experiences of love” (de Brujin 63).

I decided to keep both of these characteristics in mind when composing a poem about apophatic union with God. The imagery of nature is central to my poem (my radif/rhyme combination is “the earth”), but I have tried to use nature in a subversive way. Here, God is not found in the vernal bloom of garden life that occurs in spring. In this poem, God is not found in green things. Rather, God is found in the silence of the desert, and in its death (which is akin to our death of the ego).  Thus in my ghazal, I pay homage to both the presence of nature in the Sufi imagination, and also to the use of unexpected, subversive imagery for God.

A brief note on aesthetics: A personal favorite poet, G.M. Hopkins, also wrote a lot about nature and God. Grammatically, his verse is bizarre and, for lack of a better term, elegantly jagged. I tried to emulate this aesthetic in my ghazal.

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