“seasonal ghazal” by Harry Gilonis (poem)

Kandinsky, Wassily_Three Sounds
Vasily Kandinsky (Russian, 1866–1944), Three Sounds, 1926. Oil on canvas, 23 5/8 × 23 1/2 in. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

the silent stars descend to us
come angel seraph sheep pear-tree

o holy o cold
dawn come in snow

offspring of day
light is lily above us

glory birds, calling birds
sun, the fields shining

the day, the earth, skies
peace, contemplation and music

hosanna, no, holly stand
suddenly tree displayed

the yonder star our comfort
bring time again

joy, excelsis a-leaping
world and hope embrace

lullay image and sing sing
a happy new begin

“seasonal ghazal” by Harry Gilonis appears in the chapbook The Twelve Poems of Christmas, vol. 3, ed. Carol Ann Duffy (Candlestick Press, 2011), and in Haphazard by Starlight: A Poem a Day from Advent to Epiphany by Janet Morley (SPCK, 2013). Used by permission of Harry Gilonis.

A ghazal is a traditional Arabic verse-form originating in seventh-century Arabia and spreading in the medieval era into Africa, Spain, Persia, South Asia, and Turkey, where it has continued to develop. It is made up of five to fifteen self-contained couplets connected loosely by mood or theme, however allusive. The poet Agha Shahid Ali compares each ghazal couplet to “a stone from a necklace” that should continue to “shine in that vivid isolation.”

Harry Gilonis’s “seasonal ghazal” doesn’t adhere to all the principles of the classic form (which involve rhyme and refrain), but it does give us autonomous couplets of roughly equal length that unfold without linearity, and these all center on the twinned seasons of Advent and Christmastide. Gilonis composed the poem using a cut-up technique, in which he printed out pages’ worth of sacred and secular English carol texts, excised words or short phrases that stood out to him, and rearranged those excised fragments into varying combinations, creating a medley of seasonal keywords that strikes a new chord.

By separating the words from their original syntactic contexts and collaging them together in new ways, he defamiliarizes and thus revivifies them. Traditional elements of the Christmas story are playfully refreshed.

The poem captures the magic and wonder of the season and a hint of its yearning and lament. For example, the exultant excelsis, Latin for “highest,” from the angels’ song to the shepherds is followed one stanza later by lullay, an archaic word used to soothe children to sleep and voiced in the “Coventry Carol” by mothers of ancient Bethlehem who lullaby into eternal rest their infant sons who are about to be slain by Herod. Elevated choral anthems contrasted with deep, mournful groans. Christmastide is full of “light” and “glory,” but there’s also “cold.”

The line “world and hope embrace” is particularly compelling—a picture of hope throwing its arms around a weary and skeptical world, and the world hugging back.

Because of the poem’s fragmentary nature, the grammatical mood of some of the verbs can’t be definitively discerned, but I read the following, in addition to the Hebrew-derived “hosanna” (“save us, please!”), as imperatives addressed to God: “descend,” “come,” “bring,” and the final word, open and expansive, “begin”—a curtailment of the noun “beginning.”

Jesus’s birth was a new and universal beginning. Can you hear echoes of Isaiah?: “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” (Isa. 43:19a NIV). Many Christians see in this Hebrew Bible passage the promise of a messianic kingdom inaugurated by Jesus’s birth but not yet brought to completion. The speaker of “seasonal ghazal” seems to recognize the salvation project that’s in motion but longs for “the day” of the Lord, “the earth, skies” reunited. “Begin,” he beckons. Bring in the new era.

What word combinations in this poem stick out to you? What meaning(s) do you see?

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