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Poetry Moment: Shara McCallum and 'Ghazal'

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Brett Simpson
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Poetry Moment on WPSU is a program featuring the work of contemporary Pennsylvania poets. Host Todd Davis is a professor of English and Environmental Studies at Penn State Altoona.

This episode's poem is “Ghazal” by Shara McCallum.

From Jamaica, and born to a Jamaican father and Venezuelan mother, Shara McCallum is the author of six books of poetry, including No Ruined Stone and Madwoman. An anthology of her poems translated into Spanish, La historia es un cuarto, was published in Mexico in 2021. McCallum’s poems have been translated into several other languages and her poems and essays have appeared throughout the US, Caribbean, Latin America, Europe, and Asia. Her writing has been awarded various prizes, including the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Poetry, a Silver Musgrave Medal from the Jamaican government, a Witter Bynner Fellowship from the US Library of Congress, and a National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship. Since 2003, McCallum and her family have made Pennsylvania home. She was for fourteen years Director of the Stadler Center for Poetry at Bucknell University and is presently an Edwin Erle Sparks Professor at Penn State University. McCallum served as the Penn State Laureate during the 2021-22 academic year. During her tenure as Laureate, McCallum delivered readings, talks, and workshops throughout the Commonwealth and created and hosted the first season of Poetry Moment on WPSU.

With roots in the seventh-century, the ghazal is an Arabic poetic form that often takes as its subject loss and romantic love. Built around a series of couplets that includes a refrain of sorts, the ghazal was practiced most notably by the Persian poets Rumi and Hafiz in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

In McCallum’s ghazal, the speaker meditates on neglect and how it manifests in various relationships we often associate with love and attention, especially between a mother and daughter. The poem also dramatizes the transformation of the speaker from a daughter into a mother with her own infants to care for, who may also feel the sting of neglect. McCallum doesn’t offer any easy answers, but in writing into the question of neglect, she offers a degree of solace, a reminder that we are not alone.

Here’s—

Ghazal

Do we remember love before neglect?
For too long, mother, I’ve returned to your neglect.

Dusk offers a fractured memory of light.
Darkening grass conceals its own tale of neglect.

Can you teach me to remember joy?
Your life is a coupling: remorse, neglect.

By dying, my father may have been loved best.
Mother, how are we still subject to his neglect?

Bluebirds and finches return to my yard each spring.
Abandoned nests reveal the science of neglect.

Nights in bed, I’ve listened to my infants’ cries.
Puncturing silence, that refrain: neglect, neglect.

In Hebrew, Shara means she sings.
What song can offer the antidote for neglect?

_______________

That was “Ghazal” by Shara McCallum.

Hear more episodes of Poetry Moment at WPSU.org/poetrymoment.

Todd Davis is the 2022-23 host of "Poetry Moment" on WPSU.