Zombies at the Disco
Reviewer: Shawn Pavey
I have absolutely no empirical evidence on which to base this assertion, but I think the ghazal became the official verse structure of the Pandemic. Several recent poetry collections have contained entire sections devoted to ghazals. Almost every poetry journal I pick up will have a ghazal or two. There hasn’t been a convergence of so many poems from so many different directions dedicated to a specific form since the sestina workshops of the 1990s.
For those readers unfamiliar with its structure, a traditional ghazal contains at least five couplets of lines of, generally, equal length. The original ghazals in Arabic were traditionally sung and followed a specific metrical rhythm that ghazals in English do not. The last word in the first couplet can be rhymed or replicated with the last word in each subsequent couplet. The final couplet, traditionally, includes a self-referential phrase in which the poet either addresses themself directly or engages with wordplay around their first and/or last name. American ghazals have become more relaxed in much the same way that the American sonnet has, but what has been kept is what Robert Bly called “the leap” from one couplet to the next. While a ghazal can maintain a connective thread from beginning to end, its magic power lies in the topical hop from couplet to couplet that engages readers, taking them to new places.
Alison Stone is a master of the ghazal. She begins her latest collection, Zombies at the Disco, with “Heard Melodies”:
Crows and motorcycles compare music.
Used by teens as weapons—slang, hair, music.
Indifferent to the dazzle of bright fakes,
the soul can tell true prayer, music.
Rules against sex, booze, and pork—sure. But how
can any religion forswear music?
What are the dead? Wind? Worm houses? Heartaches?
Photos in albums? Maybe they’re music.
Jagger’s lips and Bowie’s glitter kingdom.
Parents trembled, learned: beware of music.
Plants wilt near arguments, grow with Mozart.
The hungry pianist begs for spare music.
Some soldiers notice the shape-shifting clouds.
Some dictators care about music.
Hoofbeats of the stallion mimic battle.
The mule, underclass rage. The mare, music.
Alison, he pouts, you’re gone again. Turn
it off—stop this affair with music.
Here we see Stone’s expertise on fine display as she leaps from one couplet to the next while maintaining a thematic connection throughout. This poem shows, also, another characteristic of traditional ghazals—an internal rhyming word, or qafia—that appears close to the repeated word in each couplet’s concluding line.
Every poem in this collection could be a textbook example of proper, traditional ghazal construction. But where this collection really shines is when Stone peppers the poem with significant events of the last few years: Pandemic isolation, the rise of right-wing extremism, the #MeToo movement, social media’s ever-expanding prevalence, the Trump administration’s embrace of totalitarianism and “alternate facts,” and the up-to-the-minute immediacy of the 24-hour news cycle. In “At Work, in Bars,” Stone observes:
My daughter and her friends wear rainbow clothes.
Cities raise flags. The mall’s got Pride for sale. Love
is love. Tell that to Turing, Wilde, beaten
Stonewall queens, couples who braved jail for love.
While each of these poems resonate timelessly, they are also timely, and Stone has no problem taking on complex social and political issues. Here she points out that a rainbow t-shirt means just a little bit more than a cute top for a selfie.
Stone examines religion closely in many of these poems. In “Godly Ghazal,” she writes:
Yahweh’s rage, tantrums. Who’d want such a god?
Better than booze, guns. Not a bad crutch, God.
They want to put prayer in schools, but in
the Pledge, some songs, already too much God.
Amid daily let-downs and fear of death,
we crave something sweet—sex, song, penuche, God.
Though divine wisdom wears different guises,
each faith argues theirs is the nonesuch. God-
wars more lethal than smoking. Genocides
and child-molesting clergy smutch God.
The killer claims Jesus commanded him,
his knife-wielding hand in the clutch of God.
Keep moon-dancing, Alison, and pray as
though someone listened. You just may touch God.
Some critics could point out the forced rhyme of smutch and clutch, but I’ll allow it. If one can’t use the archaic form of “smudge” in an ancient poetic form like a ghazal, then when? It could be argued that “smudge” would still be a slant rhyme, but it is Stone’s strict adherence to form that makes these poems special.
In “Listen,” Stone writes:
Be loud during sex. In a fight, listen.
When your heart’s thud says, Here’s delight, listen.
The field tells tales—some seasons of plenty,
too many of heartbreak and blight. Listen.
We sing hymns, recite scripture, kneel and pray.
Does God watch from some lofty height? Listen?
Your teen daughter’s barbed words hide longing and
loss. The soul speaks through appetite. Listen.
Sandra Bland turned, without signaling, from
woman to ghost. Cause of death: not white. Listen
to wind moan through caves, claws click on stone. I’d
call your name if I thought you might listen.
Here we see Stone in her best metaphysical voice calling to us from this point in time to harken us back to Plato’s cave. Even now, with cable news and clickbait websites coming at us from every perceivable screen, we must sift through the information to find what is real and not just images projected on a cave wall representing a false truth.
Where Stone excels in this book is how each ghazal seems to flow seamlessly to the next. The impression this leaves is that these poems were written in sequence to create a cohesive whole. Whether or not this is true is pure speculation, but the final product is a collection of ghazals that never becomes tiring. The reader moves through each poem hearing the echoes of previous poems. The collection starts strong, draws the reader in immediately, and keeps the reader moving to the next. Stone achieves this by straining against the confines of the form. She breaks up her rhythms by moving from long lines to lines containing two or three short sentences, syncopated phrases countering longer, legato lines.
Zombies at the Disco is a master class in ghazal construction but, more importantly, succeeds as a deftly crafted collection of poetry.