Darrell Bourque and Bill Gingles, migraré (Poetry)
Review by Leah Souffrant

DARRELL BOURQUE and BILL GINGLES, migraré, Lafayette: University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, 2019. ISBN: 9781946160522.

reviewed by Leah Souffrant

Darrell Bourque’s 2019 poetry collection migraré presents many juxtapositions and cultural borrowings. The title evokes the Latin root of the word to migrate. This title is the first borrowing, here evoking the movement of peoples, and the poems draw our attention to the often very individual experiences of movement, forced and otherwise. Across the collection, poems name and evoke a range of migrating people and populations, from Bourque’s own Acadian ancestors to migrations across the Middle East.

The formal choices in this collection are provocative, blending the ghazal and non-ghazal, the ekphrastic and non-ekphrastic. Called a series of ghazals, migraré’s poems are loosely inspired by the traditional Arabic form, and each poem is paired with a painting by Louisiana artist Bill Gingles. The paintings are lively, textured works that do not represent people, as the poems do, but colors, patterns, and layers. The abstraction of the visual imagery leaves open possibilities for connection, but the pairings can often seem arbitrary. In both the shape of the poems and the shape of the collection, Bourque provokes the reader to think about what relationships emerge among the parts.


Surprisingly, the poem that holds the subtitle “ghazal” is least formally committed to the form, and even the most ghazal-like poems have unity and include enjambments.  Although the collection doesn’t exemplify a robust ghazal formal engagement – the poet says as much in the Foreword – it invites readers to evaluate the significance of that engagement, participating in the lively debate on borrowed forms, cultural appropriation, and the controversial stakes of what’s called global literature. What responsibility does the poet have to the traditions they draw from? Bourque’s poem “Harem” may reveal orientalism, question it, or simply use it. Further, how does the inexact borrowing of “ghazal” add layers that overlap with other, even more heated debates on appropriation, respect, and cultural literacy? 


Many American poets have been fascinated by the ghazal, a classical form in the Arabic and Persian traditions, popular across much of Asia for centuries. It is defined by its isolated couplets with repeated final word or phrase, traditionally in sequences without enjambments. Its repeated final word and rhyming phrases throughout create musical rhythms and repetitions, while the isolation of the couplets can enhance the sense of lively juxtaposition. The form’s most notable ambassador was Kashmiri American poet Agha Ahahid Ali whose anthology Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English (2000) and posthumously published collection Call Me Ishmael Tonight (2003) established the sometimes unstable standards for the form in English. 


Rather than describe the power of the form in his creation, Bourque apologizes for its lax relationship to the form: “I do not attempt to adhere strictly to any of the prescription of the ancient forms or the dominant practices in more contemporary variations” (p. vii). This raises the question of why Bourque is calling his poems ghazals at all, what the relationship is between his poems and those forms and practices, and what the impact of calling poems ghazals while failing to produce ghazals might have on the reader. The ghazal is a form rich in tradition as well as variation, and while Bourque’s collection borrows from that richness, it doesn’t embrace it. The poems are made of couplets sharing their final words, but there are many enjambments and a deliberate unity across the poems where the poet might have sustained the juxtapositions instead.


                                                                         […] Every time

she carried figs and pomegranates or pears into the house, she brought

enough for everyone she cooked for and she brought in extra every time


she thought someone was at the gate. The jam glistened like jewels,

the tea was hot and sweet. She put out oranges and limes every time.


These couplets, from the middle of the poem “Every Time,” stitch together the parts into an extended description of what “she” does, with the flavors and movements building and echoing. Although the lines are vivid, the poem doesn’t maintain a stark isolation of couplets, a constraint that often creates startling associations in a more formally dedicated ghazal. (Notice the title of Ali’s anthology is “Ravishing DisUnities.”)


Why write a ghazal if you aren’t writing a ghazal? Ali tried to guide readers to address this very point over twenty years ago: “But imagine a sestina without those six words. What would be the point?” We might ask what is the point or the impact of ignoring the constraints of form — and of this form in particular, with its rich history and distant (often problematically exoticized) origins.


Bourque invites his Acadian reader to recognize a relationship between their ancestors’ migrations and more recent histories – and current events – of migration, closed borders, loss, discrimination, and what he calls “experiences of the Other.” These important aims are implied by the ghazal’s very form, which deliberately eschews narrative unity – insistently so – and emphasizes formal unity in the repetitions of the radif (refrain). Because each couplet in a traditional ghazal is independent of others, yet appears in proximity and is part of a single poem, the sharing of that final phrase of the couplet builds a relationship. The strongest ghazal in Bourque’s collection is It Is Here, which begins:


Tinges of the blue Mediterranean are everywhere the eye goes to in Tangier.

Matisse blue is part French, more than a little African. It is blue singing it is here.

The nights there are deepest blue until midnight. Then maybe no one cares

about sky after that. You cross the door to Africa. It’s why you traveled here.


We see the radif, and the couplets are distinct. They blur and echo, which is the magic of the ghazal, but Bourque guides us perhaps too deliberately. According to Ali, the writer of the ghazal has “an obligation to avoid unity.” Yet unity emerges as we move from Matisse to Sarget to Henry James in Tangier and in Morocco, and “here” shifts yet remains over there. The names form another kind of pattern. The image of the white man in the poem is also the white man in northern Africa. And perhaps we begin to see the blue in the painting more clearly.


The ekphrastic form, like the ghazal, only loosely informs these poems. With a dismissal similar to that of the ghazal’s constraints, in his discussion of the relationship between his poetry and Bill Gingles’ art, Bourque insists that the poems are “keyed to the paintings, rather than extrapolated from them.” Bourque describes it as “a musical relationship,” but of course the paintings are quiet. In spite of a historic flexibility of form in American letters, this feels like a cop-out. 


As a collection of images, migraré is strongest when the poems evoke the shapes in the paintings, drawing the reader to the blue paint and the lines that evoke boundaries. The paintings are vibrant, and their complex textures emerge in spite of the flattening of reproduction. There are hints at relations between the artist’s imagery and the poems – notably the door as portal not only to afterlife but also into this life, a clichéd evocation that approaches profundity in the rich abstraction of the visual art. Gingles values “paintings that celebrate painting” and hesitates to see the works as narrative. The poems also hesitate around narrative – as ghazals must – but highlight the gap between art and language. As art critic Barry Schwabsky has observed, “the true vividness of experience resides, not so much in the image as in the gap between image and its name.”


Of course, the poet can’t fully control what the reader will do with the connections that emerge from bringing paintings into a poetry collection or naming a series of couplets ghazals. The works will reverberate and multiply in their juxtaposition. This is the potential magic of a transdisciplinary or inter-genre collection. By putting the poem next to the painting, they become entangled. In migraré, the paintings dominate in part because of the dismissal of their connection from the start. Less “keyed to” than simply next to, the richness of the paintings exposes the poems as gestural, sketches of poems. Or poems written outside the rich evocations of the paintings. It is as if the pairings happened in post production, to borrow from the rhetoric of film. Bourque doesn’t insist otherwise, but the collection feels like a missed opportunity.


A study of writer’s notes – in the Foreword and again at the end of migraré – introduces us to the writer’s preoccupations with migration, religion and spirituality, and global literature. The notes share the poet’s lively curiosity about the intersectional that is sometimes missing from the poems themselves. Does loose adherence to formal constraints (ghazal, ekphrasis) limit Bourque, or would sharper adherence to those constraints craft sharper poems? The reader’s search for forms and connections could be a pleasure, particularly in poems that strive to acknowledge a humanistic connection between all people. While Bourque only hints at those pleasures of form, the thoughtful reader must wonder how these peoples, traditions, and artistic forms might connect and what it means to borrow from them. How is the care we put into illuminating these relationships reflected or obscured by the art we create?

Works Cited

ALI, Agha Shahid, editor. Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 2000.

Bill Gingles Painting YouTube, uploaded by Bill Gingles 4 August 2018 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5IylCc16U40

MIKICS, David. A New Handbook of Literary Terms. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007, p. 134-135.

SCHWABSKY, Barry. The Observer Effect: On Contemporary Painting. Sternberg, 2019, p. 33.