I was at the first meeting of a literature seminar recently, and as we were collectively reviewing the course syllabus I came across the title of a book so beautiful and so perfect, so compact and complete, that I could barely concentrate for the rest of the two-hour class. I kept returning to it, repeating it—the perfect one-line poem. It’s by Agha Shahid Ali and it is called:
Call me Ishmael, tonight.
I know nothing of this perfectly-titled book, which I may now refuse to read lest it ruin the title, but “Call Me Ishmael” is the opening line of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, and in his slim title, Ali perfects a total invocation of a literary tradition, an acknowledgment of his literary debt. He ventriloquizes one of the most recognizable literary characters, a foundational hallmark of American literature as a genre, and in his phrasing brings this evolving expanse, this national genre and tradition, into the sphere of the personal. Into his possession he places it, alongside the enveloping intimacy and proximity of the imperative form, the command—”call me.” Yet, not just Call me Ishmael, but Call me Ishmael, tonight.
And that “tonight” is the best part. It circumscribes the space in which everything is to take place while at the same time invoking a timeless or at least not-yet-through present—or even a future, as it could equally be either. This was the last book that Ali wrote before he died; he had cancer while writing it. So it is not just our tonight and my tonight and one’s tonight, but all of tonight—the tonight of one’s life, of his life. It’s not the end, but it’s at the brink of the or an end. What more is there to write that could be more deeply allusive and rich and complete in its simultaneous boundedness and expanse? I sat there in class thinking the title over and over, turning its intimacy in my mind, and thought of it as perhaps a letter to literature at the end of a writer’s life, as an invocation of a whole literary tradition in which he has lived, and I thought of his wish to be with it tonight, to be called Ishmael tonight.
It reminds me of this Sandra Cisneros poem that has such intimacy built into it—particularly at the part when she writes:
Okay, we didn’t work, and all
Memories to tell you the truth aren’t good
The “okay” there functions similarly to my one-line poem’s “tonight” in that one word circumscribes the entire potential universe of the poem to include just one conversation. My ‘tonight’ is different; it could be anyone and it could be many people at once, but through that perfectly placed comma it has the evocation of closeness and proximity. It is so intimate and seductive for its imperative form, its command and implied audience of one. “Call me Ishmael, tonight” is like that “okay”—you imagine it said mainly to one, and mainly in someone’s tonight.
Nicole Del Rosario CuUnjieng is a PhD Student in Southeast Asian and International History at Yale University.