Agha Shahid Ali: Snow on the Desert
“Each ray of sunshine is seven minutes old,”
Serge told me in New York one December night.
“So when I look at the sky, I see the past?”
“Yes, Yes,” he said, “especially on a clear day.”
On January 19, 1987,
as I very early in the morning
drove my sister to Tucson International,
suddenly on Alvernon and 22nd Street
the sliding doors of the fog were opened,
and the snow, which had fallen all night, now
sun-dazzled, blinded us, the earth whitened
out, as if by cocaine, the desert’s plants,
its mineral-hard colors extinguished,
wine frozen in the veins of the cactus.
. . .
The Desert Smells Like Rain: in it I read:
The syrup from which sacred wine is made
is extracted from the saguaros each
summer. The Papagos place it in jars,
where the last of it softens, then darkens
into a color of blood though it tastes
strangely sweet, almost white, like a dry wine.
As I tell Sameetah this, we are still
seven miles away. “And you know the flowers
of the saguaros bloom only at night?”
We are driving slowly, the road is glass.
“Imagine where we are was a sea once.
Just imagine!” The sky is relentlessly
sapphire, and the past is happening quickly:
the saguaros have opened themselves, stretched
out their arms to rays millions of years old,
in each ray a secret of the planet’s
origin, the rays hurting each cactus
into memory, a human memory —
for they are human, the Papagos say:
not only because they have arms and veins
and secrets. But because they too are a tribe,
vulnerable to massacre. “It is like
the end, perhaps the beginning of the world,”
Sameetah says, staring at their snow-sleeved
arms. And we are driving by the ocean
that evaporated here, by its shores,
the past now happening so quickly that each
stoplight hurts us into memory, the sky
taking rapid notes on us as we turn
at Tucson Boulevard and drive into
the airport, and I realize that the earth
is thawing from longing into longing and
that we are being forgotten by those arms.
. . .
At the airport I stared after her plane
till the window was
again a mirror.
As I drove back to the foothills, the fog
shut its doors behind me on Alvernon,
and I breathed the dried seas
the earth had lost,
their forsaken shores. And I remembered
another moment that refers only
in New Delhi one night
as Begum Akhtar sang, the lights went out.
It was perhaps during the Bangladesh War,
perhaps there were sirens,
But the audience, hushed, did not stir.
The microphone was dead, but she went on
singing, and her voice
was coming from far
away, as if she had already died.
And just before the lights did flood her
again, melting the frost
of her diamond
into rays, it was, like this turning dark
of fog, a moment when only a lost sea
can be heard, a time
every shadow, everything the earth was losing,
a time to think of everything the earth
and I had lost, of all
that I would lose,
of all that I was losing.
“Snow on the Desert” is from A Nostalgist’s Map of America (W.W. Norton & Company, 1992). Permission granted by the publisher and Mr. Agha Shahid Ali Literary Trust.