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A Tribute to Agha Shahid Ali

Photo of Agha Shahid AliAgha Shahid Ali was born in New Delhi on February 4, 1949. He grew up Muslim in Kashmir, and was later educated at the University of Kashmir, Srinagar, and University of Delhi. He earned a Ph.D. in English from Pennsylvania State University in 1984, and an M.F.A. from the University of Arizona in 1985. His many volumes of poetry include Rooms Are Never Finished (2001), The Country Without a Post Office (1997), and The Beloved Witness: Selected Poems (1992), and he was the author of other critical books. A postumous collection, entitled Call Me Ishmael Tonight, will be published in 2003.

Ali received many fellowships and was awarded a Pushcart Prize. He held teaching positions at nine universities and colleges in India and the US, and was director of the MFA program in creative writing at University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Agha Shahid Ali died on December 8, 2001.


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
to itself:

                    in New Delhi one night
as Begum Akhtar sang, the lights went out.

It was perhaps during the Bangladesh War,
perhaps there were sirens,

           air-raid warnings.
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

              to recollect
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.



Agha Shahid Ali: Stationery

The moon did not become the sun.
It just fell on the desert
in great sheets, reams
of silver handmade by you.
The night is your cottage industry now,
the day is your brisk emporium.
The world is full of paper.

Write to me.

“Stationery” is from The Half-Inch Himalayas (Wesleyan University Press, 1987). Permission granted by the publisher and Mr. Agha Shahid Ali Literary Trust.


Elena Karina Byrne: Puritan Mask: Shame


for Agha Shahid Ali

Beauty always raises the stakes.
Don’t apologize darling-guilt, it’s such a Puritan thing to do.
I never apologize, shameless little Indian that I am.

                      — Agha Shahid Ali

Rise early
and shine your shoes with a get down baby
dance like there’s no today
because tomorrow is the cut-out birthday crown
made for the king.
I don’t want to be saved.
I want to be the blackberry rumble, thunder closing in from overhead.
I want to be faith undressed
in a garden full of loose-fitting flowers and overgrown
green weeds, unhindered smell of licorice.
I want to disappear on the map of good
intentions, let both hands get stuck in the cookie jar.
Unredeemed in sex
slipped consciousness through the eye of a needle.
Heartstopping pandemonium.
A floor strewn with black pearls
pulling down Heaven and your head.
Bad, bad words’ burial in the chest.
On my knees in the rain, lighting purple birthday candles
in my mouth each time
I say the wrong thing.
Send all that ache back out to sea
on a paperweight ship bearing stolen art. Now
tell me something more about the body’s display of imagination
at the disco, the Indian ghost
in one fell swoon
clearing the dance floor
because he is so beautiful.



Rafael Campo: Ghazal in a Time of War


for Agha Shahid Ali

What spoke to me, that wasn’t words at all
but like a language, understood by all:

Ducks arrowing their way across the small,
dark pond I passed, graceful emblem of all

I like to think is Spring, their pace a crawl.
My own unhurried progress—after all,

awaiting me was just the usual,
the ill who are my daily “chores”—was all

that I could muster, kids on bicycles
zig-zagging by, a Russian couple all

wrapped up in smoky conversation, tall
oaks pointing out the white sun... Was it all

just my imagination? I recall
those sounds of the world, the joy of it all,

the toddler whose face was a miracle
as she chased her red ball. Please, save it all,

I think I prayed, above the distant bombs’ shrill
descent;  please, please, remember that we’re all

one people, one body, one chance not to kill.
A stray gull cried, but that was not all:

I saw where I was going, past the arsenal
and past the land-mine, to the land of all,

past the archangel and the syllable,
toward our human heart, toward the love of all.



Robert Pinsky reads “The Dacca Gauzes” on the NewsHour (January 9, 2002)
http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/poems/jan-june02/daccagauzes.html



Elena Karina Byrne is a teacher, fine artist and full time Regional Director of the Poetry Society of America. She currently runs the poetry reading series at the J. Paul Getty Center where she recently worked as a Poetry Consultant to the Getty Research Institute. Elena is also the Poetry  and Consultant for the Los Angeles Times Book Festival. Nominated six times for a Pushcart Prize, Elena’s poems are forthcoming in ten magazines. Elena’s first book of poems The Flammable Bird is forthcoming from Zoo Press, and she is completing another, Masque, and book of essays entitled Poetry and Insignificance.

Rafael Campo is the author of four books of poetry, incuding Landscape With Human Figure (Duke University Press, 2002). His work has won numerous awards. He is a PEN Center West Literary Award finalist and a recipient of the National Hispanic Academy of Arts and Sciences Annual Achievement Award, and recently received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Echoing Green Foundation. He is a practicing physician at Harvard Medical School and the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.


This online tribute corresponds with a printed tribute in the spring 2002 issue of Rattapallax. The special section in Rattapallax is edited by Christopher Merrill, Yerra Sugarman, and M. L. Williams. Additional information can be found at http://www.rattapallax.com


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