Agha Shahid Ali

Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001) is the author of five volumes of poetry, including The Country Without a Post Office (1997), Bone Sculpture (1972), In Memory of Begum Akhtar and Other Poems (1979), The Half-Inch Himalayas (1987), A Walk Through the Yellow Pages (1987), A Nostalgist’s Map of America (1991), and The Beloved Witness: Selected Poems (1992). He is also the author of T. S. Eliot as Editor (1986) and has translated the work of Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz in The Rebel’s Silhouette: Selected Poems (1992).

Of Ali, poet and activist Carolyn Forché has written, “Although not an American poet, Agha Shahid Ali is one of the finest young poets in America….[he] so artfully sustains his contemplation that upon entering his work we experience the play of light through the many prisms of his intelligence.”

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. He has held teaching positions at the University of Delhi, Penn State, SUNY Binghamton, Hamilton College and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Poetry Center Reading:

Fall 1998 (with Susan Snively)

The Dacca Gauzes

…for a whole year he sought to accumulate the most exquisite Dacca gauzes. -Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Those transparent Dacca Gauzes
known as woven air, running
water, evening dew:

a dead art now, dead over
a hundred years. “No one
now knows,” my grandmother says,

“what it was to wear
or touch that cloth.” She wore
it once, an heirloom sari from

her mother’s dowry, proved
genuine when it was pulled, all
six yards, through a ring.

Years later when it tore,
many handkerchiefs embroidered
with gold-thread paisleys

were distributed among
the nieces and daughters-in-law.
Those too now lost.

In history we learned: the hands
of weavers were amputated,
the looms of Bengal silenced,

and the cotton shipped raw
by the British to England.
History of little use to her,

my grandmother just says
how the muslins of today
seem so coarse and that only

in autumn, should one wake up
at dawn to pray, can one
feel that same texture again.

One morning, she says, the air
was dew-starched: she pulled
it absently through her ring.

From THE HALF-INCH HIMALAYAS (Wesleyan U.P., 1987)

Ghazal

Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar —Laurence Hope

Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell tonight
before you agonize him in farewell tonight?

Pale hands that once loved me beside the Shalimar
Whom else from rapture’s road will you expel tonight?

Those “Fabrics of Cashmere—” “to make Me beautiful—”
“Trinket”—to gem—”Me to adorn—How—tell”—tonight?

I beg for haven: Prisons, let open your gates—
A refugee from Belief seeks a cell tonight.

Executioners near the woman at the window.
Damn you, Elijah, I’ll bless Jezebel tonight.

Lord, cried out the idols, Don’t let us be broken,
Only we can convert the infidel tonight.

Has God’s vintage loneliness turned to vinegar?
He’s poured rust into the Sacred Well tonight.

In the heart’s veined temple all statues have been smashed.
No priest in saffron’s left to toll its knell tonight.

He’s freed some fire from ice, in pity for Heaven;
he’s left open—for God—the doors of Hell tonight.

And I, Shahid, only am escaped to tell thee—
God sobs in my arms. Call me Ishmael tonight.

From THE COUNTRY WITHOUT A POST OFFICE (W.W. Norton and Co., 1997)

A Villanelle

When the ruins dissolve like salt in water,
only when will they have destroyed everything.
Let your blood till then embellish the slaughter,

till dawn soaks up its inks, and “On their blotter
of fog the trees / Seem a botanical drawing.”
Will the ruins dissolve like salt in water?

A woman combs—at noon—the ruins for her daughter.
Chechnya is gone. What roses will you bring—
plucked from shawls at dusk—to wreathe the slaughter?

Or are these words plucked from God that you’ve brought her,
this comfort: They will not have destroyed everything
till the ruins, too, are destroyed? Like salt in water,

what else besides God disappears at the altar?
O Kashmir, Armenia once vanished. Words are nothing,
just rumors—like roses—to embellish a slaughter:

these of a columnist: “The world will not stir”;
these on the phone: “When you leave in the morning,
you never know if you’ll return.” Lost in water,
blood falters; then swirled to roses, it salts the slaughter.

From THE COUNTRY WITHOUT A POST OFFICE (W.W. Norton and Co., 1997)