Collecting together the life work of Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali, The Veiled Suite allows readers to witness the poet’s transition from the direct narratives of his earliest work to the passionate and layered lyrics of his later collections. Born in 1949 in New Delhi and raised in Kashmir, Ali was educated in the United States and remained in his adopted country until his death in 2001 from brain cancer. Though Urdu was his first language, Ali wrote all his poetry in English and drew from a vast and distinctive well of interests and influences. The Veiled Suite catalogs the poet’s accumulation of travels and concerns: his homeland in The Half-Inch Himalayas, American advertising and fairy tales in A Walk Through the Yellow Pages, and literature and geography in A Nostalgist’s Map of America. The objects shelved in his poem "Return to Harmony" capture Ali’s most totemic influences: "On my shelf, by Ritsos and Rilke and Cavafy and Lorca and Iqbal and Amichai and Paz, my parents are beautiful in their wedding brocades, so startlingly young!" This vast menagerie of writers, landscapes, families, and cultures combined with his shift toward complex forms and rich language results in the lush and stunning work of his last three books, including Call Me Ishmael Tonight, comprised entirely of ghazals, a seventh-century Arabian form that Ali popularized in English. In his poem "In Search of Evanescence," Ali creates a myth of himself: "Someone wants me to live / so he can learn // those prayers / that language he is asking me / questions." Ali’s work responds to this charge, always offering prayers, answering questions, teaching language, and transcending exile.
This book review originally appeared in American Poets.