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Agha Shahid Ali

1949–2001

Agha 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 PhD in English from Pennsylvania State University in 1984, and an MFA from the University of Arizona in 1985.

His poetry collections include Call Me Ishmael Tonight: A Book of Ghazals (W. W. Norton, 2003), Rooms Are Never Finished (2001), The Country Without a Post Office (1997), The Beloved Witness: Selected Poems (1992), A Nostalgist's Map of America (1991), A Walk Through the Yellow Pages (1987), The Half-Inch Himalayas (1987), In Memory of Begum Akhtar and Other Poems (1979), and Bone Sculpture (1972). He is also the author of T. S. Eliot as Editor (1986), translator of The Rebel's Silhouette: Selected Poems by Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1992), and editor of Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English (2000).

Ali received fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, the Ingram-Merrill Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation and was awarded a Pushcart Prize. He held teaching positions at the University of Delhi, Penn State, SUNY Binghamton, Princeton University, Hamilton College, Baruch College, University of Utah, and Warren Wilson College. Agha Shahid Ali died on December 8, 2001.

Agha Shahid Ali
Photo credit: Michael Paul Thomas

By This Poet

3

The Wolf's Postscript to 'Little Red Riding Hood'

First, grant me my sense of history:
I did it for posterity,
for kindergarten teachers
and a clear moral:
Little girls shouldn't wander off
in search of strange flowers,
and they mustn't speak to strangers.

And then grant me my generous sense of plot:
Couldn't I have gobbled her up
right there in the jungle?
Why did I ask her where her grandma lived?
As if I, a forest-dweller,
didn't know of the cottage
under the three oak trees
and the old woman lived there
all alone?
As if I couldn't have swallowed her years before?

And you may call me the Big Bad Wolf,
now my only reputation.
But I was no child-molester
though you'll agree she was pretty.

And the huntsman:
Was I sleeping while he snipped
my thick black fur
and filled me with garbage and stones?
I ran with that weight and fell down,
simply so children could laugh
at the noise of the stones
cutting through my belly,
at the garbage spilling out
with a perfect sense of timing,
just when the tale
should have come to an end.

I See Chile in My Rearview Mirror

By dark the world is once again intact,
Or so the mirrors, wiped clean, try to reason. . .
                                       —James Merrill
This dream of water—what does it harbor?
I see Argentina and Paraguay
under a curfew of glass, their colors
breaking, like oil. The night in Uruguay

is black salt. I'm driving toward Utah,
keeping the entire hemisphere in view—
Colombia vermilion, Brazil blue tar,
some countries wiped clean of color: Peru

is titanium white. And always oceans 
that hide in mirrors: when beveled edges
arrest tides or this world's destinations
forsake ships. There's Sedona, Nogales

far behind. Once I went through a mirror—
from there too the world, so intact, resembled
only itself. When I returned I tore
the skin off the glass. The sea was unsealed

by dark, and I saw ships sink off the coast 
of a wounded republic. Now from a blur
of tanks in Santiago, a white horse
gallops, riderless, chased by drunk soldiers

in a jeep; they're firing into the moon.
And as I keep driving in the desert,
someone is running to catch the last bus, men
hanging on to its sides. And he's missed it.

He is running again; crescents of steel 
fall from the sky. And here the rocks
are under fog, the cedars a temple,
Sedona carved by the wind into gods—

each shadow their worshiper. The siren
empties Santiago; he watches
—from a hush of windows—blindfolded men
blurred in gleaming vans. The horse vanishes

into a dream. I'm passing skeletal
figures carved in 700 B.C.
Whoever deciphers these canyon walls
remains forsaken, alone with history,

no harbor for his dream. And what else will
this mirror now reason, filled with water?
I see Peru without rain, Brazil
without forests—and here in Utah a dagger

of sunlight: it's splitting—it's the summer
solstice—the quartz center of a spiral.
Did the Anasazi know the darker 
answer also—given now in crystal

by the mirrored continent? The solstice,
but of winter? A beam stabs the window,
diamonds him, a funeral in his eyes.
In the lit stadium of Santiago,

this is the shortest day. He's taken there.
Those about to die are looking at him, 
his eyes the ledger of the disappeared.
What will the mirror try now? I'm driving,

still north, always followed by that country,
its floors ice, its citizens so lovesick
that the ground—sheer glass—of every city
is torn up. They demand the republic

give back, jeweled, their every reflection.
They dig till dawn but find only corpses.
He has returned to this dream for his bones. 
The waters darken. The continent vanishes.

Even the Rain

What will suffice for a true-love knot? Even the rain?
But he has bought grief’s lottery, bought even the rain.

“Our glosses / wanting in this world”—“Can you remember?”
Anyone!—“when we thought / the poets taught” even the rain?

After we died—That was it!—God left us in the dark.
And as we forgot the dark, we forgot even the rain.

Drought was over. Where was I? Drinks were on the house.
For mixers, my love, you’d poured—what?—even the rain.

Of this pear-shaped orange’s perfumed twist, I will say:
Extract Vermouth from the bergamot, even the rain.

How did the Enemy love you—with earth? air? and fire?
He held just one thing back till he got even: the rain.

This is God’s site for a new house of executions?
You swear by the Bible, Despot, even the rain?

After the bones—those flowers—this was found in the urn:
The lost river, ashes from the ghat, even the rain.

What was I to prophesy if not the end of the world?
A salt pillar for the lonely lot, even the rain.

How the air raged, desperate, streaming the earth with flames—
To help burn down my house, Fire sought even the rain.

He would raze the mountains, he would level the waves;
he would, to smooth his epic plot, even the rain.

New York belongs at daybreak to only me, just me—
To make this claim Memory’s brought even the rain.

They’ve found the knife that killed you, but whose prints are these?
No one has such small hands, Shahid, not even the rain.

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