Land -- 5 Poems by Agha Shahid Ali


By Agha Shahid Ali

Swear by the olive in the God-kissed land --
There is no sugar in the promised land.

Why must the bars turn neon now when, Love,
I'm already drunk in your capitalist land?

If home is found on both sides of the globe,
home is of course here -- and always a missed land.

The hour's come to redeem the pledge (not wholly?)
in Fate's "Long years ago we made a tryst" land.

Clearly, these men were here only to destroy,
a mosque now the dust of a prejudiced land.

Will the Doomsayers die, bitten with envy,
when springtime returns to our dismissed land?

The prisons fill with the cries of children.
Then how do you subsist, how do you persist, Land?

"Is my love nothing for I've borne no children?"
I'm with you, Sappho, in that anarchist land.

A hurricane is born when the wings flutter ...
Where will the butterfly, on my wrist, land?

You made me wait for one who wasn't even there
though summer had finished in that tourist land.

Do the blind hold temples close to their eyes
when we steal their gods for our atheist land?

Abandoned bride, Night throws down her jewels
so Rome -- on our descent -- is an amethyst land.

At the moment the heart turns terrorist,
are Shahid's arms broken, O Promised Land?

Even the Rain

By Agha Shahid Ali

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.

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

By Agha Shahid Ali

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.

The Purse-Seiner Atlantis

By Agha Shahid Ali

Black Pacific. "Shahid, come here, quick." A ship,
giant lantern held in its own light, the dark
left untouched, a phantom?ship with birds, no, moths,

giant moths that cannot die. Which world has sent
it? And which awaits its cargo's circling light,
staggered halo made of wings? The dark is still,

fixed around that moving lamp which keeps the light
so encased it pours its milk into itself,
sailing past with moths that cannot put themselves

out. What keeps this light from pouring out as light?
Beautiful in white, she says, "I'll just be back."
She goes inside. I fill my glass till I see

everything and nothing stare back at me, fill
me with longing, the longing to long, to be
flame, and moth, and ash. What light now startles me?

Neighbor's window. Turn it off, God, turn it off.
When they do, a minute later, I am--what?
Ash completely, yet not ash, I see I am

what is left of light, what light leaves me, what light
always leaves of me. "Oh, Shahid" (from inside
her voice is light), "could you light the candles, please?"

"Come back out, the ship is close." Moths, one by one,
dive into the light, dive deep to catch the light,
then return to keep the halo. Ship, what ghost

keeps you moving north? Your light is pouring flames
down your sides, yet all the sea keeps dark. What waits
for you beyond--seas and continents erased

from every map? The halo thickens. Yet what
keeps the sky untouched, so dark? She comes outside.
"Do you like the wine? I bought it years ago."

"It is the best ever." When I next look out
("Nothing lasts, of course"), the ship has disappeared.
The dark completes itself. What light now strikes us?

"Look, the phosphorus." It streaks the shore, it shines
green, bottle green, necklace darkened round the shore
where we now are walking by Time's stray wreckage

(broken planks, black glass) while the waves, again,
repeat each rumor the sea, out there, denies
chilled necklaces, lost continents, casks of wine.


By Agha Shahid Ali

At a certain point I lost track of you.

They make a desolation and call it peace.

When you left even the stones were buried:

The defenceless would have no weapons.

When the ibex rubs itself against the rocks, who collects
its fallen fleece from the slopes?

O Weaver whose seams perfectly vanished, who weighs the

hairs on the jeweler's balance?

They make a desolation and call it peace.

Who is the guardian tonight of the Gates of Paradise?

My memory is again in the way of your history.

Army convoys all night like desert caravans:

In the smoking oil of dimmed headlights, time dissolved — all
winter — its crushed fennel.

We can't ask them: Are you done with the world?

In the lake the arms of temples and mosques are locked
in each other's reflections.

Have you soaked saffron to pour on them when they are
found like this centuries later in this country
I have stitched to your shadow?

In this country we step out with doors in our arms.

Children run out with windows in their arms.

You drag it behind you in lit corridors.

If the switch is pulled you will be torn from everything.

At a certain point I lost track of you.

You needed me. You needed to perfect me:

In your absence you polished me into the Enemy.

Your history gets in the way of my memory.

I am everything you lost. You can't forgive me.

I am everything you lost. Your perfect enemy.

Your memory gets in the way of my memory:

I am being rowed through Paradise on a river of Hell:
Exquisite ghost, it is night.

The paddle is a heart; it breaks the porcelain waves:

It is still night. The paddle is a lotus:

I am rowed — as it withers — toward the breeze which is soft as
if it had pity on me.

If only somehow you could have been mine, what wouldn't
have happened in this world?

I'm everything you lost. You won't forgive me.

My memory keeps getting in the way of your history.

There is nothing to forgive. You won't forgive me.

I hid my pain even from myself; I revealed my pain only to

There is everything to forgive. You can't forgive me.

If only somehow you could have been mine,

what would not have been possible in the world?

(for Patricia O'Neill)

Author's Bio: From The Academy of American Poets --

Agha Shahid Ali

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 Ph.D. in English from Pennsylvania State University in 1984, and an M.F.A. from the University of Arizona in 1985. His volumes of poetry include Call Me Ishmael Tonight: A Book of Ghazals (W.W. Norton & Co., 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.


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