The Veiled Suite: The Collected Poems
Agha Shahid Ali
They ask me to tell them what Shahid means —
Listen: It means “The Beloved” in Persian, “witness” in Arabic
Inhabiting the spaces between such dualities came naturally to Agha Shahid Ali, the Kashmiri-American poet whose work effortlessly bridged the language and landscapes of the East and the West, and fused the symbols of his childhood with the cultural markers of his adopted homeland.
Born in New Delhi in 1949, Ali grew up in Kashmir and moved to America in 1976. This new collection brings together work from his thirty years in the country, beginning with his final poem, ‘The Veiled Suite’. Published here for the first time, the poem describes a vision seen by Ali in a dream shortly after he was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2000.
Faceless he could represent only two alternatives: that he was either a conscious agent of harm or that he would unknowingly harm me anyway.
Ali died of his illness shortly afterwards, in December 2001. The advantage of this collection, which brings together six volumes of Ali’s poetry, is that it allows the reader a clear sense of his growth as a poet. The most apparent of these changes is his shift from the free verse of his earlier work to his fervent advocacy of the English ghazal. In the poem titled ‘Tonight’, he writes:
And I, Shahid, only am escaped to tell thee God sobs in my arms. Call me Ishmael tonight.
Ali’s ability to combine the rigid demands of the ancient Arabian couplet form with western themes and allusions is one of his greatest contributions to poetry. The collection also shows the extent to which Ali’s poetry was marked by the feeling of exile and dispossession. Kashmir runs like a river through his words, at times turbulent with anger, at times deep with sorrow. In ‘I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight’, Ali writes about encountering a fallen friend:
“Each night put Kashmir in your dreams”, he says then touches me, his hands crusted with snow whispers, “ I have been cold a long, long time.”
While being rooted in the space of Kashmir, Ali’s poetry makes the leap of connecting to the state of injustice and exile across the world — in Palestine, Bosnia, Armenia.
By the Hudson lies Kashmir, brought from Palestine— It shawls the piano, Bach beguiled by exiles.
Even when writing about America, Ali displays the same lavish emotion and nostalgia for things lost. In ‘I Dream I Return to Tucson in the Monsoons’, he writes:
and the streets light up with the afternoon sun I remember when I was alone
There was only the rain…The moon touched my shoulder and I longed for a vanished love
What would appear maudlin elsewhere was with Ali an essential part of his syntax. As novelist Amitav Ghosh wrote in an article shortly after Ali’s death, “I could think of no one else who would even conceive of publishing a line like: “Mad heart, be brave.”
The subtle layers of meaning and richness of his influences makes Ali a difficult yet immensely rewarding poet to read. His lines are littered with references to Begum Akhtar, Emily Dickinson, Faiz and Mahmoud Darwish, as well as to couplet-quoting butchers in Old Delhi and ‘found poems’ from advertisements for dimsums. In writing about his mother’s painful struggle with and eventual death from brain cancer, Ali blends in his personal loss with the grief of muharram and the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, lamented by his sister Zainab:
The night was Muharram’s orphan-vigil she in sudden tears. “Mummy, what’s the matter?
Nothing, its Zainab’s grief, that’s all.” Her eyes are two candles darkened with laments found lost on our lips
Over Hussain’s mansion what night is falling?”
Ironically, Ali’s own death a few years later was caused by the same illness. While there is much that is painful in Ali’s poetry, it would be a mistake to overlook his whimsical and playful side.
There is a masterful dark humour in the lines which he uses to describe his great-grandfather in a poem titled ‘Cracked Portraits’.
“He wound the gramophone to a fury the needles grazing Malika Pukhraj’s songs as he, drunk, tore his shirts and wept at the refrain “I am still young.”
Or the succinct line following the lengthy title ‘On Hearing a Lover Not Seen for Twenty Years Has Attempted Suicide”, “I suspect it was over me.”
The Veiled Suite is a map of the brilliant trajectory of Agha Shahid Ali’s poetry, rising in a glowing arc of complexity and range until its tragic and premature end. For those who are new to the poet, this volume will be a good sample of his talent. For others, it is a useful companion, but no substitute to a complete collection of his poems and translations.