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After the Last Sky
By Amitava Kumar 

Agha Shahid Ali was a poet and a lover. I can think of no other writer who deserves that description. The writer as Majnoon, this is what Shahid was, seeking beauty and love in a desert studded with sorrow. There is an early poem of his in which Shahid considers a Persian miniature. Majnoon's father has laid his head down to rest "on an uncut sapphire / bereft of prayer." The miniature painting has margins of gold where "verses wear bracelets of paisleys / tied into golden knots of Arabic." It is impossible not to think of Shahid's own poetry when you read those lines, each delicate syllable stitching rubies on what he, with everyone else, sees as desolation.

Shahid left us a few days ago. For many months before he died, Shahid had struggled with a grave illness, and he did not spare even death his love. In his latest collection of poems, Rooms Are Never Finished, a finalist for the National Book Award, Shahid is a visitor in the dreamland of death. The opening poem, one that Shahid addresses to his mother dying in Lenox Hill Hospital, finds death's page "filling with diamonds." In another poem, Jesus weeps because he has seen a vision in which centuries later the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, Hussain, will be killed on the very site on which Jesus now stands. Reaching across extinction's divide, and also the divisions of time, this image is touched with tenderness. Shahid writes of Hussain's severed head being brought to Obeidullah who carelessly turns the head over with his staff. "Gently," one officer protests. "By Allah! I have seen those lips kissed by the blessed mouth of Muhammad." Once more, I only hear Shahid's loving voice in those lines, finding the memory of love which more than being unrequited actually risks being forgotten. 

An important point that can be made about Shahid's poetry is that it drew as much upon English poetic traditions as it did on Urdu literary forms. This needs to be stressed because Shahid's influences were as varied as James Merrill on the one hand, and, on the other, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, whom he translated with great delicateness. Indeed, it can be said that no other Indian poet writing in English came close to attempting what was Shahid's great achievement - the elaboration of a poetic voice that was representative of the subcontinent's own mixed history. Rooms Are Never Finished is the last milestone in this yet unfinished project.

Agha Shahid Ali
A Nostalgist's Map of America had introduced an Indian poet to America and the world. But, it was the publication of The Country Without a Post Office with which Shahid came back home to India. This latter set of poems was scored with the pain of Kashmir: "They make a desolation and call it peace." And yet, what was distinctive about Shahid's lament was not that it admitted politics. Many have done that routinely. Rather, Shahid, even in addressing the politics of his homeland, presented his strongest protest because he turned away from it incessantly to fashion in his writing something infinitely more beautiful. In other words, Shahid allowed politics to step into his house but boldly drew in its face the purdah of poetry. "The century is ending. It is pain / from which love departs into all new pain: / Freedom's terrible thirst, flooding Kashmir, / is bringing love to its tormented glass. / Stranger, who will inherit the last night / of the past? Of what shall I not sing, and sing?" 

In Rooms Are Never Finished, this beautiful book of leave-taking, Shahid writes of airports and rooms in hotels and hospitals. In other poems, clad in black, bearing the cry of the gazelle, Shahid goes back to Karbala and Kashmir. This book is not so much a rebuke to death as it is a wooing. Shahid wants to find in death another kind of meeting. After all, there is a terrible solitude about death. It takes one away. It leaves the others all alone. "The Beloved leaves one behind to die." In Shahid's poems, death is not permitted the tyranny of a singular hold over time and the universe. Even at the level of form alone, the repetitions present in Shahid's poems mean that what has passed always returns. We are bound by the intimacy of a rhythm whose music assures us that we will never be left alone. 

I take as my example, a poem crafted by Shahid from the poetry of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish: "Violins weep with gypsies going to Andalusia / Violins weep for Arabs leaving Andalusia // Violins weep for a time that does not return / Violins weep for a homeland that might return // Violins set fire to the woods of that deep deep darkness / Violins tear the horizon and smell my blood in the vein // … Violins are complaints of silk creased in the lover's night / Violins are the distant sound of wine falling on a previous desire // Violins follow me everywhere in vengeance / Violins seek me out to kill me wherever they find me // Violins weep for Arabs leaving Andalusia / Violins weep with gypsies going to Andalusia."

Form must be foregrounded in any discussion of Shahid's work because it is that which gave his poetry its intensity. In a remark made about the writing of Roland Barthes, the critic Michael Warner had said that Barthes, who was gay, seldom wrote about his dissident sexuality. Barthes' gayness was expressed not at the level of the signified but, instead, at the level of the signifier. At least for Warner, it was the excess embodied in the language that Barthes used - the complexity and richness at the level of syntax - that marked Barthes as gay. In Shahid's case, it is the extraordinary texture of his verse, the delicate fire that returns us to a sense of tragedy and beauty that is always at the verge of being ground to dust. Shahid's broken lines recall what has been broken in history, and their inventive musicality restores to history a human dignity. We are now condemned to mourn and to love Shahid in every new poet in English who will pick verses in the rubble that grows around us.

Tribute: Agha Shahid Ali
Agha Shahid Ali 
Surprisingly cheerful person 
The Floating post office 
Dream of Glass Bangles
Don’t Ask Me for That Love Again Read
Kashmir without a post office Read
After the Last Sky Read
Ghazal for Daniel Hall Read
Farewell for Patricia O'Neill Read

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