Enemies, unforgiving, forever entangled in time

POET'S CORNER

October 21, 2001|By MICHAEL COLLIER

Last week Agha Shahid Ali's eighth book of poems, Rooms Are Never Finished (W.W. Norton), was named a finalist for the 2001 National Book Awards. A Muslim born in Kashmir, he was educated in India and the United States, and is now a naturalized U.S. citizen. His literary language -- the language of his education -- is English, while his cultural and familial language is Urdu. These linguistic inheritances connect Ali to ancient Indian poetry, which can be traced to 1200 B.C., and to the rich traditions of Persian and European poetries.

As a Kashmiri, Ali is aware of the historical vicissitudes that breed violence and hatred in people who once lived together peacefully. His poems speak to the enduring qualities of love and friendship. With elegance and wit, they also speak to the difficulty of maintaining such relationships. In "Barcelona Airport," a poem from Rooms Are Never Finished, Ali recounts an interrogation by an airport security officer who asks if he is carrying anything that could be dangerous. Ali replies, "O just my heart."

"Farewell" appears in Ali's seventh collection, Country Without a Post Office (W.W. Norton, 1997) which deals with the eruption of Kashmiri sectarian violence in the 1990s. In a note at the back of book, Ali tells us the poem is "a plaintive love letter from a Kashmiri Muslim to a Kashmiri Pandit (the indigenous Hindus of Kashmir are called Pandits)." Perhaps what is most powerful in Ali's poem is the image of cultural interdependence he finds in a lake, where "the arms of temples and mosques are locked in each other's reflections." While Kashmiri Hindus and Muslims share a centuries-old history, their experience of it can never be divorced from its difficult beginnings. "My memory keeps getting in the way of your history," Ali repeats, and "I am everything you lost. Your perfect enemy."

The pathology of self-fulfilling, hateful destinies, where reflections and perceptions destroy peace and turn countries into killing fields, is what Ali sketches in "Farewell." The plea that ends the poem -- "If only somehow you could have been mine, / what would not have been possible in the world?" -- suggests, however, that an alternate fate for Kashmir, and other countries, one based on empathy and openness, might turn enemies back into brothers.

'Farewell' 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

myself.

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)

Excerpted from Country Without A Post Office by Agha Shahid Ali, copyright 1997. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company Inc.

Maryland poet laureate Michael Collier's Poet's Corner appears monthly in Arts & Society.

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