Ali, Agha Shahid

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ALI, Agha Shahid


Nationality: Indian (Kashmiri). Born: New Delhi, 4 February 1949. Grew up in Kashmir. Education: University of Kashmir, Srinagar, B.A. 1968; University of Delhi, M.A. in English literature 1970; Pennsylvania State University, M.A. in English 1981, Ph.D. 1984; University of Arizona, Tucson, M.F.A. 1985. Career: Lecturer in English, University of Delhi, 1970–75; instructor, Pennsylvania State University, 1976–83; graduate assistant, University of Arizona, 1983–85; communications editor, JNC Companies, Tucson, 1985–87; assistant professor of English and creative writing, Hamilton College, Clinton, New York, 1987–93. Visiting professor of creative writing, State University of New York, Binghamton, spring 1989. Associate professor of English, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1993—. Awards: Breadloaf Writers' Conference scholarship, 1982, 1983; Academy of American Poets prize, 1983: Pennsylvania Council on the Arts fellowship, 1983; Ingram Merrill Foundation fellowship, 1987; New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship, 1993. Address: Department of English, Bartlett Hall, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Massachusetts 01003, U.S.A.

Publications

Poetry

Bone-Sculpture. Calcutta, Writers Workshop, 1972.

In Memory of Begum Akhtar and Other Poems. Calcutta, Writers Workshop, 1979.

The Half-Inch Himalayas. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1987.

A Walk through the Yellow Pages. Tucson, Arizona, Sun/Gemini Press, 1987.

A Nostalgist's Map of America. New York, Norton, 1991.

The Belovéd Witness: Selected Poems. New Delhi, Viking Penguin, 1992.

The Country without a Post Office: Poems. New York, Norton, 1997.

Recordings: Distinct Traditions, Myths and Voices of the Many Americas, Poetics Program, SUNY at Buffalo, 1994.

Other

T.S. Eliot As Editor. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Research Press, 1986.

Translator, The Rebel's Silhouette: Selected Poems, by Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Salt Lake City, Peregrine Smith, 1992.

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Critical Studies: "The Sorrows of a Broken Time" by Emmanuel Nelson, in Reworlding: Writers of the Indian Diaspora, Westport, Greenwood Press, 1993; in Indian Literature, 145(5), September 1991; by Neile Graham, in Poet Lore, 87(1), spring 1992; by Sudeep Sen, in Poetry Review, 83(1), spring 1993.

Agha Shahid Ali comments:

My poetry has all along revealed a triple heritage (through certain historical permutations, of course), of which I have only in the past few years become truly conscious: Hindu, Muslim, and Western. This triple heritage has given me and other Indo-English writers a privileged position at this specific postcolonial moment in history, the ability and confidence to breathe something rich and strange into English (for example, I hope readers can detect the music of Urdu in my work), the arrogance, if you will, to reinvent the language and to do so on our own terms.

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Agha Shahid Ali is one of the few Indian Muslim poets writing in English and one of the few English-language poets from Kashmir. Long resident in the United States, he has become an American multicultural poet. The books of poems he has published are influenced by his continued uprooting and exile. Bone-Sculpture is the work of a promising young poet who has not yet assimilated influences or found a style. Many of Ali's obsessions, however, are already present: memory, death, history, family ancestors, nostalgia for a past he never knew, dreams, Hindu ceremonies, friendships, and self-consciousness about being a poet. Bones are symbolic of a now dead world that will not reply to his interest. In "Dear Editor" he claims, "i am a dealer in words / that mix cultures / and leave me rootless."

In Memory of Begum Akhtar focuses on the old Delhi of the Mughals. There is an elegiac feeling of a rich but lost past. The great singers of the past become symbols for a history Ali cannot live as he attempts to find links and continuity with his origins. "K.L. Saigal" is celebrated as such a link: "Nostalgic for my father's youth, / I make you return / his wasted generation … You felt it all." In the title poem the elegy for the great singer Begum Akhtar has the concise, oblique, lyrical qualities and the music and pattern of the oriental ghazel: feelings are expressed parabolically, statements are left standing on their own, and the poem feels like a song made up of lyric phrases. "Note Autobiographical-1" recounts Ali's estrangement from Islam. His parents were modern and secular, read Freud and Marx, and "ate pork secretly," but his grandfather still prayed five times a day. Like many of the Indian Muslims for whom the partition of Pakistan from India was a tragic event, Ali looks backward to a unified culture and nation he has lost and that he tries to maintain in his imagination and verse.

In 1987 Ali published two significant volumes of poetry related to his residence in the United States. The poems show increased verse technique and polish, the use of fantasy, and the ability to work within a wider range of reference. The Half-Inch Himalayas is a carefully composed book that, in structure, follows his changes of home from Kashmir to Delhi to the United States. It consists of a prologue and four sections, the first three with eight poems each. Recurring images link the sections. "Postcard from Kashmir," the prologue, introduces the themes of exile, memory, loss of home, and acceptance that one cannot go home again: "Kashmir shrinks into my mailbox, / my home a neat four by six inches. / / … Now I hold / the half-inch Himalayas in my hand. / / This is home. And this the closest / I'll ever be to home." Section 1 consists largely of fantasies about the history of his family before he was born or during the days of his childhood. By imagining he hopes to share. The poems move from the Himalayas of ancestral and racial origins and his father's Kashmir down to the plains of India of his mother's side, the plains of the great Urdu culture that preceded partition. The poems in section 2 are concerned primarily with the culture and history of Delhi and the plains. A film of King Lear causes the poet to think about the distance between the former splendor of Delhi during the Mughal empire and the poverty of the present: "Beggars now live here in tombs / of unknown nobles and forgotten saints."

Section 3 takes place in America and shows an uprooted existence of airplane flights, nights at bars, and changing apartments. Ali's sense of humor is allowed to surface more often, although the metaphor of life in exile as nightmare and death now replaces the earlier symbolic landscape of bones, tombs, and monuments. This is not a land that remembers. In "Vacating an Apartment," for example, the cleaners "burn my posters / (India and Heaven in flames) … make everything new, / clean as Death." At five o'clock in the morning on Riverside Drive in New York City he sees a jogger "bursting … suddenly free, / from the air, from himself," leaving his heart "behind him." In section 4 there are six dreamlike poems of nostalgia for India written in the United States. The final poem, "Houses," returns to the contrast between imagining home and the actual security of home: "The man who buried his house in the sand / and digs it up again, each evening / learns to put it together quickly / / and just as quickly to take it apart." The Half-Inch Himalayas is remarkable for its economy, development, and unity. It is a summing up and distillation of some twenty years of writing poetry.

A Walk through the Yellow Pages is a surreal world of nightmare, fantasy, incongruity, wild humor, and the grotesque. Although the existential anxieties have their source in problems of growing up, leaving home, being a migrant, and dealing with the meeting of cultures, the idiom is American and contemporary. Besides the five "Bell Telephone Hours" poems, there is a found poem that slightly reworks an oriental food store's advertisement, two poems called "Language Games" (based on Scrabble and charades), a poem based on graffiti ("Poets on Bathroom Walls"), and three poems that rewrite fairy tales. Each of the "Bell Telephone Hours" takes advertising slogans ("Has anyone heard from you lately?" or "Call long distance: the next best thing to being there") to reveal under the social loneliness an existential anxiety: "He answered, 'God is busy. / He never answers the living. / He has no answers for the dead. / Don't ever call again collect.'" In Ali's version of the fairy tale in "Hansel's Game" the mother tells Hansel that "the womb's no place for a big boy like you" and pushes him out into the world again on the route "from the womb to the grave." Wiser now, he lives comfortably and keeps the witch in the basement. On special occasions, instead of cake, "we take portions of her / to serve." The icebox in the basement holds the repressed, and fears of the witch are turned into poetry.

While autobiography often starts in a golden age of childhood that is lost in growing up, Ali's obsession with expulsion from the womb, home, and tradition is remarkably intense and results in a poetry symbolic of major cultural and political changes. His poetry about his insecurities has turned into a narrative that itself has become the subject of allegories that elaborate on the story through various metaphors, disguises, and figures. The specificity of his experience and emotions, its acceptance of difference, its feeling of being comfortable yet exiled, of missing something wherever he lives or goes, contributes strongly to the lyrical power of his poetry. The increased technique since his earlier poetry allows him to make use of varied associations, moving rapidly and elliptically, in the style of the ghazel, between layers of feelings, while ordering the poems into complex narratives. There is the music of Urdu in his poetry, a lushness of phrase uncommon to American verse, a variety of theme and subject matter, a trust in his Kashmiri-American voice.

The 104 pages of poetry in A Nostalgist's Map of America have a significant organization, with section leading to section, recapitulations of themes and images, and underlying narratives. The prologue, "Eurydice," creates the tone and is followed by four sections. The first section is set in the southwestern United States, and the five poems in it move from the personal to the mythic and anthropological. "Beyond the Ash Rains" begins with an announcement of themes: "When the desert refused my history." While section 2 consists of three poems, including "A Nostalgist's Map of America," one of them, "Evanescence," is itself a sequence of eleven poems. The theme of "Evanescence," which unites the section, comes from a poem of Emily Dickinson, quoted as a prologue to section 2. The poems are addressed to a friend in southern California who died of AIDS. Section 3, a sequence of thirteen poems called "From Another Desert," continues the motifs of loss and deserts (here an Islamic desert) and retells an Arabic love story, also common to Persian and Urdu literature, in which Majnoon, the possessed or mad one who has sacrificed everything for love, can be understood as a rebel or revolutionary and the loved one as the revolutionary ideal. In Arabic or Islamic literature love poetry is usually understood to be about love of God, but Ali is in the more modern tradition, in which the significance is understood politically. The eight poems of section 4 return to the desert and such earlier themes and motifs as myth and water while providing a farewell. The concluding poem, "Snow on the Desert," begins with "Every ray of sunshine is seven minutes old… So when I look at the sky I see the past? … especially on a clear day" and moves by various imagistic associations from New York City to Tucson, New Delhi, and Bangladesh.

From the contents of The Country without a Post Office, Ali could be taken to be the national poet of a future independent Kashmir. He would probably deny a nationalistic intent, however, and claim to be a humanist concerned with universal justice, which explains his references to Sarajevo, Armenia, and even a Norwegian hostage killed by Kashmiri militants. The poems, each in a different form, offer a loose narrative with repeating images and phrases. The prose poem "The Blesséd Word: A Prologue" imagines a time when Kashmir will be free. "Farewell," the opening poem of the first section, is in one-line stanzas. A note reads, "This poem at one—but only one—level is a plaintive love letter from a Kashmiri Muslim to a Kashmiri Pandit (the indigenous Hindus of Kashmir are called Pandits)." It might be seen as expressive of a shared culture and history that is asserted throughout the volume: "In the lake the arms of temples and mosques are locked in each other's reflections." There are villanelles and ghazels, even a proper ghazel in which the couplets are linked by the initial aa rhyme word, "Arabic," recurring as a rhyme in the second line of each following stanza: "They ask me to tell them what Shahid means- / Listen: It means 'The Belovéd' in Persian, 'witness' in Arabic." Desire for and loss of communion with the beloved, God, is understood as part of the longing for home by the exiled and conquered. Ali blends the high lyrical traditions of Islamic poetry with that of Europe, renewing a former link in such Renaissance forms as the canzone.

—Bruce King