Review by Sarah Wetzel-Fishman
THE VEILED SUITE, THE COLLECTED POEMS
by Agha Shahid Ali
W.W. Norton & Co.
500 Fifth Avenue
New York, N.Y. 10110
2009, 512 pp., $29.95
“One more truth about the condition we call exile is that it accelerates tremendously one’s otherwise professional flight—or drift—into isolation, into an absolute perspective: into the condition in which all one is left with is oneself and one’s own language, with nobody or nothing in between.”
– Joseph Brodsky in “The Condition We Call Exile.”
From Ovid and Dante to Brodsky and Milosz, exile has often been the lot of the poet. The pain can be excruciating as the exiled, cut off from familiar culture and landscape, as well as from families and associates, lives in a state of dislocation and dispossession. Dante writes in “Paradiso” from The Divine Comedy:
. . . You will leave everything you love most:
this is the arrow that the bow of exile
shoots first. You will know how salty
another’s bread tastes and how hard it
is to ascend and descend
another’s stairs . . .
At the same time, exile can become an imaginative action that liberates the creative mind. In his book, Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile, Walter Brueggemann writes of what he calls “the metaphor of exile” that lives in opposition to the surrounding culture and finds that “only memory allows possibility” of return to “home.” Returning home, if only in the mind, thus becomes the writerly obsession. Brueggemann was speaking of the biblical poets, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah, but it just as well could have been of many of our most beloved poets, who from nullity found the capacity to create newness. So it seemed for Dante, and so too it seemed for the Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali, as his poems, collected for the first time in The Veiled Suite, demonstrate.
The newness that Agha Shahid Ali created emerged from the chaos of Kashmir, the disputed territory straddling India and Pakistan. Born February 4, 1949, in New Delhi, India, Agha Shahid Ali was raised in Kashmir, but left in 1976 for the United States. While Ali never permanently returned to Kashmir, up until 2001 and just before he died that same year, he refused the title US citizen. He preferred the title immigrant, and, in his poems, exile. The Veiled Suite, published in 2009, encompasses the thirty years and six volumes of poems Ali completed in the US, poems that obsessively explore the anguish of displacement through memory, history, symbolism, and a unique blend of European and Urdu poetic traditions.
In The Veiled Suite, Ali’s final work becomes the first. The collection opens with the title poem, a never-before-published canzone. The canzone is a 65-line medieval Italian form similar to the sestina where there is no rhyme scheme per se, but every line of the poem ends with one of five keywords that must appear in a prescribed order. Ali completed the poem one year before he died from brain cancer, the same disease that killed his mother five years earlier. In the poem, Ali writes: “I wait for him to look straight into my eyes. / This is our only chance for magnificence.” Ali’s use of the difficult Italian form to write what is essentially an address to his own death, as well as perhaps to God, underlines this poet’s unique ability to straddle divergent cultures as well as his unflinching bravery in the face of life’s truths.
For Ali, exile, loss, and the related yearning for home remained the primary, and some would say only, subject matters. Following the title poem, the opening lines of the next poem in the collection, “Postcard from Kashmir,” read:
Kashmir shrinks into my mailbox
my home a neat for by six inches
I always loved neatness. Now I hold
the half-inch Himalayas in my hand.
In Rooms are Never Finished, the last collection published before his death, it is the loss of his mother conflating with his loss of homeland. This from the last poem in this last collection, “I Dream I am the Ghat of the Only World”:
I always move in my heart between sad countries.
But let it not end “IT WON’T” this grief for you mother.
For Ali, exile was a perpetual state of mind and he remained apart, even from America, in his work. In A Nostalgist’s Map of America, where the subject matter is most grounded in his adopted country, his view was even then of something lost. In “Beyond the Ashes,” he writes, its “desert refused my history” and he felt “singled out for loss.” In his work, Ali is always leaving—a lover, a place, a memory. When he returns, it is only in dreams. But even then, as in “I Dream I Return to Tucson in the Monsoons,” his thoughts are only of what is missing, “The sun setting over / what was once an ocean.”
In the end, it seems a connection to place that Ali laments. He, an immigrant but unable to find purchase in his adopted home, feels the loss of both a homeland and the memories attached to it. In the final poem of A Nostalgist’s Map of America, he writes:
And just before the lights did flood her
again melting the frost
of her diamond
into rays, it was, like this turning dark
of fog, a moment when only a lost sea
can be heard, a time
every shadow, everything the earth was losing,
a time to think of everything the earth
and I had lost, of all
that I would lose,
of all that I was losing
Here he recollects a moment in New Delhi during a war when a famous singer sang, even as the lights doused, and her song was of loss, not just through war, as Ali lost his homeland to Kashmiri violence, but personal loss of loved ones and homeland. And for Ali, loss is a continuum. Loss is part of life, perhaps the only part of life that is predictable.
Readers accustomed to the colloquialism of contemporary American poetry will find Ali’s work, at times, unnatural and forced, his language overly formal. Moreover, Ali’s poetry is densely symbolic, requiring second—even third—readings to decipher. At the same time, Ali’s symbols are fairly ordinary—water, sea, air, mirror, veil—so decoding feels within reach.
For instance, water is the lens through which Ali dreams. In “I See Chile in My Rearview Mirror,” he asks, “This dream of water—what does it harbor?” And later in the same poem, perhaps referring to memory, the disappearance of a mythical South America, he states, “And always oceans / that hid in mirrors.” Water, like memory, obscures and hides, clarifies and amplifies.
In other poems, such as the title poem, “The Veiled Suite,” it is the symbol of a veil that becomes the symbolic border, as it does in “I Dream I am the Ghat of the Only World”:
you even veiled are the one who employs
her touch like a lamp to show me again and again
In these poems, a veil becomes the curtain between life and death, between this world and what is hoped for in the next. More broadly, it seems that the veil represents the gauze through which Ali views the past and through which he yearns for his lost homeland. But make no mistake, Ali admits that what he yearns for and what actually exist represent different places. In “Postcard from Kashmir,” he writes:
And my memory will be a little
out of focus, in it
a giant negative, black
and white, still undeveloped.
Likewise, in the poem, “The Blessed Word: A Prologue,” Ali parallels himself to the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, who died in exile during Stalin’s purges in the 1930s: “He reinvents Petersburg (I, Srinagar), an imaginary homeland, filling it, closing it, shutting himself (myself) in it.”
Ali even used the voices of fellow exiles in attempts to describe his own plight. Mandelstam was one. Another was the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. The cosmopolitan Darwish spent his exile in both Arab and European cities, and in his poems, he uses these cities metaphorically to reflect his yearning, disillusionment, and his search for self. In Rooms Are Never Finished, Ali translates the deceased poet’s 11-part poem “Eleven Stars Over Andalusia.” In it, Darwish begins:
On our last evening on this land we chop our days
from our young trees, count the ribs we’ll take with us
and the ribs we’ll leave behind…
Then in a later section, he goes on:
Violins weep for a time that does not return
Violins weep for a homeland that might return
While weeping for a lost homeland provides the thematic skeleton for his entire oeuvre, it is with form that Ali charts his progress as a poet. It is not until A Nostalgist’s Map of America, the third of the six individual collections included in The Veiled Suite, that Ali begins to adopt more formal approaches to his poetry. In this collection, it is to a 10-syllable line that he turned. Unfortunately, for some of the poems the syllabic structure often forces line breaks between preposition and phrase, between adjective and noun. In some cases, these breaks balance Ali’s obscure symbolism, increase surprise and tension, but at times they feel forced and awkward.
In A Country without a Post Office, published in 1997, Ali broadens his formal repertoire. While he does not abandon free verse—roughly a third of his poems in the collection are not in form—form becomes the framework from which much of his work hangs. This collection includes canzoni, a sestina, a villanelle, Sapphic odes, terza rima, rhymed tercets, quatrains, and septets, as well as unrhymed syllabics.
Ali’s poetry becomes the stronger for it. Form typically forces Ali to write in longer lines so that the end-of-line rhyme and/or repetition have more room to work themselves out. Second and relatedly, the longer lines force the pace of his long, lush, densely symbolic sentences. While Ali still falls victim to erratic enjambment, especially in his syllabic verse, in general, sentences and images cohere more fully. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, by combining European form with content that typically references his Kashmiri and Indian background, Ali’s poetry itself becomes a metaphor for the cultural amalgamation of the immigrant.
The interweave of European and Islamic prosodic devices extends to include quotations and allusions from both cultures. For instance, one of the central poems of A Nostalgist’s Map of America, the 11-part “In Search of Evanescence,” utilizes several structures—couplets, tercets, quatrains—as well as free verse to trace the loss of a friend to AIDS. Most interestingly, he turns to the formal features and phrasing of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. In the ninth section of the poem, Ali begins with an epigraph from Dickinson—“I want to eat Evanescence slowly”—and proceeds with twenty couplets that exploit Dickinson’s signature dash: “I want to eat—Evanescence—slowly. After great pain.” The structure of the poem, while neither Urdu nor European, suggests the ghazal, the Urdu poetic form that is always written in couplets, without containing it. Section ten follows with an address to the poet: “Shahid, you never / found Evanescence.. / And how could / you have?” This is another signature of the ghazal and underlines the suggestions. Like much of his work, the poem straddles two traditions seamlessly.
This brings me to the ghazal, the poetic form that Ali also first included in A Country without a Post Office. According to convention, a ghazal (pronounced “ghuzzle”) is five or more thematically unrelated couplets, unified by rhyme and common meter. Each couplet has both an end-line refrain word(s) called a radif, which occurs in both lines of the first couplet and on the second line of all following couplets, and mid-line rhyme called a qafiya, which immediately precedes the refrain. The last couplet, called a makhta, names the poet directly in the second or third person.
After 1997, Ali became a primary promoter of the ghazal, editing a broad collection of ghazals written in English by a host of noted poets called Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English. In the introduction to the anthology, Ali vehemently advocated “form for form’s sake,” and directed poets to maintain the formal characteristics of the ghazal. At the same time, in Call Me Ishmael Tonight, a collection of his own ghazals published after his death and included in The Veiled Suite, Ali often deviated from his own instruction. For instance, “Not All, Only a Few Return” abandons the radif, and “Stars” abandons common meter. While this leaves open the door for poetic license, and I think better reflects contemporary practices, it also undermines his message regarding form.
With that said, Ali combined the disjunctive couplets of the ghazal with the language of European and American culture to create something new and exciting. Fifteen of the thirty ghazals included in the collection are dedicated to or written after other writers, the majority of them American, and fourteen of the fifteen other poets (the one exception being to Lawrence Needham, a critic and reviewer of Ali). In these poems, Ali incorporated titles of books, quotations from the writer’s work, even direct address, into the poems. This composite tradition makes the ghazal’s themes of love, exile and loss particularly resonant. This is not to say that all of his ghazals satisfy. Ali’s images can seem at times trite or cliché. “Star” includes these the two rather ordinary couplets:
After the eclipse, there were no cheap stars
How can you be so cheap stars?
How grateful I am you stay awake with me
till by dawn, like you, I’m ready to sleep, stars!
However, in other poems, there are equally surprising images or turns of phrase. The first five couplets from “Bones,” written after Hart Crane, read:
“I, too, was liege / to rainbows currying” pulsant bones.
the “sun took step of” Brooklyn Bridge’s resonant bones.
From Rockaway to Golden Gate I saw blood
washed up on streets against God’s irrelevant bones.
If the soul were a body, what would it insist on?
On smooth skin? On stubborn flesh? Or on elegant bones?
“The window goes blond slowly.” And I beside you
am stripped and stripped and stripped to luxuriant bones.
So Elizabeth had two hundred Catholics burned
(Bloody Mary had loved the smoke of Protestant bones).
The poem goes on another eight stanzas. Besides the lush imagery, I cannot but admire the skillful adjective noun rhyme refrain combination Ali fashioned.
To read The Veiled Suite from beginning to end is to hear Ali’s own voice come to the fore, haltinglyat first in free verse, then more confidently as he blends the poetic traditions of his lost home with that of his adopted country. It is a collection that illuminates and underscores the upward trajectory of Agha Shahid Ali’s talent, an arc cut short by death and whose path we can only imagine.
Sarah Wetzel-Fishman is a poet, essayist, and engineer. She grew up a daughter of the American South, but somehow ended up in the Middle East after job-hopping across the Americas and Europe. Sarah graduated from Georgia Tech in 1989, and in 1997, received a MBA from The University of California, Berkeley—both degrees proving completely useless to her life as a poet. Sarah completed a MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College in January 2009. Nominated for a Pushcart Prize for 2009, her work has most recently been published in US publications including Stirring and Eclectica, and in Israeli publications including Voices and Cyclamens and Swords. Sarah currently lives in Israel with her husband, four step-children, and one needy dog.