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A Nostalgist's Map of America -- Agha Shahid Ali

Guest poem submitted by Aseem Kaul:
(Poem #1401) A Nostalgist's Map of America
 The trees were soon hushed in the resonance
 of darkest emerald as we rushed by
 on 322, that route that took us from
 the dead center of Pennsylvania.

 (a stone marks it) to a suburb ten miles
 from Philadelphia. "A hummingbird",
 I said, after a sharp turn, then pointed
 to the wheel, still revolving in your hand.

 I gave Emily Dickinson to you then,
 line after line, complete from heart. The signs
 on Schuylkill Expressway fell neat behind us.
 I went further: "Let's pretend your city

 is Evanescence - There has to be one -
 in Pennsylvania - And that some day -
 the Bird will carry - my letters - to you -
 from Tunis - or Casablanca - the mail

 an easy night's ride - from North Africa."
 I'm making this up, I know, but since you
 were there, none of it's a lie. How did I
 go on? "Wings will rush by when the exit

 to Evanescence is barely a mile?"
 the sky was dark teal, the moon was rising.
 "It always rains on this route", I went on,
 "which takes you back, back to Evanescence,

 your boyhood town". You said this was summer,
 this final end of school, this coming home
 to Philadelphia, WMMR
 as soon as you could catch it. What song first

 came on? It must have been a disco hit,
 one whose singer no one recalls. It's six,
 perhaps seven years since then, since you last
 wrote. And yesterday, when you phoned, I said,

 "I knew you'd call," even before you could
 say who you were. "I am in Irvine now
 with my lover, just an hour from Tuscon
 and the flights are cheap." "Then we'll meet often."

 For a moment you were silent, and then,
 "Shahid, I'm dying". I kept speaking to you
 after I hung up, my voice the quickest
 mail, a cracked disc with many endings,

 each false: One: "I live in Evanescence
 (I had to build it, for America
 was without one). All is safe here with me.
 come to my street, disguised in the climate

 of Southern California. Surprise
 me when I open the door. Unload skies
 of rain from distance drenched arms." Or this:
 "Here in Evanescence (which I found - though

 not in Pennsylvania - after I last
 wrote), the eavesdropping willows write brief notes
 on grass, then hide them in shadows of trunks.
 I'd love to see you. Come as you are." And

 this, the least false: "You said each month you need
 new blood. Please forgive me, Phil, but I thought
 of your pain as a formal feeling, one
 useful for the letting go, your transfusions

 mere wings to me, the push of numerous
 hummingbirds, souveniers of Evanescence
 seen disappearing down a route of veins
 in an electric rush of Cochineal."
-- Agha Shahid Ali
For Philip Paul Orlando.

The first time I learnt Shahid was dying was in September 2001. As I sat
there shocked at the news (I had no idea he was even ill) I found myself
mouthing the last stanzas of this poem again and again.

Not just because it's a poem of his I love.

Not just because it captures so well who Shahid was, both as a poet (the
conversational style, the formal structure, the repetition of themes and
phrases in endless improvisations, the raw passion of the metaphors, so
redolent of the Urdu he loved) and as a person (his warmth, his sense of
humour, his love for Dickinson, his habit of quoting little gems of
poems with the most bizarre connections).

But because it expresses better than anything I've ever read the
impossibility of finding the right words for the death of a friend. How
each line you come up with is a lie because it's never enough, because
it never says everything that needs to be said. And how in the end, all
words are a betrayal, a way of selling out what we feel to the formality
of the writer's craft. This poem is the most touching I can find to mark
Shahid's second death anniversary (Dec 8th) because it is the most
honest - because it offers not consolation but the search for
consolation, because it throws up its hands and admits that it is not


[Minstrels Links]

Emily Dickinson:
Poem #92, There's a certain Slant of light
Poem #174, A Route of Evanescence
Poem #341, The Grass so little has to do -
Poem #458, The Chariot
Poem #529, If you were coming in the fall
Poem #580, Split the Lark
Poem #687, Success is counted sweetest
Poem #711, I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Poem #829, It dropped so low in my regard
Poem #871, I felt a Funeral, in my Brain
Poem #891, A Doubt If It Be Us
Poem #950, The Cricket Sang
Poem #1294, The reticent volcano keeps
Poem #1328, You cannot put a fire out
Poem #1337, Ample Make This Bed
Poem #1347, In a Library
Poem #1382, Hope
#174, "A Route of Evanescence", is extensively quoted in today's poem.

Agha Shahid Ali:
Poem #961, The Wolf's Postscript to 'Little Red Riding Hood'
Poem #1129, Farewell

43 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Anustup Datta said...

Hi Thomas

A lovely poem. The deliberately light conversational style (which adds to
the poignancy) reminds me of the immortal Mir Taqi Mir, who must have been
Shahid's favourite too. Aseem has got it absolutely right. The last two
stanzas remind me irresistibly of Mir's famous couplet -

Ulti ho gayi sab tadbiren, kuchh na dawa ne kaam kiya.
Dekha? Is beemari-e-dil ne aakhir kaam tamaam kiya.

If you have heard Begum Akhtar declaim the above, you might know what I


Richard Walter Davis said...

That was, for the most part, lovely. Ever think of having your work set to
original music and read by a voice that would do it the justice it deserves?

Your move,

Richard W. "Cardo" Davis

"One of two brothers with unlimited funds."

P.S. "The good looking one."

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