I know Agha Shahid Ali. We never met. I was gluing foil stars to pieces of macaroni and construction paper when he died in 2001 to the same brain cancer that claimed his mother four years earlier.
Nevertheless—I know Shahid. He haunts my hours asleep. When I dream of a door, I know Shahid stands close behind, one hand already hovering above the knob.
I caution to open any hinged thing in my dreams; what Shahid wants to reveal will rend a terrible divide between girl and fantasy.
A Dream of Glass Bangles
Those autumns my parents slept
warm in a quilt studded
with pieces of mirrors
On my mother’s arms were bangles
like waves of frozen rivers
and at night
after the prayers
as she went down to her room
I heard the faint sound of ice
breaking on the staircase
breaking years later
our house surrounded by men
pulling icicles for torches
off the roofs
rubbing them on the walls
till the cement’s darkening red
set the tips of water on fire
the air a quicksand of snow
as my father stepped out
and my mother
inside the burning house
a widow smashing the rivers
on her arms1
Dreams have long been considered taboo for poets. Shahid defied the unspoken rule implemented by the Poets of Yore: poems shouldn’t be written about dreams because suddenly anything can happen. Once a poet has opened Pandora’s Box, it may take the rest of their lifetime to close it again.
Shahid argued two things through his poetry. First—and maybe most importantly—not only can anything happen in dreams, but in daily, waking life as well. And second—much like retrieving the hazy details of a person’s younger life, dreams should be considered murky historical happenings, undeniably potent, impactful even when potentially forgotten.
Dreams, like the scrolls burned by Caesar in the Library of Alexandria, provide us room to wonder.
Shahid, born in 1949 Kashmir, was witness to much cultural milieu: India was only two years into establishing their independence from Britain; the Cold War arrived as quickly as World War II ended; Jackie Robinson became the first Black baseball player contracted by the American Major League; Chuck Yeager aced the sound barrier.
Shahid never married—in the historical sense. Some writers will choose to note that he was living as a gay man in 1980s America. I will choose to note, instead, the wayward open-heartedness of his writing, one that seems to be searching for water in shifting desert sands.
Shahid wrote many poems for many people. He never directly mentions a lover. He seems far more concerned with writing open letters depicting multitudes of self rather than those which could be deemed outright expressions of love.
For me, an emerging poet who seems unable to escape the gooey jaws of love poems, this seems to be the last thing on Shahid’s mind. His 1987 poetry collection A Walk Through the Yellow Pages is a densely-woven tapestry of surrealist incongruities, paradoxes, and shapeshifting perspectives. It heaves and melts like one of Dalí’s clocks; a gorgeous, unwinding nightmare.
Shahid evokes dreams through tempered, paced lines spanning a stabilized form. You watch him become more and more enamored with the ghazal through the years. His technique becomes finally clear: blur reality’s formal structures with lyrical dreamscapes. His first book, published in 1986 and entitled T.S. Eliot as Editor, is one that strongly advocates for the use of form as a starting place for poets.
In 2000, the year before his death, Shahid edited a collection published by Wesleyan University entitled Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English. Shahid introduces the collection of ghazals by writing: “perhaps one way to welcome the shackles of the form and be in emotional tune with them is to remember one definition of the word ghazal: it is the cry of the gazelle when it is cornered in a hunt and knows it will die.”
From Amherst to Kashmir2
- Karbala: A History of the “House of Sorrow”
In a distant age and climate, the tragic scene of the death of Husayn will awaken the sympathy of the coldest reader.
Jesus and his disciples, passing through the plain of Karbala, saw
“a herd of gazelles, crowding together and weeping.” Astonished,
the disciples looked at their Lord. He spoke: “At this site the
grandson of Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) will one
day be killed.” And Jesus wept. Oh, that my head were waters, and mine
eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain ...
And Jesus wept.
Shahid describes himself as having not a philosophy but “a temperament.” I find myself searching, again and again, between his lines for where this temperament manifests. And, in truth, I’ve spent a long time failing to accurately articulate what I’ve found.
Shahid contains crystallized galaxies. Just when you think you’ve discovered all the possible worlds within his work, another makes itself known. Fixated on possibility, haunted by faith, he makes space for both religious tradition and twenty-first-century skepticism. His poems bluster from the same melancholic realm as J. Alfred Prufrock, wearing Kashmiri barbed wire for a raincoat, occupying pools of shadows, blooming between streetlights at night.
What draws me to Shahid—what I want to show you when I separate this geode—is not his sexuality, his nationality, or even his death; it’s how he lived through dreams.
In the exodus I love you more3
In the exodus I love you more. In a while
you will lock the city’s gates. There is no heart for me in your hands, and no
road anywhere for my journey. In this demise I love you more.
After your breast, there is no milk for the pomegranate at our window.
Palm trees have become weightless,
the hills have become weightless, and streets in the dusk have become weightless;
the earth has become weightless as it bids farewell to its dust.
Words become weightless,
and stories have become weightless on the staircase of night.
My heart alone is heavy,
so let it remain here, around your house,
barking, howling for a golden time.
It alone is my homeland. In the exodus I love you more,
I empty my soul of words: I love you more.
We depart. Butterflies lead our shadows. In exodus
we remember the lost buttons of our shirts, we forget
the crown of our days, we remember the apricot’s sweat, we forget
the dance of horses on festival nights. In departure
we become only the birds’ equals, merciful to our days, grateful for the least.
I am content to have the golden dagger that makes my murdered heart dance—
kill me then, slowly, so I may say: I love you more than
I had said before the exodus. I love you. Nothing hurts me,
neither air nor water ... neither basil in your morning nor
iris in your evening, nothing hurts me after this departure.
Shahid was born in one continent and died in another. He lived many lives between them. He loved many people, held degrees from many places, spoke many languages, prayed to many Gods. He’s buried near Emily Dickinson in Massachusetts.
I know him. Tonight, when I fall asleep, he will be waiting outside the front door of the house where I grew up. He will be waiting.
... A house? A work in progress,
always. But: Could love’s season be more than this?
I’ll wipe your tears. Turn to me. My world would be
mere mirrors cut to multiply, then multiply ...4