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Thursday, November 10, 2005

Agha Shahid Ali

I hope somebody will edit a collected or selected of Agha Shahid Ali's work in the near future. He's one of my favorite poets. I found a copy of The Half-Inch Himalayas , which I thought was out of print. This is the first time I've read one of his early books. The book itself is very uneven. But the collection does include one of my favorite poems of all time:

The Dacca Gauzes

. . . for a whole year he sought to accumulate the most exquisite Dacca gauzes.
-Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Those transparent Dacca gauzes
known as woven air, running
water, evening dew:

a dead art now, dead over
a hundred years. "No one
now knows," my grandmother says,

"what it was to wear
or touch that cloth." She wore
it once, an heirloom sari from

her mother's dowry, proved
genuine when it was pulled, all
six yards, through a ring.

Years later when it tore,
many handkerchiefs embroidered
with gold-thread paisleys

were distributed among
the nieces and. daughters-in-law.
Those too now lost.

In history we learned: the hands
of weavers were amputated,
the looms of Bengal silenced,

and the cotton shipped raw
by the British to England.
History of little use to her,

my grandmother just says
how the muslins of today
seem so coarse and that only

in autumn, should one wake up
at dawn to pray, can one
feel that same texture again.

One morning, she says, the air
was dew-starched: she pulled
it absently through her ring.

Isn't it great? The two themes that would haunt his later work are on full display in this poem: nostalgia, & history. The images are wonderful. In my mind's eye I can feel the texture of the gauzes. And the ending is perfect.

I had the honor of meeting Ali once. He came to Iowa City to read. I was amazed by his performance. He was witty, sweet, & humble. And that was just him talking in-between the poems. The poems themselves blew me away. I hope one day to write as elegantly as him. He had the whole room enthralled. Some poets capture an audience with their "fame" or "importance" but Ali captured the audience by just being himself.

After the reading I was invited to join a small dinner gathering. I was invited by OC, a fiction student writer in the program. OC had met Ali at Breadloaf. And I think it's safe to say that Ali had a crush on OC. OC is one fine looking stud of a man. When Ali saw OC in the hallway before the reading he gave him a big embrace. It was cute to watch.

I hardly spoke up during dinner. Ali held court. Everyone wanted to talk to him. Everyone wanted to be near him. As the dinner winded down, I asked him to sign a book for me. He gave me a wicked smile, & said, Of course, my dear.


Emily Lloyd said...

Ali guest-taught (for a few sessions) a class in Translation I took at Oberlin. I remember him similarly (although, in addition to humble, he did a fine mock-arrogant, suggesting we buy his book because, well, it had this gorgeous picture of him on it). I learned how to pronounce "Himalaya" from him, and it now both drives me nuts & reminds me of him when anyone says Him-uh-LAY-uhs...I dragged my girlfriend to his reading; she complained the whole way (ew, poetry) but afterwards chatted him up for a half-hour or so, she was so taken with him...and Call Me Ishmael Tonight is one of my favorite book titles of all time.

early hours of sky said...

I love this poem and this "Some poets capture an audience with their "fame" or "importance" but Ali captured the audience by just being himself." I adore writers like that. It's like watching ppl doing what they were born to do.

Ktrion said...

Wow, thanks for posting this! I've never read him before, but this poem takes my breath away. Not literally, since I started shouting OH GOD as I was reading it.

Zachary Jean Chartkoff said...

Oh! Oh! Thanks, Eduardo dear, just when I thought my morning was chaotic enough you have to go and drop a ghazal-mad poet in my lap and now I have spent the last couple of hours pondering how wonderful ghazals are! Oi vey!

By the way, what do you think of Garcia Lorca's ghazals? Have you ever thought of translating them yourself?