The Veiled Suite: The Collected Poems

Agha Shahid Ali, Author . Norton $29.95 (393p) ISBN 978-0-393-06804-7

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Reviewed by Mark Doty

An archetypal vocabulary entered into the late Agha Shahid Ali’s poems from the Arabic masters he loved, from the passionate popular songs of India and even from Bollywood movies: beloved, mirror, flame, rose. But the romance of these recurrent terms is always countered by the reality of political violence and the harsh and bloody erasure of the poet’s homeland, Kashmir—both the Vale of legend and song and also a “country without a post office,” nearly unreachable, shattered in the late 20th century as territory claimed both by India and by Pakistan. Both forced into exile and drawn abroad by the wider landscape of poetry in English, Ali (1949–2001) was a lifelong traveler; he came of age in a time when “Everyone carries his address in his pocket so at least his body will reach home.” No wonder his poems fill with letters, addresses, envelopes, lost messages and maps, and with images of home recalled and revisited in dreams, themselves a mode of travel. The displaced wanderer carries the “sorrows/ that haunt the survivors of Dispersal that country/ which has no map...” Diaspora, he understood, is a category of being in our time.

Ali’s deep attraction to song, the formal properties that lend even the darkest lyric aspects of pleasure, is everywhere on display here. Ali became well-known for popularizing the ancient Persian poetic form the ghazal among American readers. Many of his own fine examples are collected here, but the poems also reveal the influence of Ali’s friend James Merrill, not only in terms of their formal elegance but in the way that a resonant, emotional ambiguity allows the poet to simultaneously celebrate love and lament a landscape of personal and public losses. “I have no house, ” he writes, “only/ a shadow but whenever you are in need/ of a shadow my shadow is yours.” That combination of rue and generosity feels exactly true to this poet’s character, and that signature blend of warmth and regret shines powerfully throughout this entire collection. Perhaps it’s best exemplified in this passage, which evokes a performance by the great singer of ghazals, Begum Akhtar: “It was perhaps during the Bangladesh War,/ perhaps there were sirens,// air-raid warnings./ ...but she went on/ singing, and her voice// was coming from far/ away, as if she had already died./ ...it was/ .../a moment when only a lost sea/ can be heard, a time// to recollect/ every shadow, everything the earth was losing.”

Ali so thoroughly inhabits his exile, in this haunting life’s work, that he makes of it—both for his own spirit and for his readers—a dwelling place. (Feb.)

Mark Doty is a memoirist and poet. His Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems won the 2008 National Book Award for Poetry.

Reviewed on: 02/16/2009
Release date: 02/01/2009
Genre: Fiction
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