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OR A MAN WHO IMAGINES dismembered bodies floating downriver and writes, "Prisons, let open your gates A refugee from Belief seeks a cell tonight," Agha Shahid Ali is surprisingly cheerful in person.
In the poems in The Country Without a Post Office Ali's portrayal of the conflict between Muslim Indian militants and the Indian government over control of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir violent events flare briefly or suggest themselves in scenes of smoking rubble: the destructions of a fifteenth century Sufi shrine; the murder of a young Norwegian hiker; the burning of the central business district of Srinagar, the summer capital of the state.
Even more than these allusions to events of the 1990s in the state's Kashmir Valley widely known as "Paradise" and Srinagar dubbed the "Venice of the East" for its crisscrossing canals it was the repeated reference to disrupted communication between family members, friends, and regulars at the Hideout Cafe that put me under increasing duress as I read these poems.
Surprisingly cheerful in person: poet and professor of English Agha Shahid Ali.
The unease begins with the opening poem's first line, unmoored in white space: "At a certain point I lost track of you." It moves through the "city from where no news can come": the dead phone lines; the residents' yearning for news, or even rumors; the post office turned simply dead-letter office ("Hundreds of canvas bags all undelivered mail. By chance I looked down and there on the floor I saw this letter to you."). Unease lurks in pockets, where "everyone carries his address so that at least his body will reach home," and wafts up into a minaret:
Someone soaks the wicks of clay lamps
in mustard oil, each night climbs its steps
to read messages scratched on planets.
Thus, I prepared to meet Ali, a Kashmiri-American who has taught in the university's MFA program in creative writing for five years and is now its director, with a little trepidation. I expected the person who'd so thoroughly imagined such desolation to be brooding, turbulent, given to scowling in annoyance at the inane questions of know-nothing interviewers. In short, a tormented poet.
Sweetness and light walked into the faux-French cafe. The poet was clad in black, it's true, but to all appearances the torment stopped there. Merrily, he looked around the place and said, "Oh, we should've gone to the Brewery we could've had a drink!" Drawing his chair up to a tiny square table, he added kindly, "This'll be fine, though."
"What does Kashmir look like?" he echoed, a few minutes into our conversation. "Think of Colorado, ten times over. Think of Switzerland. Have you seen Passage to India? The last twenty minutes are Kashmir."
My head full of rapturous descriptions from Indian travel Web sites, as well as the poet's allusions to the beauties of this region at the foot of the Himalayas, I went after specifics. The "Zero Bridge" that he mentions, for example; is there really a bridge by that name in Srinagar? And floating gardens?
"Yes, there really is a Zero Bridge in Srinagar," he said. "Srinagar is known as the City of Seven Bridges. Or maybe it's nine. Anyway, when they started building them, they numbered them one, two, and so on. But there was one bridge that had existed before they started building the others, so they renamed it the Zero Bridge." After we laughed, I had to prod him for more details.
And that's the way the whole conversation went. I asked a question; he gave a good-natured lozenge of an answer. In response to my request for an overview of the political conflict in Kashmir, Ali, who is Muslim, said it'd be a mistake to see it strictly in Muslim-Hindu terms. "There are other groups involved, some fake. You know, wherever there's money to be made . . . It's the same in violent areas all over the world."
Asked to elaborate on the theme of messages in the poems, the intense desire for news and communication, Ali responded, "As a kid, I was always moved by a sense of loss. Hearing my parents talking about people they hadn't seen in years: `Did you hear what happened to So and So?'" He paused a moment and, as lightly as if he were saying he's always liked movies, added, "I see everything in a very elegiac way. It's not something morbid, but it's part of my emotional coloring."
Ali said that he became "imaginatively and emotionally preoccupied" with Kashmir, which he still visits about once a year, in 1991, when the guerilla war intensified. When he started to write poems about it, he "raised the stakes" for himself, challenging himself to use traditional poetic forms he'd never tried before and to take on the "big subject matter" of the conflict. With some persistence, I got him to concede that perhaps this book is his most accomplished. "There's a certain fullness of voice in it," he acknowledged.
"I wouldn't want to become facile," he added. "For example, there are a lot of extremely bad poems about the Holocaust, Vietnam. People saying, `Look, I have feelings.'" He voiced the word with a capital F.
"I have no qualms about saying so," he said. "One of the few things I don't lie about is poetry." A sudden playful light came into his eyes, and he added archly, "Everything else, I lie about!"
photo by Thomas Kendall
The post boat was like a gondola
that called at each houseboat. It
carried a clerk, weighing scales,
and a bell to announce arrivals.
Has he been kept from us? Portents
of rain, rumors, ambushed letters . . .
Curtained palanquin, fetch our word,
bring us word: Who has died? Who'll live?
Has the order gone out to close
the waterways... the one open road?
And then we saw the boat being rowed
through the fog of death, the sentence
passed on our city. It came close
to reveal smudged black-ink letters
which the postmanhe was alive
gave us, like signs, without a word,
and we took them, without a word.
From our deck we'd seen the hill road
bringing a jade rain, near-olive,
down from the temple, some penitent's
cymbaled prayer? He took our letters,
and held them, like a lover, close
to his heart. And the rain drew close.
Was there, we asked, a new password
blood, blood shaken into letters,
cruel primitive script that would erode
our saffron link to the past? Tense
with autumn, the leaves, drenched olive,
fell on graveyards, crying "O live!''
What future would the rain disclose?
O Rain, abandon all pretense,
now drown the world, give us your word,
ring, sweet assassin of the road,
the temple bell! For if letters
come, I will answer those letters
and my year will be tense, alive
with love! The temple receives the road:
there, the rain has come to a close.
Here the waters rise; our each
word in the fog awaits a sentence:
His hand on the scales, he gives his word:
Our letters will be rowed through olive
canals, tense waters no one can close.