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Agha Shahid Ali

Dear Shahid

I am writing to you from your far-off country. Far even from us who live here. Where you no longer are. Everyone carries his address in his pocket so that at least his body will reach home.

Rumors break on their way to us in the city. But word still reaches us from border towns: Men are forced to stand barefoot in snow waters all night. The women are alone inside. Soldiers smash radios and televisions. With bare hands they tear our houses to pieces.

You must have heard Rizwan was killed. Rizwan: Guardian of the Gates of Paradise. Only eighteen years old. Yesterday at Hideout Café (everyone there asks about you), a doctor who had just that morning treated a 16-year-old boy released from an interrogation center said: I want to ask the fortune-tellers: Did anything in his line of Fate reveal that the webs of his hands would be cut with a knife?

This letter, insh Allah, will reach you, for my brother goes south tomorrow where he shall post it. Here one can t even manage postage stamps. Today I went to the post office. Across the river. Bags and bags hundreds of canvas bags all of undelivered mail. By chance I looked down and there on the floor I saw this letter addressed to you. So I am enclosing it. I hope it s from someone you are longing for news of.

Things here are as usual, though we always talk about you. Will you come soon? Waiting for you is like waiting for spring. We are waiting for the almond blossoms. And, if God wills, O! those days of peace when we all were in love and the rain was in our hands wherever we met.

Even the Rain

What will suffice for a true-love knot? Even the rain?
But he has bought grief's lottery, bought even the rain.

"our glosses / wanting in this world" "Can you remember?"
Anyone! "when we thought / the poets taught" even the rain?

After we died—That was it! — God left us in the dark.
And as we forgot the dark, we forgot even the rain.

Drought was over. Where was I? Drinks were on the house.
For mixers, my love, you'd poured—what?—even the rain.

Of this pear-shaped orange's perfumed twist, I will say:
Extract Vermouth from the bergamot, even the rain.

How did the Enemy love you—with earth? air? and fire?
He held just one thing back till he got even: the rain.

This is God's site for a new house of executions?
You swear by the Bible, Despot, even the rain?

After the bones—those flowers—this was found in the urn:
The lost river, ashes from the ghat, even the rain.

What was I to prophesy if not the end of the world?
A salt pillar for the lonely lot, even the rain.

A History of Hell

Hell, then! Pandemonium’s walls have diamonds.
We who lost our lovers on earth are welcome;
all are welcome, mirrored among the angels
lonely with pity.

Pity? Yes, for Heaven (To us what music,
we who trade in love) and for love’s first story:
God and Satan—Iblis,* first monotheist,
jealously guarding

God as only he could have known Him. “God’s so
lonely . . . else would He,” asks one fallen angel,
emphasizing lonely, “else would He, would He
punish man so? For

none of you can understand Him.” Sorry,
now for God, and full of such longing myself
while on Earth he’s missed in his ruined temples,
what can I do but

stare at sky-sized posters of God in mirrors?
Archived here, these stolen reflections, kisses
pressed on guarded tablets of Heaven’s chipped Word,
numbered and signed by

God—and him? “Please tell us,” the angels beg him.
Kiss and tell? Will that suit this devil-lover?
Framed in every mirror, now really smiling,
bevelled sapphire,

God to me is closer, he shrugs his shoulders,
than the jugular is to man, so even
now, bereft of love, I must guard God’s secrets.
Call it perverse or—

“—What?” the angels, taking their wings off lightly,
say. It’s simpler,” he interrupts, “it’s that . . . Well,
come and try”—he’s pouring some wine—“this vintage
aged here in cellars,

Heaven’s ruby. Under my wings I hid some
bottles just before I was pushed through exits,
breaking panes. What lovely reminder, this
wine, of that passion—

Heaven’s nights, His blood, then His flesh, my open
wings that tightly closed to again be opened . . .
Stop. I must. This hour, my Belovéd Tyrant
surely is weeping.”

* One Sufi interpretation of the God/Satan myth portrays Satan (Iblis) as being in love with God and thus the jealous lover when God asks him to bow to Adam.

The Wolf's Postscript to 'Little Red Riding Hood'

First, grant me my sense of history:
I did it for posterity,
for kindergarten teachers
and a clear moral:
Little girls shouldn't wander off
in search of strange flowers,
and they mustn't speak to strangers.

And then grant me my generous sense of plot:
Couldn't I have gobbled her up
right there in the jungle?
Why did I ask her where her grandma lived?
As if I, a forest-dweller,
didn't know of the cottage
under the three oak trees
and the old woman lived there
all alone?
As if I couldn't have swallowed her years before?

And you may call me the Big Bad Wolf,
now my only reputation.
But I was no child-molester
though you'll agree she was pretty.

And the huntsman:
Was I sleeping while he snipped
my thick black fur
and filled me with garbage and stones?
I ran with that weight and fell down,
simply so children could laugh
at the noise of the stones
cutting through my belly,
at the garbage spilling out
with a perfect sense of timing,
just when the tale
should have come to an end.


At a certain point I lost track of you.
They make a desolation and call it peace.
When you left even the stones were buried:
the defenceless would have no weapons.

When the ibex rubs itself against the rocks, who collects
its fallen fleece from the slopes?
O Weaver whose seams perfectly vanished, who weighs
the hairs on the jeweller's balance?

They make a desolation and call it peace.
Who is the guardian tonight of the Gates of Paradise?

My memory is again in the way of your history.
Army convoys all night like desert caravans:
In the smoking oil of dimmed headlights, time dissolved— all
    winter— its crushed fennel.

We can't ask them: Are you done with the world?

In the lake the arms of temples and mosques are locked
in each other's reflections.

Have you soaked saffron to pour on them when they are
found like this centuries later in this country
I have stitched to your shadow?

In this country we step out with doors in our arms.

Children run out with windows in their arms.
You drag it behind you in lit corridors.
if the switch is pulled you will be torn from everything.

At a certain point I lost track of you.
You needed me. You needed to perfect me.
In your absence you polished me into the Enemy.
Your history gets in the way of my memory.
I am everything you lost. You can't forgive me.
I am everything you lost. Your perfect Enemy.
Your memory gets in the way of my memory:

I am being rowed through Paradise in a river of Hell:
Exquisite ghost, it is night.

The paddle is a heart; it breaks the porcelain waves.

It is still night. The paddle is a lotus.

I am rowed — as it withers — toward the breeze which is soft as
if it had pity on me.

If only somehow you could have been mine, what wouldn't
have happened in the world?

I'm everything you lost. You won't forgive me.

My memory keeps getting in the way of your history.

There is nothing to forgive. You can't forgive me.
I hid my pain even from myself; I revealed my pain only to myself.

There is everything to forgive. You can't forgive me.

If only somehow you could have been mine,
what would not have been possible in the world?


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