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Writing Home | To Catch a Ghazal: Three Poems from Agha Shahid Ali’s THE HALF-INCH HIMALAYAS

2010 October 28

THE HALF-INCH HIMALAYAS (1987, Wesleyan University Press)

Because of his status in American poetry as the prophet of the ghazal, it is especially interesting to look at Agha Shahid Ali’s earlier work. Moving backwards from the ghazal collection Call Me Ishmael Tonight (2003), through the long-lined, historically-alluding collections like The Country Without a Post Office, to his early poems, particularly The Half-Inch Himalayas (1987), the lines get shorter, the line breaks more jarring, the punctuation more irregular and the language more personal.

This poetics runs in tandem with speakers who have fallen out of time. “A Lost Memory of Delhi” places the speaker in a time where “[he is] not born” and he his watching his newly-wed parents: “[His] father / He is younger than [him]” and “[his] mother is a recent bride.”  Moreover, “They don’t they won’t // hear [him],” making it clear that that the speaker has come unpinned from time and has floated back to a memory that could not possibly be his and in which he is attempting to interrupt “the night of [his] being.” But this is true of the parents, too, even though they are bound in a more discreet time and space where they are able to interact with each other. The house that they enter “is always faded in photographs” and oil lamp that lights it that speaker “saw broken in the attic.” The past-perfect, in this case, is treated like the present.  In this space where the past coexists with the future and the future coexists with the past, it is the present that is absent, the present from which the speaker has fallen out into a non-presence, where he cannot be perceived.

Later on in the collection, in “Vacating an Apartment,” this idea of imperceptibility and ghostliness reappears. The speaker is the voice of the now-absent (perhaps dead) previous tenant: “They ignore my love affair with the furniture / … / The landlord gives them my autopsy; / they sign the lease.” In a third poem, “Survivor,” the speaker’s place in his mother’s house has been supplanted by a strange sort of double: “The mirror gives up / my face to him // He calls to my mother in my voice // She turns.” The primary tension in these poems comes from the speaker’s presence, or rather, the dramatic irony of the fact that the others cannot see him and are carrying about their lives while he looks on.  In “A Lost Memory of Delhi” the newly-weds are about to conceive a child; in “Vacating an Apartment” a young, pregnant couple are signing a lease for an apartment; and in “Survivor” the speaker’s mother is enjoying a different son. The primary action in the poem does not involve the speaker, cutting the poems into two halves that the speaker is reaching to reconcile but cannot.

The exploration of dual times, spaces and identities that was previously handled through Ali’s short lines and the delay caused by abrupt line breaks in his free-verse poems would seem to lead directly to the appropriation of the ghazal form. The ghazal that yokes unrelated couplets to coexist through a unifying refrain and preceding rhyme. Interestingly, the multiplicities can now coexist peacefully, and the tension is merely the momentary delay, through the long lines, in the reconciliation of the refrain at the end of the couplet.  Consider these examples:

from “Of It All”

After Algebra there was Geometry—and then Calculus—
But I’d already failed the arithmetic of it all.

White men across the U.S. love their wives’ curries—
I say O No! to the turmeric of it all.

“Suicide represents…a privileged moment…”
Then what keeps you—and me00from being sick of it all?

from “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?

From “In Arabic”

At an exhibition of miniatures, what Kashmiri hairs!
Each paisley inked into a golden tress in Arabic.

This much fuss about a language I don’t know? So one day
Perfume from a dress may let you digress in Arabic.

A “Guide for the Perplexed” was written—believe me—
By Cordoba’s Jew—Maimonides—in Arabic.

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