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.
Opening Nagra’s award-winning debut collection Look We Have Coming to Dover! is a poem meant to be heard, not read, starring an Indian immigrant to Britain, a newly-married, drinking, dancing workingman, brimming with energy and appetite. A more lovable version of Berryman’s Henry/Mr. Bones, he is talking to us, we are almost certain, though we don’t know who he thinks we are. With a vulgar voice uncannily reminiscent of one’s Punjabi uncle, the speaker is of a sort rarely (successfully) rendered in Indian Diaspora poetry, which has hitherto featured elegant, editorial speakers who wield the Queen”s English with ease, self-consciousness, and occasional guilt. Not told through the mediation of second or third generation children, nor the subdued hindsight of a grandfather, the poem and its speaker make of the past the present.
On one hand, Nagra does what poets do with their immigrant speakers. Things exist in pairs: his English pop culture references are mixed with Punjabi syntax, he tangos to the Pakeezah record, his wife makes him roti at home while his mate Jimmy John’s girlfriend shoves “his plate of / chicken pie and dry white / potato” at him “like Hilda Ogden”. In nearly each line, Nagra gives the speaker both the ordering force of Old English style alliteration and conversational idiosyncrasies, making him at once a bard and an enthusiastic friend. This happens right off the bat, in the memorable first stanza: “Di barman’s bell done dinging / so I phone di dimply-mississ, / Putting some gas on cookah, / bonus pay I bringin!”