This is a posthumous collection of poetry by Agha Shahid Ali, who died in 2001. He was born in New Delhi and spent a large part of his life there before emigrating and coming to United States. There he further studied and earned a PhD and MFA. This collection is subtitle a “Book of Ghazals” which the poet tells us are usually untitled poems, though in this collection the poems have been re-titled. The poems often have a sense of longing to them, and include among other things ruminations of night, colonialism and empire, language, water, and love and sex. One of the early poems reflects on the language Arabic as “The only language of loss left in the world”. I don’t know the answer, but it’s not entirely clear that Agha Shahid Ali spoke Arabic, and these poems are written in English. So it’s interesting to consider if he did speak Arabic, what the poem discusses about loss of language and loss of that loneliness. And is he didn’t how it considers the loss of something never possessed. I am guessing that the discussions about empire suggest (and the poems are explicit in their feelings) of the corruptive and destructive force. What also stands out to me in this collection is how nearly every poem presented here (and this is a edited and posthumous collection, so I don’t know exactly how it links up to how the poet himself might have presented things) with a direct epigraph for another poet. There’s a sense of community and offering here.
Here’s a poem where the book’s title comes from:
BY AGHA SHAHID ALI
Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar
Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell tonight?
Whom else from rapture’s road will you expel tonight?
Those “Fabrics of Cashmere—” “to make Me beautiful—”
“Trinket”—to gem—“Me to adorn—How tell”—tonight?
I beg for haven: Prisons, let open your gates—
A refugee from Belief seeks a cell tonight.
God’s vintage loneliness has turned to vinegar—
All the archangels—their wings frozen—fell tonight.
Lord, cried out the idols, Don’t let us be broken;
Only we can convert the infidel tonight.
Mughal ceilings, let your mirrored convexities
multiply me at once under your spell tonight.
He’s freed some fire from ice in pity for Heaven.
He’s left open—for God—the doors of Hell tonight.
In the heart’s veined temple, all statues have been smashed.
No priest in saffron’s left to toll its knell tonight.
God, limit these punishments, there’s still Judgment Day—
I’m a mere sinner, I’m no infidel tonight.
Executioners near the woman at the window.
Damn you, Elijah, I’ll bless Jezebel tonight.
The hunt is over, and I hear the Call to Prayer
fade into that of the wounded gazelle tonight.
My rivals for your love—you’ve invited them all?
This is mere insult, this is no farewell tonight.
And I, Shahid, only am escaped to tell thee—
God sobs in my arms. Call me Ishmael tonight.