Remembering Agha Shahid Ali, by Christopher Merrill

Agha Shahid Ali was my closest friend for nearly twenty years, and we spoke on the phone nearly every day, sometimes several times in a day, especially if one of us was writing a new poem, which we would read successive drafts of to each other. Once, when I was house-sitting for the poet W. S. Merwin at his place in Maui, a place that Shahid and I affectionately referred to as the Promised Land, we had just settled in to what I knew would be a long conversation. So I made a cup of tea, and when I looked for sugar there was only honey available—Merwin was a devout Buddhist. There’s no sugar in the Promised Land, I joked. Shahid heard the beginning of a ghazal, and so we started playing around in search of a way to close the couplet. Our first attempt yielded “swear by the olive in the sun-kissed land,” which sounded like an advertisement for Sunkist orange juice. Finally, we came up with “swear by the olive in the God-kissed land,” then challenged each other to write our own poems. But I was in the midst of covering the war in the former Yugoslavia, not really writing poetry, and while Shahid quickly finished his ghazal for me, “Land,” I never got around to writing mine before he died. But in his last months a mutual friend named Marty Williams suggested we get together a bunch of poets to write our own ghazal chain, since Shahid liked to say that in theory a ghazal chain could go on forever. So we began with this couplet and ended with Shahid’s. Eventually I wrote a ghazal for Shahid:

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Ghazal

            for Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001)

There’s no sugar in the Promised Land.
Swear by the olive in the God-kissed land.

I heard your laughter in the jackal’s howl
When the monks chanted in the Psalmist’s land.

They knelt on the mountain top, pilgrims of the Book,
Until the viper in the rod hissed, “Stand!”

Prophets, oracles, and bards agree:
The tyrant always plays the dumbest hand.

The way you danced along the crowded bar—
The saffron harvest in a star-crossed land.

Our teacher, moon-tanned, slept with one eye open.
He was the absence of field, the sodless strand.

The faithful praying in the catacombs—
Do they measure what they must withstand?

These orders from Iberia remain
In effect: Like unto like. All others banned.

They set sail without charts or compass, searching
For the lost tribes, and never missed land.

Lava and salt spray and your final couplet:
New worlds inscribed in parchment, pumice, sand.

The cemeteries above Sarajevo
Extend the boundaries of a lost land.

Your favorite show: General Hospital.
Shall we go for a walk? No! I’ll get tanned.

In Beirut, Baghdad, and Jerusalem
The war photographers are in command.

The heart turned terrorist when the poet died.
Now all the world’s a revolutionist land.

If Paradise is full of stationery, write
To me in your most lavish, embossed hand.

Eat seven olives, my grandmother said,
And you will never live in a famished land.

Another war in the imperium?
The poet’s warnings can be read, glossed, scanned.

Unwitnessed in the night, the empty mosques
And temples burn in the Belovéd’s land.

The new exhibit in the war museum—
Portraits commissioned in a possessed land.

Ragas at daybreak, Motown at midnight:
You sang for everyone, a wind-tossed band.

Will this Christ-bearer find his only friend
In the Promised Land—in blesséd Shahid’s land?

You’ll see that I name myself in the final couplet, not directly, but through the original Greek meaning of the word Christopher: Christ-bearer.

The poem “Land” written by Shahid, now appears in The Veiled Suite, published by W.W. Norton, that I have recited here.

“Land” by Agha Shahid Ali

Shahid liked to call himself a triple exile–from Kashmir, from India, and from Urdu–but in fact his homeland was poetry. Which is to say: the whole world.

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All PostsChristopher Merrill has published six collections of poetry, including Brilliant Water, and Watch Fire, for which he received the Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets; translations of Aleš Debeljak’s Anxious Moments and The City and the Child; several edited volumes, among them, The Forgotten Language: Contemporary Poets and Nature and From the Faraway Nearby: Georgia O’Keeffe as Icon; and six books of nonfiction, The Grass of Another Country: A Journey Through the World of Soccer, The Old Bridge: The Third Balkan War and the Age of the Refugee, Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars, Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain, and The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War. His work has been translated into nearly forty languages, his journalism appears in many publications, and his awards include a knighthood in arts and letters from the French government. He has held the William H. Jenks Chair in Contemporary Letters at the College of the Holy Cross, and now directs the International Writing Program at The University of Iowa. He serves on the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, he has conducted cultural diplomacy missions in over thirty countries for the U.S. State Department, and in April 2012 President Obama appointed Merrill to the National Council on the Humanities.
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Editor’s Note: The source of this feature is the video recording by Pakistani poet Ramsha Ashraf, and some email conversations with Christopher Merrill.

For the audio tracks of Christopher Merrill and Agha Shahid Ali’s Ghazals CLICK HERE

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One Comment:

  1. Thank you. A beautiful tribute to friendship and poetry. Deeply moving…

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