One of the things poems do is bring into focus the everyday. It could be the pavement astrologer sitting outside Delhi railway station
‘The planets gather dust
from passing trucks’,
or, in the verandah of a family house in Srinagar,
‘a pile of damp letters—one to my father to attend a meeting the previous autumn, another an invitation to a wedding.’
The examples, of a Delhi astrologer and a Srinagar house, are from Agha Shahid Ali. The first is from The Half-Inch Himalayas (’87), the second from The Country Without a Post Office (’97). In the 10 years between their publication, the world, for Ali, changed beyond belief.
What had changed is explained in a note to Rooms are Never Finished (’01). "In 1990," Ali writes in the note,
"Kashmir...erupted into a full-scale uprising for self-determination. The resulting devastation—large-scale atrocities and the death, by some accounts, of 70,000 people—has led to despair and rage, then only rage, then only despair."
To this despair and rage was added another but quite different death, of his mother, who died in a Massachusetts hospital in ’97. Half of Rooms are Never Finished is taken up by two elegies on her, Lenox Hill and From Amherst to Kashmir. In them, private grief flows alongside public sorrow, and finally overwhelms it. Lenox Hill ends:
‘For compared with my grief for you, what are those of Kashmir,
and what (I close the ledger) are the griefs of the universe/ when I remember you—beyond all accounting—O my mother?’
The Final Collections consists of two books, Rooms are Never Finished, nominated for the National Book Award, 2001, and the posthumously published Call Me Ishmael Tonight: A Book of Ghazals. The cover shows a photo of Ali, thumb thoughtfully placed near his mouth, which is about to break into a smile. Looking at it, you want to quote the poet’s own couplet to him,
‘You play innocence so well, with such precision, Shahid:
You could seduce God himself, and fuck the sexless angels.’