It took almost four years for Agha Shahid Ali's first collection of poems to make its way to India. We shouldn't have had to wait so long. The Country Without a Post Office is one of the most accomplished, most plangent collections of poetry to turn up in a very long while.
Ali's country has no borders, no official sanction, no national anthem. In The Blessed Word: A Prologue, he traces Kashmir's lineage of grief and mourning back to the time of Habba Khatun, sees in its present ravaged state the trials Osip Mandelstam wrote about when his country went through its darkest times.
Most of the poems here lead inexorably back to Kashmir: its history, its paisley patterns steeped in blood, its legacy of grief. Ali's images are unwavering, mirrors held up to reality: "a shadow chased by searchlights is running/ away to find its body...", "The houses were swept about like leaves/for burning ...", "Death flies in, thin bureaucrat, from the plains—a one-way passenger, again..."
Underpinning the elegies is a hard appraisal of the stories behind the headlines. The most frightening element of the violence that seeps into most of these poems is its impersonality. Sample Death Row: "Someone else in this world has been mentioning you,/ gathering news, itemising your lives/for a file you'll never see." There are comparisons to bloodbaths in other parts of the world—Sarajevo, Armenia ("O Kashmir, Armenia once vanished"), ancient Greece—as if to emphasise the continuity and remorselessness of the process whereby people and their histories are obliterated.
Few contemporary poets can claim as much mastery over form as Ali. Ghazals and sonnets are handled with equal deftness, and Ali writes prose poems and blank verse with the ease that comes only to those who have mastered the rules of formal poetry before venturing away from them.
To reread this collection is to be reacquainted with the work of one of the finest minds and most unforgettable voices in recent poetry. I harbour a sense of envy for those arriving at Ali's work for the first time—and the hope they will feel, as I did four years ago, at the beginning of a relationship with a writer of extraordinary talent.