Agha Shahid Ali’s elegant, elegiac, expansive, and exilic voice is very clear from the beginning. He mocked it himself very early on in “Introducing” (from In Memory of Begum Akhtar): “Death punctuated all my poems./ I tried being clever, white-washed the day,/ exchanged it for the night,/ Bones my masks, Death/ the adolescent password.” Apart from the theme of death or loss, which becomes more legitimate and literal toward the end of his career, Ali was also interested in demarcation. He resisted the title “U.S. citizen.” He preferred the description “immigrant” or, better still, “exile.” He accepted titles such as Kashmiri American, South Asian American, or Asian American. He considered himself conservative in poetic content, form, and technique. He adhered to strict guidelines for the ghazal. In addition, Ali’s poetry is rich in allusion to and inclusion of poetic influences from mythology to the works of his contemporary poet friends and larger literary community. His poems are full of dedications to various people in his life. Finally, Ali drew from and portrayed his diverse background and environment. Although conservative in art, he was not conservative in his politics.
Ali’s early poems display his most powerful literary influences: British colonization, which gave him the English language, and Eastern poetry (especially ghazals) by Mir Taqi Mir, Mirza Ghalib, and Faiz, sung by Begum Akhtar, whom Ali loved. He writes in the title poem “In Memory of Begum Akhtar,” “You’ve finally polished catastrophe,/ the note you seasoned// with decades of Ghalib,/ Mir, Faiz:// I innovate on a note-less raga.” In “dear editor,” from his first poetry collection, Bone-Sculpture, Ali writes, “they call this my alien language// i am a dealer in words/ that mix cultures/ and leave me rootless.” In “The Editor Revisited” (from In Memory of Begum Akhtar), he adds, “’A language must measure up to one’s native dust.’// Divided between two cultures, I spoke a language/ foreign even to my ears.” Later, in his introduction to The Rebel’s Silhouette, Ali comments on “dear editor,” “Rootless? Certainly not. I was merely subscribing to an inherent dominative mode that insisted one should not write in English because it was not an Indian language. . . . But it was mine, ours.” Ali had begun to blend and own both his Eastern and Western cultural and linguistic influences.
The Half-Inch Himalayas
Exile is a...
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