Rooms Are Never Finished
Agha Shahid Ali, a Kashmiri-American, draws upon Islamic history in “From Amherst to Kashmir,” his twelve-poem elegy about his mother, who died of cancer (Ali himself died of cancer in 2002). The martyrdom of Hussain, Muhammed’s grandson, at Karbala and the subsequent mourning of his sister Zainab are tied to the Ashura holiday observed by Shiite Muslims, and Zainab’s grief becomes the poet’s and by extension Kashmir’s. In the course of his journey, which is essentially a pilgrimage, Ali moves back and forth between the present and the past, Muslim history and Christian allusions; and he uses the mirror as a metaphor for his memories of his mother, whom he wants to “save” as she was as a young woman in Kashmir.
Ali sees Kashmir as a possible “flashpoint of a nuclear war,” and in “Ghalib’s Ghazal” warns that “terraced cities” and “marble palaces” may be reduced to a “wilderness” if peace is not achieved in Kashmir. In “Eleven Stars in Andalusia” Ali discusses exiles, the dispossessed not only in Kashmir, but in Spain and Palestine, and describes the need for reconciliation between East and West and Athens and Persia (the latter pairing relating past and present). Finding little solace in politics and religion, Ali turns to poetry. In “Lenox Hill,” he declares, “My mother/ is my poem”; and in “I Dream I Am at the Ghat of the Only World,” the last poem in the book, he deals with the death of his mother by invoking the poet James Merrill, who assures him that weeping, despair, and anger will not help. Merrill enigmatically states, “the loved one/ always leaves,” perhaps suggesting that sorrow is a part of life that simply must be accepted.