Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 737
It should be noted that “The Country Without a Post Office” is very complex and allusive and is not “representative” of the empirical world in any direct way. A commonly held tenet of New Critical theory is that poems should not be summarized or paraphrased, because doing so distorts the meaning of the poem. Attempts to summarize Ali’s poem, then, or any poem worth its salt, inevitably are guilty of what New Critics called the heresy of the paraphrase.
The epigraph of Ali’s poem is from one of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Terrible Sonnets,” which begins, “I WAKE and feel the fell of dark, not day.” Ali’s poem echoes many of the themes and images in Hopkins’s. In the first section of “The Country Without a Post Office,” the narrator returns to a country (Kashmir) where a “minaret has been entombed.” A minaret is a tower, used in Islamic architecture, from which a muezzin calls the faithful to prayer. Minarets are usually located at the corners of the mosque. The person climbing the stairs and reading “messages scratched on planets” also evokes the image of an astrologer. When he begins canceling stamps, he evokes the image of a postal inspector.
The second stanza might refer to any of the numerous battles in Kashmir. The conflict in the 1990s involved Muslim militants rousting more than one hundred thousand Pandits (Hindus) from Kashmir Valley, also known as “Paradise” for its beauty, in an effort to secure control of the valley and state. The “us” and “them” the speaker refers to in the fifth line are the Hindus and Muslims, the two dominant groups of the region. The soldiers are Indian, many of whom burned homes and entire villages during the unrest.
The call of the muezzin is the call to prayer, called salat, which is performed at dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset, and night. With no muezzin, there is no prayer in the city. However, the speaker maintains, “We are faithful,” suggesting that they, like the other side, are fighting back, burning houses.
In this section, images are repeated but used in different contexts. The fire and the dark of the first section are now words on a card found in the street, appropriate for a poem about a country that has ceased postal delivery. The speaker offers his own hands to “cancel stamps” and open the lines of communication. The second stanza introduces a character the speaker obviously wants to communicate with, but cannot. There is no nation named on the stamps because Kashmir is a disputed territory, fought over by India and Pakistan, and is not independent. The speaker looks for this person through the smolder and ruins of burned houses. In the last stanza, the speaker uses silence and fires as symbolic images that may give him a clue to the direction he should take.
In this section the speaker takes on the role of the muezzin, exhorting people to come to him and buy stamps before he dies. The “glutinous wash” refers to the backs of the stamps. In the second stanza, the speaker addresses his own heart. He is having discourse with different sides of himself. The fire he is inside is the fire of being, the various identities that Ali has cultivated as an Indianborn Kashmiri. Ali was torn apart by the fighting between the Muslims and Hindus in Kashmir, empathizing with both sides. In the last stanza, the speaker has found his own voice by discovering “the remains” of the voices of others, specifically the muezzin who has died.
In this final section, the speaker reads letters that have piled up, the communication of lovers. In his role as muezzin, he likens his cries to “dead letters sent / to this world whose end was near.” In the second stanza, there is a shift from “we” to “us,” signaling the recognition that those sending the letters and those receiving them are the same person. The speaker has now descended into a realm of madness, of undifferentiated identity. He is lost, seeing only his own “Mad silhouette.” In the final stanza, he uses the letters of a prisoner to figuratively comment on his own desperation and situation. The poem takes a more obvious personal turn in the last few lines when the speaker admits, “I want to live forever,” suggesting that his own death is imminent.
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