The Country Without a Post Office

by Agha Shahid Ali

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The Significance of the Imagery in Ali's Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1122

By threading key phrases and words throughout “The Country Without a Post Office,” Ali creates a fabric of loss in which the speaker mourns not only his homeland but also his own heart, both casualties of the conflict in Kashmir. Ali uses images associated with the post office and with Kashmiri culture to highlight the tremendous damage he and his land have suffered.

In creating a character that is hybrid muezzin, postal worker, and astrologer in the first section, Ali makes the connection between prayer and social communication. Prayer expresses the relationship between the individual and God. Letters reflect the relationships between individuals. The person in the first stanza who “cancel[s] blank stamps” does so because there is no longer any place to deliver them: “each house [is] burned or empty.” The “archive for letters with doomed / addresses” is literally the place where mountains of letters are stored in closed post offices. They cannot be delivered because of the increased danger resulting from intensified fighting between Hindus and Muslims and because many of the people to whom the letters are addressed are either dead or have fled. When the muezzin dies, the land is left without prayer, “robbed of every Call.” A land bereft of the symbol of its spirituality is a land in chaos.

Ali evokes the spiritual emptiness of the land and its emotional volatility by repeating the words “dark,” “wall,” “fire,” “flames,” and “ash.” Literally, these words describe the details of attacks of the Indian army against Muslims in Kashmir, when they would burn down houses and sometimes entire towns, frequently under the cover of night. The Indians were responding to attacks by militant Muslim groups against “Pandits,” or Hindus, in Kashmir and India. However, Ali also uses these words in a different context in the poem, when they become metaphors for his own emotional isolation and emptiness. The speaker wanders in darkness, the world lit only by the “wicks of clay lamps,” and at other times he is lampless, “opening doors of smoke, / breathing in the dark.” Indecisive, the speaker is imprisoned in the darkness of his own heart, repeating himself, babbling: “The lost speak like this. They haunt / a country when it is ash.”

The images of being lost and of destruction such as those enumerated above stand in stark contrast to the image of paisley, which Ali uses to evoke Kashmiri culture and its multi-ethnic complexities. Paisley refers to a shawl, made typically of soft wool or silk and woven or printed with colorful curved abstract figures, and it can also refer to the design itself, which began as a flowering plant and evolved into a teardrop shape. The word “shawl” derives from the Persian shal, and the history of the modern shawl dates to the late sixteenth century when shawls were woven for the great Mughal emperor Akbar, in Kashmir. As such, many Kashmiris consider paisley a national icon. Ali uses it to describe letters (“parchment cut in paisleys”), a form of capital (“a currency of paisleys”), and a prism of sorts (“a paisley / against the light”). In the penultimate stanza, the speaker, walking up the minaret, “throw[s] paisleys to the clouds,” celebrating his madness.

Like paisley, rain also appears throughout the poem, which holds significance for Kashmiris— and particularly for Ali, who considers it a harbinger of change. Rain also obscures vision, making it difficult for both friends and enemies to see one another. When the speaker returns to the country, he returns “in rain,” and when he exhorts his heart to be faithful, he does so “In this dark rain.” Rain is also the figurative container for the speaker’s message: “My words go out in huge packages of rain, / go there, to addresses, across the oceans.” Rain, especially during monsoon season in Southeast Asia, is relentless and destructive, yet it also brings relief from oppressive heat and helps extinguish the fires raging through Kashmir. Like most of Ali’s images, the image of rain is complex.

Much of the poem is set inside a minaret, the tower at the corner of a mosque and from which the muezzin makes his calls to prayer. The minaret, “entombed” in the opening lines of the poem, also doubles at points as a kind of spiritual post office from which stamps are cancelled and messages read, and as a grave. Like the minaret, the speaker also stands out from the larger “thing” to which he is attached. In the speaker’s case, the thing is his country, which he watches from afar. It is only when he returns that he can fully witness its destruction. (Although Ali taught in the states, he went home every summer to Kashmir.) The minaret functions in the poem as a sacred place from which the returning speaker, in the persona of poet, can help save his people by opening up lines of communication. He does this once he takes over for the muezzin in the third section of the poem. Those lines of communication, however, are also within the poet. Over and over, he exhorts his heart to have faith, to feel: “This is your pain, Feel it. You must feel it,” he says. Once he makes communication with himself, the speaker can act as a conduit for others. In the minaret, he has “found the remains / of his voice, that map of longings with no limit.”

By using lines from one of Hopkins’s sonnets as an epigraph, Ali foreshadows that the speaker’s relationship to himself in the poem is a metaphor for his relationship to his country. Like Hopkins, Ali uses the image of the heart and the metaphor of “dead letters” to describe the idea of being lost and the pain of being a stranger to one’s emotional life. However, whereas Hopkins’s speaker needs to clear his heart to feel God’s love, Ali’s speaker needs arouse his heart to feel his love for his land and people: “Heart, be faithful to his mad refrain,” he implores it. Ali also learned from Hopkins the idea of “inscaping,” a way to represent (and to read) the world by marking the relationship between the individual thing and the pattern and context to which it belongs. “Paisley,” “fire,” “heart,” “dark,” “house,” “letters,” “rain,” “stamps” are like dots throughout Ali’s poem that readers need to connect to see the whole picture. Only, it is not a picture readers are left with, but rather a symphony of feeling, contradictory and irreducible, like the poet himself.

Source: Chris Semansky, Critical Essay on “The Country Without a Post Office,” in Poetry for Students, Gale, 2003. Semansky is an instructor of literature whose writing appears regularly in literary journals.

The Use of Narrative in Ali's Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1220

“Nothing seems more natural and universal to human beings than telling stories,” J. Hillis Miller, Yale literary theorist, writes in “Narrative.” Starting from this premise, he reasons that because humans have so deep a need for narrative, they also have struggled, since Aristotle did in his Poetics, with their meaning. Miller draws from all narrative forms—novels, stories, and poems alike—three basic elements: a change in a situation; three persons, a protagonist, an antagonist, and a witness; and a patterning of key elements. From the simplest ghost story told at the campfire’s edge to War and Peace, Miller holds that all narratives contain these elements. For the more inaccessible works of literature, they can easily—and especially—be used to decipher meaning.

“The Country Without a Post Office” is a poem that blends the many influences in the poet’s background and presents a complex narrative. In the first line, a first-person narrator, a witness to the Kashmiri rebellion, is identified. This narrator is the “I,” who has returned to the region of India that in 1990, as Ali writes in a preface to a later volume of his poetry, Rooms Are Never Finished (2002), was “the cause of hostility between India and Pakistan since their creation in 1947” that “erupted into a full scale uprising for self-determination.” Seventy thousand people died in the atrocities, and, as he continues, “Because both countries are nuclear powers now, international anxiety has increased: Kashmir, it is feared, may be the flashpoint of nuclear war.” The “I” who was in exile returns to a country where “a minaret has been entombed. / Someone . . . each night climbs its steps / to read messages scratched on planets.” In these opening lines, the minaret, the slim tower that tops a Muslim mosque, harks to the Muslim dilemma in Ali’s and India’s pasts; and an anonymous “someone” looks to the stars for astrological meaning, as historically it has been practiced in India and by some in Islam. “Someone” also identifies another person in the poem. Yet, the “someone” cancels stamps in a post office that is already an “archive” “for letters with doomed/addresses, each house buried or empty,” and the final line encapsulates the mass destruction of the Kashmiri catastrophe.

In the second stanza, the first-person narrator describes even more anonymous persons, Kashmiri refugees, who “see / us through them—see us frantically bury / houses to save them from fire that / like a wall / caves in. The soldiers light it, hone the flames, / burn our world to sudden papier-mâché.” The first-person singular becomes plural in these lines, first with “us,” then with “our,” marrying the first-person subjective case with the objective, the “they” in the poem, so that “our world” resonates and achieves political significance. It is not “them” versus “us” when there is genocide, in such incidences of ethnic wars, Ali’s conflated narrators seem to say. In the third stanza, Ali’s enlarged narrator continues, “we bury / our houses,” and the poet alternates between “theirs” and “we” as a “wall” of “fire” leaves everyone with nothing left to do but “look for the dark as it caves in.” Completing the first three stanzas and first half of his poem, Ali concludes his portrayal of his destroyed homeland and the futility of conflict. The exile returned home has become “everyone,” witnessing the offenses against humanity. In an interview titled “Poems Are Never Finished,” which he gave before he died, Ali remarked upon his name, Shahid, which means “beloved” in Persian and “witness” in Arabic: “I like the fact that it has two meanings and that I’ve been able to use them in my poetry in one way or the other. . . . Some people say that the act of witnessing seems to be central to my poetry.” Through the shifting perspectives in the poem, Ali’s narrator witnesses the destruction in Kashmir.

Ali’s narration shifts at the beginning of the fourth stanza. A postcard personified, or given human characteristics, speaks in direct quotation: “‘We’re inside the fire, looking for the dark,’ / one card lying on the street says. ‘I want / to be he who pours blood.’” The point of view is a jumble as it considers the destruction and the guilty individuals with bloody hands. From this chaos, the narrative voice exclaims, “The mad guide! The lost speak like this. They haunt / a country when it is ash.” The narrative represents those lost when Kashmir rebelled against Indian rule.

With an emphatic shift at the end of the fourth stanza, Ali addresses a “Phantom heart” to “pray he’s alive” at the beginning of the fifth. “I have returned in rain / to find him, to learn why he never wrote.” His narrative point of view is suddenly direct, the narrator in exile who seeks a lost friend. In the rest of the poem, the “him” whom he is seeking is clearly named: “He may be alive, opening doors of smoke, / Breathing in the dark his ash-refrain.” From the confused point of view arises the narrator’s purpose and a clarification of the narrative situation. The narrator never finds the one lost in the destruction. Through the use of a poetic device called synesthesia, a blending of the senses appealed to, (in this case vision and hearing), the narrator expresses the difficulty of looking for him: “I must force silence to be a mirror / to see his voice again for directions.”

In addition to the persons in the poem, Ali uses the narrative situation to attempt to name a country with “doomed / addresses, each house buried or empty.” Yet, because the situation really does not change and Kashmir is not freed, the “new stamps, rare already, blank, / no nation named on them” do not represent an independent Kashmir. The poet also repeats certain key elements throughout his stanzas, houses that are “buried” and “empty,” for example, to show that the situation has not changed. “Fire,” “burn” and “dark” are recurrent words as villages burn throughout; and a world on fire is forever impassible. “Each post office is boarded up” is the declarative sentence near the end of the poem, and the narrator has lost touch with his friend. Even paisleys, which, as Daniel Guillory writes in his review of The Country Without a Post Office, are important in Kashmiri myth, cannot be delivered to his friend.

Bruce King, in his review of “The Country Without a Post Office,” remarks that perhaps Ali’s “intense emotional involvement with Kashmir has led him to experiment with so many forms. . . . The poems create an evolving loose narrative with seeming digressions harmonizing with the main themes through repeating images and phrases.” In “Country Without a Post Office,” it is not only through the repetition of images of destruction in Kashmir, key elements that Miller names, but also through shifting narrative personages that Ali makes his reader a witness of the chaos in a region that is as yet unresolved. His use of these forms evokes memories of Kashmir’s past as they call up its present unrest. The evolution of his many narrators dramatizes the journey of an exile in search of brothers so that the reader enters a dismal journey with global significance.

Source: Mary Potter, Critical Essay on “The Country Without a Post Office,” in Poetry for Students, Gale, 2003.

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Critical Overview