Sunday, March 28, 2010

REVIEW: The Veiled Suite


The Veiled Suite: The Collected Poems
Agha Shahid Ali

Rs 350
Pp 400
ISBN: 9780143068631

The Veiled Suite collects the life’s work of Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali. Drawing from a remarkable range of sources that span continents and cultures, Ali displays an “imagination . . . supple and cultivated enough to draw on different cultures simultaneously” (New York Times Book Review). This definitive volume, Ali’s shining legacy, is a testament to the revolutionary voice that introduced the form of the ghazal to the American poetic lexicon—and brought the physical and emotional landscape of Kashmir to an audience of devoted readers.

Beginning with the impassioned, never-before-published title poem, written after a dream related to Ali’s illness, The Veiled Suite moves through themes of mourning and loss, culminating in the ghazals of Call Me Ishmael Tonight. In one of his early poems, “Postcard from Kashmir”, Ali reflects on the four-by-six-inch, “overexposed” nature of his homeland’s postcard existence. A poignant nostalgia for Kashmir pervades his work, but it is tinged with rage and despair in political poems that address the country’s struggles; “Hans Christian Ostro”, an homage to the Norwegian hostage killed in Kashmir in 1995, is one such poem: “a beggar, ears pressed to the metal cry, / will keep waiting on a ghost platform, / holding back his tears, waving every train / Goodbye and Goodbye.”

Ali also maps the geographical and psychological terrain of his second home in A Nostalgist’s Map of America, acting as a cartographer and stargazer as he meditates on themes of journey and exile, myth and politics, history and loss. And in “Lenox Hill”, the first poem in Rooms Are Never Finished (a finalist for the National Book Award in 2001), loss is felt deeply and truthfully as Ali mourns the death of his mother: “. . . But there were times, Mother, / while you slept, that I prayed, ‘Saints, let her die.’ / Not, I swear by you, that I wished you to die / but to save you as you were, young, in song in Kashmir. . . .”

A seminal work of beauty and cultural significance, The Veiled Suite pays tribute to the work of a beloved and much-missed member of the literary community. Ali died in December of 2001.

Parallel Lines Converge Outlook
Agha Shahid Ali’s poetic persona embraced modernist reticence as well as the cacophony of Indic traditions
It is not easy to review the “collected poems” of any poet worth his salt in 750 words—though it is remarkable how little salt so many of them get by on! It is practically impossible to review the collected poems of a much-loved poet who is struck dead in his prime—the too-soon-collected oeuvre acquires a kind of retrospective immunity. It is entirely of a piece with Agha Shahid Ali’s legendary generosity that he makes this task so easy.

Because there is really very little to be said about The Veiled Suite, Agha Shahid Ali’s collected poems, beyond this: go get it! Ali was crafting a remarkable poetical career when he was diagnosed with a brain tumour. That he continued to practise his cunning craft even under the shadow of that diagnosis is a tribute to his courage. But it is important to rescue his poetry from under that marmoreal fate. Because Ali’s poetry is diverse, playful, mischievous and even under the imperative of a demanding history—sad Kashmir—graceful, along with being melancholy and, yes, angry, too.

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