"Separation's Geography": Agha Shahid Ali's Scholarship of Evanescence

By Newman, Amy | Hollins Critic, April 2006 | Go to article overview

"Separation's Geography": Agha Shahid Ali's Scholarship of Evanescence


Newman, Amy, Hollins Critic


It seems proper that those who create art in a civilization of quasi-barbarism, which has made so many homeless, should themselves be poets unhoused and wanderers across language.

George Steiner

It is tempting to read Agha Shahid Ali as an Indian poet writing in English, poised under the mantle of postcolonial literature, or as a Kashmiri-American, the title he finally settled on himself. As tempting is to read Ali as an exile in the conventional sense of the term, since his homeland was not North America, though he spent most of his adult life there. Though the poetry is dense with the landscapes of pre- and post-partition India and of his travels through and transitions to America, his nostalgia is extraterritorial. It is not limited to the borders and waters between countries, but extends to the boundaries of human longing, dissolving postcolonial categorizations, and etching poetry of an immaterial rather than a geographic exile. In an article in Middle East Report, Michael Fischer suggests that Ali "reminds us of the ways in which so many different identities suffer in a family of resemblance that makes all of us family, however woundedly antagonistic." Ali's championing of the ghazal form is especially significant as the ghazal and its history mirrors the physiological state of the human in eternal exile, in a nostalgic search for a lost paradise. The poet's career is a narrative of the intricacies of loss, the evocation of estrangement as the true state of the human condition, and the drive to reassemble the world as a response to such dispossessions. As his oeuvre matures, his reliance on traditional forms increases. In Ali's final three books, A Nostalgist's Map of America (1991), The Country Without a Post Office (1997), and Rooms Are Never Finished (2002), the poet houses his increasing awareness of dislocation and death in a number of poetic forms, offering temporary shelter for a voice that sings of the transience of existence.

In Reflections on Exile Edward Said defines exile as "the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted ... like death but without death's ultimate mercy, it has torn millions of people from the nourishment of tradition, family, and geography." By conventional definition, an exile is one who has been separated from his country; the term houses both those who have chosen to live elsewhere and those banished by decree. Yet we limit its possibilities when we endeavor to understand exile only in its conventional usage.

The Bible begins as a story of exile, and exile may gloss the burden of the unknown, the non-geographic wandering and wondering that humans experience. Though established categories are useful for critical approaches, when studying the poetic voice one must consider the condition of the human in spiritual as well as in secular terms. The doctrine of salvation underlying the world's major religions postulates that in our earthly forms, we are in a spiritual condition of pre-fulfillment and that the human condition is saturated with this sense of the limits of knowing. The garden, mother's womb, the childhood home, and the countries one leaves may each be read as a stage in a journey away from or toward perfection, as though when we were driven from Paradise, we were exiled into the human condition. Poetry, concerned with the human voice, is a record of that journey.

Ali created a renaissance of sorts for the ghazal, a form of poetry that he dates back to seventh-century Arabia. While the United States had its dabblers in the form, for Ali, those dabbling were hardly writing ghazals at all. There was first the matter of the rules of the form, as Ali notes:

   The opening couplet (called matla) sets up a scheme
   (of rhyme--called qafia; and refrain--called radif)
   by having it occur in both lines--the rhyme IMMEDIATELY
   preceding the refrain--and then this scheme occurs only
   in the second line of each succeeding couplet. … 

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