Featured Review: Mad Heart Be Brave: Essays on the Poetry of Agha Shahid Ali, Edited by Kazim Ali. / Robert Stilling

Undated photo of Agha Shahid Ali

Mad Heart Be Brave: Essays on the Poetry of Agha Shahid Ali, Edited by Kazim Ali. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2017.

In 2000, Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali published Ravishing DisUnities, an anthology of “real ghazals in English.” That publication proved to be a seminal event in American poetry, introducing a Western audience to the ghazal, a tightly rhymed verse form composed of thematically autonomous couplets that had been passed down for centuries from Arabic to Persian to Urdu, but had been too loosely handled, in Ali’s view, by Anglophone poets. The ghazal, practiced by renowned South Asian poets such as Ghalib in nineteenth-century Delhi and Faiz Ahmed Faiz in post-partition Pakistan, is now an enduring feature of the American literary landscape. With its ruptures and repetitions, its mix of personal longing, dramatic posing, and communal conventions, the ghazal has also come to stand for the larger achievement of Ali’s poetry, which gathers literary communities across national, religious, and linguistic borders.  Through startling intertextual connections, rapturous imagery, and rigorously enacted forms (including Western lyric forms such as the sestina and canzone), Ali transmutes personal grief into collective suffering and back again. In “Lenox Hill,” Ali’s masterful yet emotionally raw elegy for his mother, who died of a brain tumor just a year before Ali would succumb to the same disease, Ali writes: “For compared to my grief for you, what are those of Kashmir, / and what (I close the ledger) are the griefs of the universe / when I remember you—beyond all accounting—O my mother?” (The Veiled Suite 249). Here, the scale of Ali’s grief is indeed beyond all accounting. And yet his personal suffering only attunes us more acutely to the griefs of Ali’s violence-ravaged homeland in Kashmir, even as Ali, a secular Muslim, makes his grief universal by hyperbolically exceeding the griefs of the universe, employing the canzone, Hindu legend, and a quotation from the Buddha to elegize a mother whose body he would soon transport home to Kashmir for burial. This is a journey he would recall in the long poem “From Amherst to Kashmir,” which characteristically borrows its title from Emily Dickinson.

Ali was born in New Delhi in 1949, raised in Kashmir, and spent much of his poetic career in America, including stints at writing programs in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Utah, Massachusetts, and New York. He died in 2001, and his loss is still profoundly felt by those who knew him personally and by the many readers who came to know him only through his poetry. The publication of Mad Heart Be Brave, the excellent new collection of essays on Ali’s poetry, edited by Kazim Ali and published by University of Michigan Press, demonstrates that we have only just opened the ledger on Ali’s life and work. At a time when literary studies is increasingly wrestling with its conceptions of the global, and virulent forms of ethnic and cultural nationalism are on the rise, Ali’s work, as Reginald Dwayne Betts observes, offers “a commitment to the multiplicity of sources of understanding” (164). Likewise, at a time when bombs continue to explode in “Palestine and Israel, in Jammu and Kashmir, Somalia and Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan,” the poet who writes in one of his ghazals that “the birthplace of written language is bombed to nothing. / How neat, dear America, is this game for you?” is as relevant now as he has ever been (Mad Heart 163; The Veiled Suite 327).

The personal is integral to the political, the poetic, and the global in Ali’s poetry, just as it is in the essays in Mad Heart Be Brave, which offer an unusual mix of incisive analysis and fond reminiscence. These essays highlight the formal and figurative intricacies of Ali’s verse while shedding light on the poems’ disparate and sometimes disorienting contexts and references. New readers of Ali’s poetry are often struck by its beauty and craft, its humor and sense of nostalgia, exilic displacement, and longing. But Ali’s magpie aesthetic, which plucks lines from Dickinson, Wilde, Mandelstam, Yeats, and Stevens, as well as from Faiz, Ghalib, the Quran, Hindu and Buddhist scripture, Islamic folk tales, and Grimm’s fairy tales, can leave one’s head spinning. Mad Heart Be Brave offers useful, elegantly written, digestible, and sometimes moving introductions to important aspects of Ali’s work, including his poetic and cultural hybridity, his rejection of sectarianism and narrowly conceived nationalisms, the “hinge” in this career from free verse to more formal verse, his affiliation with gay male poets such as James Merrill and W. H. Auden, his development of a queer poetic persona, and his construction of a vast intertextual architecture that encompasses Dickinson, Sappho, Eliot, Woolf, Plath, and Lorca, and introduces Urdu, Arabic, and Persian poetic conventions to Anglophone readers. The essays here trace Ali’s life and work (to offer a partial overview) from his early publications with the Calcutta Writers Workshop, through his first collection to be published in America, The Half-Inch Himalayas (1987), to his searing reflections on the conflict in Kashmir in The Country Without a Post Office (1997), his translations of Faiz in The Rebel’s Silhouette (1991), his own collection of ghazals, Call Me Ishmael Tonight (2003), and his late elegies, such as his requiem for himself, “The Veiled Suite,” his third canzone and final poem, painstakingly composed in the months before his death.

While some of the contributors to Mad Heart Be Brave were students in Ali’s workshops, Mad Heart Be Brave persistently shows how Ali taught the world to read his poetry and imagine the worlds through which it travelled. As Rita Banerjee writes: “Ali is able to verbalize what it means to be a second-generation Kashmiri and secular Muslim living in Delhi and in the United States to both a domestic South Asian audience and larger Anglophone audience far removed from the traumas and consequences of partition in South Asia” (28). Likewise, Shadab Zeest Hashmi observes that Ali, through his acts of literary and cultural translation, “teaches Western readers how to decode South Asian aesthetic gestures that have been centuries in the making, how to read hybridity, how not to feel lost in its abstract, elliptical spaces” (185). The challenge, as Ali put it himself, was “to point out to exclusively English speakers the moment when what they see merely as exotic is actually challenging the ‘exotic'” (The Rebel’s Silhouette xix). Thus, as Hashmi observes, Ali “effectively lays the groundwork for a literary lexicon that encodes and communicates his native cultural memory in contemporary American literature” (185).

Several of the essays are written by close friends of Ali, such as Christopher Merrill, whose intimate understanding of Ali’s poetic process illuminates Ali’s development from “a witty free verse poet with a complex understanding of political issues to a sophisticated formalist addressing the question of last things” (94). Other recollections by Sejal Shah, Amitav Ghosh, Grace Schulman, and Ada Limón portray Shahid (as he was known to his friends) as a teacher brazenly rearranging his students’ verse, cooking a meal for James Merrill, or singing and entertaining friends at his home in Brooklyn in his final days. At their best, these essays use personal memories to offer insights into the poetry. Other essays in the collection offer penetrating, if brief, close readings of poems such as “Postcard from Kashmir” (by Amanda Golden) and his final canzone, “The Veiled Suite,” (by Dur E Aziz Amna). Contributions from Rita Banerjee, Ravi Shankar, Patricia O’Neill, and Reid Larson introduce early works such Bone Sculpture (1972) and rare editions such as A Walk Through the Yellow Pages (1987), and offer a peek into the archives of Ali’s manuscripts and correspondence, now housed at Hamilton College, where Ali taught for a time. (Ali’s papers are beginning to be digitized as part of the Beloved Witness project online.) O’Neil and Reid include a bibliography of Ali’s published works, noting his idiosyncratic desire to publish poems in journals whose titles, when alphabetized, would hit every letter of the alphabet (he almost succeeded). This bibliography, though comprehensive, misses some more and less important items. I note those of which I am aware, including some important essays and interviews, below.1

Many of the essays in this collection elucidate the nuanced formal and cultural hybridity of Ali’s verse, which, as Abin Chakraborty writes, “is not just of his personal sensibility or his familiar background but also of the larger cultural plurality that is associated with the ethnolinguistic entity of ‘Kashmiriyat’” (60). The common theme throughout these essays is Ali’s refusal to be pinned down to any one narrow sense of cultural affiliation or identity. Rather, Ali’s poetry creates “maps of the heart that refuse to abide by international borders and lines of control” (67). Indeed, “the abiding significance of Ali’s poetry,” Chakraborty argues, “is precisely this defiance of striated spaces, bellicose categories, and oppressive hierarchies” (68). These essays underscore the crucial link between form and politics in Ali’s verse. Amy Newman notes, for example, that Ali’s use of strict forms creates “a temporary region of braided stabilities” amid themes of loss, nostalgia, and exile (76). Mihaela Moscaliuc’s analysis of Ali’s “palimpsestic intertextuality” likewise demonstrates how Ali’s sometimes collage-like poetic sensibility, in borrowing from others, becomes all the more personal and affecting, as in his various moments of self-elegy, such as the first line of “The Last Saffron”—“I will die, in autumn, in Kashmir”—which echoes César Vallejo, Kóstas Ouránis, Henry Spiess, and Donald Justice (159). Moscaliuc shows how Ali’s use of intertextuality situates “the singularity of Ali’s experience within a transnational, transcultural, and transgenerational community of writers who share similar concerns” (160). In one of his ghazals, Ali looks on the “mirrored convexities” of “Mughal ceilings” and calls on them to “Multiply me at once under your spell tonight.” As these essays establish, Ali performed in verse his vision of that multi-faceted world to which he wished to belong, but which, in its fractured reality, also caused him great pain.

Dur E Aziz Amna provides a useful introduction to Ali’s last poem, “The Veiled Suite,” outlining the intricacy of the canzone form and the Quranic context for Ali’s figuration of the veil as the final barrier between self and death, God and the mortal eye, or between the lover and the beloved. The poem touches on Faiz, Dickinson, Keats, and Plath, seeking to “alleviate loss by adorning it in lacquer and trimming it to spectacularly disciplined verse,” Amna writes in a statement that applies to much of Ali’s poetry (155). Amna does not mention that this poem also came about as part of Ali’s late collaboration with the Israeli-American artist Izhar Patkin. According to Patkin, it was in one of their conversations that Ali proposed that their two cultures, “Muslim and Jewish, will meet on the veil,” prompting Patkin to create a series of diaphanous instillation pieces that reimagine Ali’s poems and translations in dreamlike imagery printed onto tulle, a veil-like fabric (“A Conversation” 53). That syncretic instinct to employ the veil as a bridge between cultures infuses Ali’s poetry at every step and is rightly noted throughout this collection.

At the core of this collection is a series of essays that give sharp detail to Ali’s response to the conflict in Kashmir in the 1990s, situating his poetry within the longer history of colonialism, partition, and separatism on the subcontinent. For readers both more and less familiar with this painful history, these essays will prove essential reading. Stephen Burt’s essay contributes most explicitly to current debates over the outlines of World Literature, or the meaning of the global as imagined in literature. Ali’s vision of Kashmir, Burt argues, belongs not only in the domains of “the local, and the beautiful, and the ancestral, but [also in] the international and the self-consciously literary” (109). Ali’s refusal of “confinement” and his “work against isolation” can be seen in the way he introduces the names, places, and facts of the conflict without reducing his poetry to “flat narrative,” offering instead “formal variety” and “global and polyglot literary allusion” (107). Ali’s poetry insistently reaches for other comparable contexts, be it in Sarajevo or Mandelstam’s Saint Petersburg. And yet the poems assembled in The Country without a Post Office place “Kashmir in a global literary network, extending [. . .] beyond the Hindu and Muslim parts of the globe, as well as backwards in time [. . .],” through connections, for example, to prior Anglophone poets such as Dryden, Gray, Stevens, and Yeats (108).

This image of Ali as a poet who fought against isolation and confinement is hard to reconcile with the image presented by Raza Ali Hasan, who claims Ali’s early work is “imbued with a spirited sense of Indian nationalism,” while his later works exhibit a “very different Kashmiri separatist nationalism” (118). Hasan argues that the broad shift from “decolonizing optimism to postcolonial pessimism” was accompanied in Ali’s verse by a “narrowing” of concern “from the whole world to only Kashmir” (118). Readers will find Hasan’s argument jarring alongside Amitav Ghosh’s recollection that, when he remarked to Ali that he was “the closest that Kashmir had to a national poet,” Ali shot back, “A national poet, maybe. But not a nationalist poet; please not that” (209). Indeed, in a posthumously published essay, Ali argues that “those who are historically interesting” have a great responsibility not to “fall into the traps of nationalisms, and if we do let us still not forget artistic concerns, which may even force us by their tensions to lend complexity to the thriving simplicities of nationalisms, their need for perfect enemies” (159). Behind such words one hears the voice of Edward Said, whose insistence on the contrapuntal nature of postcolonial experience and discourse influenced Ali’s thinking on art, politics, and exile. That said, the editor was smart to place Burt and Hasan’s essays back to back, forcing readers to acknowledge the sting left by the failures of decolonization. Indeed, Ali’s cosmopolitanism may well have been shaped by the failures of postcolonial nationalism. Syed Humayoun splits the difference here, arguing that “Ali’s engagement with home, particularly with reference to violence and counterviolence, is to a large extent nationalistic. This, however, is not chauvinistic, but a natural extension of loving his homeland” (133). To this collection’s credit, such arguments seem academic when considered alongside Feroz Rather’s haunting and elliptical personal essay on discovering Ali’s poetry (and meeting Ali’s aged father) amid the bunkers, streets, shops, homes, and cafes of Srinagar, inviting readers to navigate the lived spaces of conflict’s aftermath.2

Mahwash Shoaib’s important essay on Ali’s creation of a “queer lyrical persona” opens a critically under-examined aspect of Ali’s poetry. According to Shoaib, Ali’s poetry exhibits a “dialectic of desire and death” that can be read in Ali’s restraint of queer desire through formal rigor; in his queering of Shi’a religious narratives; in the “erotics of pedagogy” enacted in his references to Dickinson, Auden, and Merrill; in his elegy for Philip Orlando, a friend who died of AIDS; and not least in the homoerotic dance with death acted out across the figure of the veil in “The Veiled Suite.” Shoaib’s essay demonstrates how Ali’s queerness cannot and should not be separated from his exilic and diasporic poetics, his cross-cultural hybridity, his evocations of Islam, Sufism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Buddhism, his intertextual links with other queer poets, or his attempt to de-exoticize the often homoerotic conventions of Urdu ghazal poetry. Ali’s queer persona is often merely more coy than disguised or restrained. As one ghazal couplet puts it: “Elusively gay but not quite presently straight, / one is stone in his own forest stream about me” (TVS 353). In this respect, Ali’s work deserves to be read alongside Vanita and Kidwai’s Same Sex Love in India, Andrews and Kalpakli’s The Age of Beloveds, or Boone’s The Homoerotics of Orientalism. One wishes that Shoaib’s insights had better informed the discussions of Ali’s (camp) humor, elegy, sense of displacement, and transnationalism elsewhere in this collection. Further scholarship should work to integrate the discussion of Ali’s queer poetics into discussions of the diasporic, exilic, religious, and postcolonial dimensions of his art.

There’s much more of biographical and critical interest here, but taken together, these essays do what they set out to do: they paint a vivid portrait of the poet and his poetry and open doors to new areas of research. Students and new readers of Ali’s poetry will find these essays informative and engaging. Critics will find familiar themes but much that’s new and worth chewing over. Certainly no academic library should go without this important collection.

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References

Ali, Agha Shahid. “A Darkly Defense of Dead White Males.” Poet’s Work, Poet’s Play: Essays on the Practice and the Art. Eds. Daniel Tobin and Pimone Triplett. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008.
—. “Translating Faiz Ahmed Faiz.” Introduction. The Rebel’s Silhouette: Selected Poems. By Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Trans. Agha Shahid Ali. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1991.
—. The Veiled Suite: The Collected Poems. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2009.
Ali, Kazim. Ed. Mad Heart Be Brave: Essays on the Poetry of Agha Shahid Ali. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2017.
Patkin, Izhar. “A Conversation with Izhar Patkin and Ariana Reines.” The Veil Suite. Izhar Patkin and Agha Shahid Ali. San Francisco: Artspace Books, 2009.

Endnotes

  1. Aside from journal publications of Ali’s translations of other poets, which O’Neill and Larson elected not to include, focusing instead on Ali’s original works, items missing from the bibliography include: the initial publication of “Rooms Are Never Finished” in the Fall 1998 issue of Nest (an interior design magazine), which differs from the version published in the collection of that title; “Love in Ruins,” an essay on Indian architecture with important implications for Ali’s poetry, which appeared in the Summer 1999 issue of Nest; “A Poetic Response,” Ali’s reflection on the work of Kashmiri artist Masood Hussain, which can be found in the February-March 1999 issue of Indian Design & Interiors. (Hussain’s collage art appears on the cover of The Country Without a Post Office.); Ali’s rambling though interesting interview with Edward Said, published in Tin House v. 1, no. 2, 1999; the “Lost Interview” with Stacey Chase in the Spring 2011 issue of The Café Review; “Agha Shahid Ali on T. S. Eliot” in Poetry Speaks (2001); and an interview with Geetan Batra in The Hindu, Sunday, March 6, 1994. Nor does the bibliography list Ali’s reviews of other writers’ works, such as his review of Octavio Paz’s In Light of India in the March 30, 1997 issue of the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Some careful combing through the Hamilton archive will likely reveal other ephemera, brief interviews, or early publications in Indian newspapers and magazines. A complete digital bibliography in The Beloved Witness online archive could easily include these and any other items missing from the bibliography in Mad Heart Be Brave.
  2. In the interest of full disclosure, Rather is a graduate student in my own department at Florida State University.
Robert Stilling
Robert Stilling is Assistant Professor of English at Florida State University. He has published in The Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Poetry, PMLA, Victorian Literature and Culture, and Virginia Quarterly Review. His book project, Beginning at the End: Decadence, Modernism, and Postcolonial Poetry, is forthcoming from Harvard University Press.