What Are They Reading?
A NOSTALGIST'S MAP OF AMERICA.
By Agha Shahid Ali.
Norton. 105 pp. Paper $9.95.
I'd like to say that I came across the poet Agha Shahid Ali of my own accord, browsing through the shelves of a bookshop or library and taking immediately to his finely structured verse. It would have been the sort of discovery that every reader of poetry remembers. Unfortunately, this wasn't the case. A Nostalgist's Map of America was introduced to me through a class on Asian-American literature, sandwiched between Jeoffrey Leong's aggressive "Song of the Monogram Warner Bros. Chink" and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's opaque Dictee. Each is a remarkable work in its own right. But Ali's poems read like music, bending the wistfulness of exile, romantic passion and grief to their meticulously controlled forms.
The name Shahid means "witness" in Arabic. Born in New Delhi and raised in Kashmir, Ali addresses the violence and strife of his homeland in much of his later work. In A Nostalgist's Map, however, Ali bears witness to the America of his particular choosing, where the landscapes of the Sonora Desert, New York, rural Pennsylvania and the Interstate highway can transform into countries of romantic speculation, into O'Keeffe paintings and Persian miniatures, into "the one exit to Calcutta" on Route 80, in Ohio.
A Nostalgist's Map of America is divided into four parts; the first and last more scattered collections, the middle two more narrowly defined by subject and character. The second section, my favorite of the book, is a cycle of poems addressing the death of Ali's friend Philip Paul Orlando, framed by Emily Dickinson's "A Route of Evanescence." The opening poem recalls a drive the two took together down a Pennsylvania expressway, where Evanescence takes on the form of a fictitious town:
I live in Evanescence
(I had to build it, for America
was without one.) All is safe here with me.
Here in Evanescence (which I found--though
not in Pennsylvania--after I last
wrote), the eavesdropping willows write brief notes
on grass, then hide them in shadows of trunks.
Ali's whimsical rendering of this imagined place evokes subtle feelings of nostalgia, and regret. "I didn't send you my routes of Evanescence," he writes in a later poem. "You never wrote."
The next cycle uses the classical ghazal form to describe a dialogue between Majnoon--so named because he is "mad" or "possessed" by his love--and his beloved Laila, who, in a political interpretation of this legend, represents the revolutionary ideal toward which Majnoon strives. Again, Ali brings his light, ironic touch to the emotional rendering of sorrow:
Those in tatters
may now demand love:
I've declared a fashion
of ripped collars.
The romantic legend displays its political inflections as the poems progress: Majnoon's back is "broken by a giant teardrop/inside it the ruins of Jerusalem or Beirut." A Nostalgist's Map of America does not shy away from weighty subject matter--far from it. But Ali was known for his wit in the face of seriousness; once asked on an airplane if he was carrying any dangerous items, he replied, "only my heart." His particular form of extravagance took shape in his classes, everyday encounters and, here, in his poetry.