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Rooms Are Never Finished: Poems

Rooms Are Never Finished: Poems

by Agha Shahid Ali

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"An incomparable work, an unmatched achievement."—Anthony Hecht
In this stunningly inventive collection—a finalist for the 2001 National Book Award in poetry—Ali excavates the devastation wrought upon his childhood home, Kashmir, and reveals a more personal devastation: his mother's death and the journey with her body back to Kashmir.


"An incomparable work, an unmatched achievement."—Anthony Hecht
In this stunningly inventive collection—a finalist for the 2001 National Book Award in poetry—Ali excavates the devastation wrought upon his childhood home, Kashmir, and reveals a more personal devastation: his mother's death and the journey with her body back to Kashmir.

Editorial Reviews

Anthony Hecht
An incomparable work,an unmatched achievement.
Publishers Weekly
The direct inspiration for Ali's new volume was his mother's death and the subsequent journey back to his homeland of Kashmir with her body. In his prose introduction, mother and motherland are strangely, strongly linked, and Ali, who has made a career of lyric ponderings of the permutations of exile and expatriate life, is left to negotiate the landscape of loss, its contours altered by the intrusion of the intensely personal. Ali has always been the one "with laments found lost on my lips," the post-colonial poet mourning dead aspects of his native culture while championing the complexity of his tripartite heritage. In The Country Without a Post Office, these themes were galvanized by the eruption of internecine war in Indian-held Kashmir, and by Ali's adoption of the tightly repetitive, traditional Arabic form of the ghazal. This latest volume balances formal elegy with a deliberate refusal to "finish rooms," figured perhaps most poignantly by the refusal to complete the well-known religious truism "There is no God but" and with more intellectualized musings on homecoming, heritage and the ravages of civil war. In this context, the repetitive ghazal replicates the keening of a mourning relative and the structure offered by tradition, while its line-by-line changes mark a way out of the repetitive cycles of historical violence. "Exiled by exiles" gives way to "two destinies at last reconciled by exiles." Ali's attempts to reconcile his Muslim, Hindu and Western heritage (which draws on James Merrill's mysticism) andn to quiet his cries of anguish, work to assuage grief without denying that "the loved one always leaves." The book has been nominated as a National Book Award finalist.(Nov.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Jeweled creations that shimmer with the beauty of Ali's native Kashmir, these poems nevertheless breathe sorrow: Ali relates his journey home with his mother's body for burial while pondering the exigencies of reconciling his Hindu, Muslim, and Western selves. A finalist for the National Book Award. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

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Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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Read an Excerpt

Rooms Are Never Finished

By Agha Shahid Ali

W. W. Norton & Company

Copyright ©2003 Agha Shahid Ali
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0393324168

Chapter One

From Amherst to Kashmir

1. Karbala: A History of the "House of Sorrow"

In a distant age and climate, the tragic scene of the death of Husayn will awaken the sympathy of the coldest reader.
—Edward Gibbon

Jesus and his disciples, passing through the plain of Karbala, saw "a herd of gazelles, crowding together and weeping." Astonished, the disciples looked at their Lord. He spoke: "At this site the grandson of Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) will one day be killed." And Jesus wept. Oh, that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain ... And Jesus wept. And as if the news has just reached them—fourteen hundred years after the Battle of Karbala (near ancient Babylon, not far from the Euphrates) in the year A.H. 61/A.D. 680—mourners weep for "the prince among martyrs," Hussain, grandson of the Prophet and son of Ali ("Father of Clay") and Fatima (the Prophet's only surviving child). Memorializing Hussain on the tenth of Muharram (Ashura) is the rite of Shi'a Islam—so central that at funerals thoseevents are woven into elegies, every death framed by that "Calvary." For just "as Jesus went to Jerusalem to die on the cross," Hussain "went to Karbala to accept the passion that had been meant for him from the beginning of time."

* * *

From the beginning of time? When Ishmael was saved, did the ram suffice, even though Gabriel had brought it from Paradise, from the very presence of God? Because both father as the slayer and son as the victim had submitted to His will, God called out, "Abraham, you have fulfilled the vision." And He ransomed Ishmael with a "great redeeming sacrifice"—completed only centuries later on the battlefield that became the altar. Abraham foreknew all and wept bitterly. God spoke: "Abraham, through your grief for Hussain, I have ransomed your grief for your son as though you had slain him with your own hand."

* * *

At the call of the people of Kufa (their hearts were with him, their swords with his enemies), Hussain, with his family and supporters, set out from Mecca, "along the pilgrim route across the desert of central Arabia," to challenge the tyranny of the Caliph Yazid. In Karbala their caravan (2 Muharram 61/2 October 680) was intercepted by Yazid's troops under Obeidullah. Till the tenth of Muharram, they withstood the siege, choosing death, not surrender. Prevented from reaching the Euphrates, for three days before the massacre they were without water. Anguished by the children's cries, Abbas, Hussain's half brother, led a daring sortie to fill a few waterskins but he perished.

* * *

On 9 Muharram, as if putting on his own shroud, Hussain spoke: "Tomorrow our end will come. I ask you to go away to safety. I free you, I do not hold you back. Night will give you a cover; use it as a steed." He had the lights turned out. Fewer than one hundred remained—among them the women, the children, the old. And the borrowed night ends. They line up before the army. The rear of the tents is protected by wood and reeds set on fire. The first arrows come, in a shower. Hussain's nephew Qasim is struck and dies in his uncle's arms. Every man is killed. The women look on in terror. Alone, Hussain returns to the tents to console the children and women, among them his sister Zainab, and bids them farewell. At sunset, the soldiers turn to pillage. The bodies are decapitated, stripped of all covering. Hussain's severed head is brought to Obeidullah. He carelessly turns it over with his staff. "Gently," one officer protests. "By Allah! I have seen those lips kissed by the blessed mouth of Muhammad."

* * *

The morning of 12 Muharram saw seventy-two heads raised on lances, each held by a soldier, followed by the women on camels. One of Hussain's sons, the only male survivor, had lain sick during battle. The "adornment of God's servants," he was saved when Zainab threw herself over him. At the sight of the decapitated bodies, the women's lamentations rose: "O Muhammad! The angels of Heaven send blessings upon you, but this is your Hussain, so humiliated and disgraced, covered with blood and cut into pieces, and your daughters are made captives, your butchered family is left for the East Wind to cover with dust!" The head of Hussain was put on display in Kufa before it was sent to Yazid. Held in a dungeon, the captives before long were taken to Damascus.

* * *

Mourners beg for water—the martyrs' thirst. They wound their heads, and "the green grassy field" where their processions end "becomes bloodied and looks like a field of poppies." And my brother knows he will die. He has himself put on his shroud. A deluge of weeping follows. So I remember, since childhood. One majlis stays—Summer 1992—when for two years Death had turned every day in Kashmir into some family's Karbala. We celebrated Ashura with relatives, in the afternoon—because of night curfew. That evening, at home, my mother was suddenly in tears. I was puzzled, then very moved. Since she was a girl she had felt Zainab's grief as her own.

* * *

At my mother's funeral a mourner sang one of her favorite Kashmiri elegies, given to Zainab, in which her exile is nearly unbearable. Those words now are my mother's, for she too was tired, fighting death, from hospital to hospital, from city to city.

2. Zainab's Lament in Damascus

Over Hussain's mansion what night has fallen?

Look at me, O people of Shaam, the Prophet's only daughter's daughter, his only child's child.

Over my brother's bleeding mansion dawn rose—at such forever cost?

So weep now, you who of passion never made a holocaust, for I saw his children slain in the desert, crying for water.

Hear me. Remember Hussain, what he gave in Karbala, he the severed heart, the very heart of Muhammad, left there bleeding, unburied.

Deaf Damascus, here in your Caliph's dungeons where they mock the blood of your Prophet, I'm an orphan, Hussain's sister, a tyrant's prisoner.

Father of Clay, he cried, forgive me. Syria triumphs, orphans all your children. Farewell.

And then he wore his shroud of words and left us alone forever.

Paradise, hear me— On my brother's body what night has fallen?

Let the rooms of Heaven be deafened, Angels, with my unheard cry in the Caliph's palace:

Syria hear me

Over Hussain's mansion what night has fallen

I alone am left to tell my brother's story

On my brother's body what dawn has risen

Weep for my brother World, weep for Hussain

3. Summers of Translation

Desolation's desert. I'm here with shadows of your voice ... —Faiz Ahmed Faiz, "Memory"

"Memory"—two years after your death they tell me—has no translation. We knew it in a loved version, the words languidly climbed by a singer of Faiz,

and, of course, we knew it well in the desolation mastered by singers on Radio Pakistan slowly-slowly ... with shadows. But it's a bhajan

from a black and white film, sung to a dark icon, that I recall—the story, from every angle, bleak (Dark blue god don't cast me into oblivion,

in the temples, all your worshippers are asleep): As you told it, the child-bride would die, and the rain, you remembered as a girl, would come each dawn to keep

her from what you longed for her. With thunder, a train— from Pakistan?—would crash and bring down the refrain, and your tears. The train's whistle, years later, would rend the heart. As I begin "Memory" all by myself (I'll hold on to your sleeve, blue god, till the end),

so many summers, so many monsoons, dimmed on Time's shelf, return, framed by the voice you gave to each story, as when—in the last summer of peace—the heart itself

was the focus: You read all of Faiz aloud to me: We chose poems that would translate best. So strange: Why did we not linger just a bit on "Memory?"

It was '89, the stones were not far, signs of change everywhere (Kashmir would soon be in literal flames). Well, our dawns were so perfectly set to arrange

our evenings in color that liberty with each ghazal was my only way of being loyal to any original ...

I shelve "Memory" to hear Begum Akhtar enclose— in Raga Jogia—the wound-cry of the gazelle: "Not all, no, only a few return as the rose

or the tulip." That ghazal held under her spell. But when you welcomed me in later summers to Kashmir, every headline read: PARADISE ON EARTH BECOMES HELL.

The night was broken in two by the Call to Prayer which found nothing to steal but my utter disbelief. In every home, although Muharram was not yet here,

Zainab wailed. Only Karbala could frame our grief: The wail rose: How could such a night fall on Hussain? Mother, you remembered perfectly that God is a thief

when memory is a black and white film again (Dark Krishna, don't let your Radha die in the rain):

You wait, at the end of Memory, with what befell Zainab— from Karbala to Kufa to Damascus. You are wearing black. The cry of the gazelle

fills the night. It is Zainab's cry. You cry it for us so purely that even in memory it lets memory cease. For your voice could make any story so various,

so new, that even terrible pain would decrease into wonder. But for me, I who of passion always make a holocaust, will there be a summer of peace?

A mother dies. There's a son's execution. On Memory's mantle—where summers may truly shine— all, as never before, is nothing but translation.

It is Muharram again. Of God there is no sign. Mother, you are "the breath drawn after every line."

4. Above the Cities

God is the Light of the heavens and the earth— the likeness of His light is as a niche wherein is a lamp ... —The Koran
Surah 24:35

Boston-Frankfurt-Delhi. Lufthansa airborne, coffin-holding coffin. Now home to Kashmir. Was it prophesied what we, broken, gather? She is with us and

we—without her? Where is the lamp that's "kindled from a Blesséd Tree," that one olive which is "neither of the East nor the West whose oil would well-nigh keep shining

though untouched by fire"? For

Doomsday but barely had taken its first breath when I remembered again the hour you left,

Doomsday's very first breath—which was but your departure—that I learn by heart again and again. I'm piling Doomsday on Doomsday

over oceans, continents, deserts, cities. Airport after airport, the plane is darkness plunged into the sunrise,

For I had also seen the moth rush to the candle— then nothing but the wrenched flame gasping in knots.

So nothing then but Karbala's slaughter

through my mother's eyes at the majlis, mourning Zainab in the Damascene court, for she must stand before the Caliph alone, her eyes my mother's, my mother's

hers across these centuries, each year black-robed in that 1992 Kashmir summer— evening curfew minutes away: The sun died. We had with Zainab's

words returned home:

Hussain, I'm in exile from exile, lost from city to city.

Outside, the guns were punctual stars. The night was Muharram's orphan-vigil, she in sudden tears. "Mummy, what's the matter?" "Nothing, it's Zainab's

grief, that's all." Her eyes are two candles darkened with laments found lost on our lips,

Over Hussain's mansion what night is falling?

two candles

lit above the cities she'll never visit, names that were spellbound

on her lips, their magic unbearable now— Naples, Athens, Isfahan, Kashgar. Hush. For over Hussain's mansion the night that's dropped is leading the heart in

one jade line unbroken to Doomsday: She is gone!—the nurse's words. And again the flat line (She is gone!), for in the ICU green, the monitor's pulse was

but the heart unable to empty itself.

O bleeding mansion, what night has fallen?

She is gone! Now out of the cabin's blue dark, blinding lights accompany We'll be landing shortly at Delhi

Airport—city of my birth! Our descent is just her voice (I'd crushed the dawn tablets into spoons of water): You must now write my story, Bhaiya, my story

only. On the shelf you're deluged with night-veiled light, your face in that niche where memory, Mother, darkens with the Light of the heavens.

Zainab weeps for Hussain in Karbala's night.

Still it's easy to write your

story—you are even in lines in which you can't be found. It's easy to write your story. For whatever city I fly to, even that of my birth, you

aren't there to welcome me. And any city I am leaving—even if one you've never seen—my parting words are for you alone. For where there is farewell,

you are there. And where there's a son, in any language saying Adieu to his mother, she is you and that son (There by the gate) is me, that son is me. Always.


Excerpted from Rooms Are Never Finished by Agha Shahid Ali Copyright ©2003 by Agha Shahid Ali. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001) taught at the University of Utah, at the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, and at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

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