I was looking for a poem about snow, and found this one. It is so very specific, one of my criteria for good writing. It takes place in New York City and and Tucson and New Delhi. It involves Serge and Sameetah and Papagos and cacti and Begum Akhtar. But even though it refers to these intensely personal memories, I could see the snow in the desert, the "dried seas," the silent audience in the darkened nightclub during an air raid in the Bangladesh War, though I have experienced none of them. I could relate to the themes of loss and elegy and saying goodbye at the airport and the fear of being forgotten. Twice the poet uses the expression "hurting into memory," and yet there's also the sacred wine made from the sap of the saguaros, something beautiful (and presumably delicious) distilled from the sun and the past.
Agha Shahid Ali was from Kashmir, and I had run across him before, while looking for examples of ghazals. He was a well-known writer of them. There are some more of his poems at the Poetry Foundation's site, and I put a couple of his books on my wish list, too.
I was looking for something simple and descriptive that I could post with a snow photo, and this complex, multi-layered meditation on memory and separation was not at all what I had in mind. And yet, what could be more perfect, as I head to the airport myself this weekend, after a week of making new memories, and say goodbye once more?
Snow on the Desert
“Each ray of sunshine is seven minutes old,”
Serge told me in New York one December night.
“So when I look at the sky, I see the past?”
“Yes, Yes," he said. “especially on a clear day.”
On January 19, 1987,
as I very early in the morning
drove my sister to Tucson International,
suddenly on Alvernon and 22nd Street
the sliding doors of the fog were opened,
and the snow, which had fallen all night, now
sun-dazzled, blinded us, the earth whitened
out, as if by cocaine, the desert’s plants,
its mineral-hard colors extinguished,
wine frozen in the veins of the cactus.