Friday, February 12, 2016

Poetry Friday: Snow on the Desert

I've spent the week with my daughter, going to her classes, hanging out in her dorm room while she did homework, going to an Ash Wednesday service, and, always, freezing.  Although I've loved being with her, I'm dreaming of warmth and longing to return to my tropical island.

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

By Agha Shahid Ali

“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. 


jama said...

Wow, that's quite a poem! This poet is totally new to me, and I do like the way his very specific details have universal resonance. The "hurting into memory" is powerful and does stay with you, doesn't it?

cb hanek said...

Thank you for sharing about your taking leave of your daughter. Reminded me of something Kahlil Gibran wrote that I try to keep in mind whenever I agonize over detaching:

“When you part from your friend, you grieve not;
For that which you love most in him may be clearer in his absence, as
the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain.”

― Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet (from Goodreads)

Leaving is always bittersweet. Am sure you have many special take-away "hurting into memories."

... Thank you, too, for sharing the poem. I was stopped right from the start with the idea that present "new" sunlight is past "7-minutes old." Amazing universe we are blessed to be part of...

God bless you!

Linda B said...

It is everything you said, and with such a voice there Ruth. Sorry you've been cold. New neighbors from warmer places are amazed when we wear shorts in the sixties, seems very warm to us, and I guess it's always about POV, isn't it? That line, "The Desert Smells Like Rain" is a book title by Gary Nabhan, a wonderful book about the desert and the native tribe of indians there. I have it, have read it several times. And I've been to Tucson more than once with students, and seen the saguaro bloom at night. Thank you for sharing this beautiful poem. I love every bit, and know you've connected because of those goodbyes. Hope the week has been a joy despite the leaving.

Carol Varsalona said...

“So when I look at the sky, I see the past?” This line is a haunting one that makes me wonder. Thank you for the post and the introduction to this poem.