by Peter Balakian
for Agha Shahid Ali (1949–2002)
I drove in snow to Clinton.
My car slid into a field of buried stubble
and cows disappeared in drifts
the color of your Dacca gauzes, which were next
to nothing; for you they were all summer,
where the sun came like hammered gold on a broken dome.
You wrapped a shredded paisley—vermillion,
madder, cochineal—in a rag-worn prayer rug
I left in your car—for your trip to summer over there.
The white-out turned the bridge into a road
north to where Armenia was just a giant step
and bodies were ploughed crystal.
* * *
We drove from Bollywood to Deansboro
for scotch, and then the road turned
and you were driving through an undivided Punjab
where the wheat flared all summer
and you floored your Peugeot
outside of Amritsar, that city of red silk
and gold from which the road north took you
to almost nothing—where silk worms disappeared
in rotting leaves and the voice of Begum Akhtar
was stinging air as you crossed the border
into your mother’s monsoon, which in Urdu
meant divergence and convergence of surface—
heating air, and there and there and there
where the road sped up the way our extravagant passions
burn the esoteric leaves that fry our wires
till the car door opens and we’re sucked out
into the unknown clouds over Kolkata
where the waterlogged slums are flooded
in the brain. That was your storm
of bangles, broken ghazal lines on prison walls,
vanishing elephants that were ploughed crystal.
* * *
Shahid: beloved in Persian, witness in Arabic, you drove back
in the early upstate spring on the road to Hamilton
where the cows stared blankly at your car;
the mud fields were plain and cold,
potholes smashed the tires,
the road was next to nothing,
and you asked me—staring through the window
at the trees and back roads: how can gray
drizzly light, just be gray drizzly light.
Last updated February 20, 2023