for Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001)
The mail from Kashmir, Amherst, Asheville: postmarks from a route of evanescence.
Emerald and cochineal the flight of days, their cardamom-infused evanescence.
The way she had in her rushes – of resonance,
you wrote. I too so want to eat evanescence.
Rococo grace on the dance floor, inscribing Arabic on air,
his hands scrolled sly tributes to evanescence.
Fame is a bee, said Dickinson. It has a song and a sting
and ah, too, a wing humming its minute evanescence.
A word is a stay against, against. Bare or brocaded, it breathes
into breath, defies what’s at the root of evanescence.
What falls away is always and is near: even Roethke’s weight
is light. Is that the beauty or truth of evanescence?
Whoever you are, pledge to me your undying love.
Undying: your message, Shahid, refuting evanescence.
© Debra Allbery. Printed by permission of the author.
Debra Allbery’s most recent collection of poetry is Fimbul-Winter (Four Way, 2010). Her awards include the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize for her first book, a Discovery/The Nation prize, and two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. She lives near Asheville, N.C., and is the director of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.
The Review’s poetry blogger, Lisa Russ Spaar, notes: Debra Allbery’s ghazal “Of Evanescence” is dedicated to the late Kashmiri-American poet, editor, and translator Agha Shahid Ali, who died of cancer ten years ago on December 8, 2001, at the age of 52. Admired for his own ghazals and translations of them, and credited with bringing the form to a wider audience through his edited volume Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English, Ali is well known among poets for encouraging everyone—students, colleagues, strangers on the street, audience members at readings—to attempt writing ghazals of their own. Fittingly, then, Allbery elects to cast her tribute in this ancient form and chooses as her monorhyme a word Ali borrowed from Emily Dickinson in his own elegy about transience, exile, poetic ambition, and untimely personal loss, “A Nostalgist’s Map of America.” The Emily Dickinson Lexicon—an invaluable resource out of Brigham Young University that maintains a dictionary of some 9,275 words and variants in Dickinson’s verse—defines “evanescence” as dissipation, departure, gradual removal, a fleeting moment, demise, and the transition of death, and cites two uses of the word in Dickinson’s verse: the famous hummingbird poem (Franklin 1489, “A Route of Evanescence”) and the lesser known “The Face in Evanescence lain” (Franklin 1521), in which Dickinson describes the visage of a dead person, transient with the “sheen” of the divine. Allbery makes use of all of these meanings of evanescent as she maps out her own path of remembrance and poetic legacy.
That we are meant to see this ghazal as a route/root is clearly implied by the palpable absence of “a route” from the Dickinson line alluded to in the title. And in fact the poem is replete with allusion in a way that honors Ali’s own practice of dedicating his poems to and sampling the work of friends and other writers. Stanza by stanza, Allbery’s poem creates a chain of the poetic influences holding sway over both the poet and her subject. A strikingly peripatetic writer, whose exile and career gave him a myriad of addresses during his too-short life, Ali (like Dickinson) was self-conscious about his poems being in a very real sense letters to and from the worlds he inhabited and carried within. (Interestingly, Allbery herself has led something of a nomadic life, having called at least nine places home before settling in as director of the prestigious low-residency MFA program at Warren Wilson College in Ashville, N.C., several years ago).
Allbery’s opening line, in fact, is a shout-out to all of the references to the mail in Ali’s work (“Postcard from Kashmir,” for example, and “The Country Without a Post Office”); it also makes reference to a nod by Ali (who lived in Amherst, Massachusetts, for many years while teaching at the University of Massachusetts), in his poem “From Amherst to Kashmir,” to Dickinson’s “If I could bribe them by a Rose” (“If I could bribe them by a Rose / I’d bring them every flower that grows / From Amherst to Cashmere!”). In this way, Allbery conflates Dickinson’s color-saturated, synaesthetic vision of a hummingbird in constant motion in “A Route of Evanescence” (“emerald” and “cochineal”) with Ali’s own ardent, multicultural, “cardamom-infused evanescence.” In Allbery’s ghazal, as in Ali’s work, worlds are contantly and kinetically exchanging their secrets.
In seven discreet but entwined couplets, haunted by the repeated “evanescence,” Allbery offers a graceful, mimetic testimony to Ali’s generous spirit and work, interlacing and mingling lines from Ali’s own poems, especially those in which he himself honors other poets like Dickinson (“The way she had in her rushes – of resonance, / you wrote. I too so want to eat evanescence) with language from Dickinson herself (Fame is a bee, said Dickinson. It has a song and a sing / and ah, too, a wing), with references as well to Frost (“A word is a stay against, against”), Hopkins (“Bare or brocaded, it breathes / into breath”), Theodore Roethke (“What falls away is always and is near: even Roethke’s weight / is light”), and Keats (“Is that the beauty or truth of evanescence?”). In one of the poem’s most luminous passages, we see Ali in motion, honoring Arabic and its profound influence: “Rococo grace on the dance floor, inscribing Arabic on air, / his hands scrolled sly tributes to evanescence.”
I like imagining this scene as perhaps occurring at the Warren Wilson College low-residency MFA program, known for its excellent dance parties as well as its superb faculty, intrepid programming, and distinguished graduates, where Ali taught for many years and knew Allbery. Warren Wilson College, the first low-residency Master of Fine Arts Program in the country, originally founded by Ellen Bryant Voigt at Goddard College in 1976 and moved to Warren Wilson in 1981, celebrated its 35th anniversary this year; the program honored Ali and other distinguished teachers in the program at a gala held in Ashville this past summer.
The final couplet, the penultimate line of which Forrest Gander, in his moving memoir of Ali, says was the last recording Ali had on his voice mail, brings into concert the long “/ōō/” sounds (too, tribute, minute, root, beauty, truth) that have kept the “you” present throughout the poem, and, in a final gesture of praise, offers “Shahid”—Ali’s name—in the last line, a “signature” spot usually reserved for the poet making the ghazal. Even this move on Allbery’s part, presenting Ali’s name instead of her own, shows her profound appreciation for Ali’s playfulness and largess, evoking as it does the ending of one of Ali’s most well-known ghazals, “Tonight,” in which Ali shape-shifts into Melville’s famous protagonist:
And I, Shahid, only am escaped to tell thee –
God sobs in my arms. Call me Ishmael tonight.
Allbery’s poem honors and devours the notion of evanescence, proving not only by its powerful, allusive, and meta tribute to Ali but also by its own spare, charged beauty that poetry can both acknowledge and refute demise. Poets’ names may be writ on water, but their poems, speaking always to one another across breaches of time, place, and space, like Ali’s dance floor scrollings, can pay “sly tributes to evanescence.” “Bare or brocaded, it breathes,” Allbery writes of poetry, defying oblivion.