in memory of Agha Shahid Ali
The wind perused the street and the debris,
then thumbed through leaves that scraped the air.
Nothing was in order or in bloom, but you
stood on the sidewalk, streaked by noon’s light,
making a shield from your sheaf of poems.
You wanted even the trash the wind parsed
to mean something. And it didn’t void the boy
still in your head or climb inside your vanishing body.
Instead, it reeled itself in, all its weight
on the balls of its feet, and sat down beside you.
While you spoke, it eased; the serrated leaves
stopped cleaving; the fast-food wrappers stopped
wheeling in the street. And the wind stood up
to explore, on the bodega’s rickety stalls,
the perishables you loved to cook and eat,
fingering the onions, okra, and persimmons’ meat.
Single-mindedly, it broke a clove of garlic
from a braid and sampled purple grapes,
spitting out the seeds. It dropped the clove
and one big grape into your hands, as if wanting
to remind you to grip the bitter and the sweet.
In “Lycidas,” Milton asks who wouldn’t praise
his friend who knew how “to sing” and write
startling rhymes, a schoolmate who drowned
in the indifferent Irish Sea without his name
inscribed, starling-dark, on the leaves of books,
although he’ll always float in bloodshot waters.
Through the reeds, a white amaryllis glows
in his tangled, sea-weedy hair.
And I think I see his jet-black shroud,
but no ship, only ropes unknotted,
a mast broken into matchsticks, shredded sails.
But I still don’t see why the singer must always be
slackened, then unfastened from the song.
(Or, in other words, remember this:
the hospital’s simple vase of violets,
yellow cowslips, and pansies “freak’d with jet”;
how all the straight men in the room kissed you
on the lips; the saffron rice and curry
your sisters cooked for those of us who couldn’t
accept, as you did, that it is death
that makes us possible; the surgery that blinded you
and the bandage snug as a cap on your head;
that you wanted nothing you couldn’t lose
and were devoted to your own heart.
But how did you make room,
in those small chambers,
for another sadness?)
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.