From Another Desert

by Agha Shahid Ali

FROM ANOTHER DESERT*

1.

Cries Majnoon:

Beloved
you are not here

It is a strange spring
rivers lined with skeletons

Wings beat
in the cages

    letting the wind hear
its own restlessness

    the cry of gods
    and prisoners

    letting me hear
    my agony

 

2.

Each statue will be broken
if the heart is a temple. When

the gods return, from the ends
of the fasting sky, they’ll stand

in the rain and knock and knock.
They’ll force open the heart.

In the grief of ruins, they’ll pick
up their severed arms

and depart and depart and depart.

 

3.

There again is memory
at my doorstep—

jasmine crushed under
departing feet.

The moon extinguishes
its silver pain

on the window.

 

4.

Cries Majnoon:

Those in tatters
may now demand love:

    I’ve declared a fashion
    of ripped collars.

The breezes are lost
travellers today,

    knocking, asking
    for a place to stay.

    I tell them
    to go away.

All night they knock, asking
if the Beloved
had ever passed this way.

    All night I keep
    the heart shut.

I’m waiting for a greater madness:

    to declare
    myself
    to the Hangman.

 

5.

Who now weeps
at the crossroads,

remembers the directions
that led so soon

to betrayal,
the disappearance

of all wayfarers
when it was almost

the morning?
Some went back,

folding breezes
in their wallets.

Some ran ahead,
the sun divided

among them, eclipses
hidden in their eyes.

 

6.

Majnoon was again sighted
in the streets, intoxicated

as before, surpassing the rapture
of every mad lover.

 

7.

In prison Majnoon weeps for Satan:

And Iblis bereft of dreams would still not bow to man Qais weep for Iblis a
lover like you lover of God that cruel Beloved Qais welcome the knives the
stones but never bow to man learn from Iblis survive somehow survive in Hell
each day this memory the echo of the Beloved’s voice telling one to go to Hell

 

8.

The prisoners know they’ve been
eclipsed, that someone

greater than them is now
among them. For though they know

the rattle of bound ankles,
they’ve never heard

such sorrow before,
this pounding, this beating down of the floor,

this plaint,
all night, of feet in chains.

 

9.

Ambushed in century after century by the police of God
the broken Ishmaels cry out in the blazing noons

welcoming the knives the stones rained down on them

again declared madmen by the government of Sorrow

And Majnoon also among them with bare hands
digs graves in the desert

crying out for his dead Laila

his back broken by a giant teardrop
inside it the ruins of Jerusalem or Beirut

or another rival to the garden of paradise
where his heart broke and broke centuries ago

 

Agha Shahid Ali is from Kashmir, India. His book, The Half-Inch Himalayas, is published by Wesleyan University Press. His second book, A Nostalgist’s Map of America is forthcoming from W.W. Norton.

 


*The Arabic love story of Qais and Laila is used—in Urdu and Persian literature—to cite the exalting power of love. Qais is called Majnoon (literally “possessed” or “mad”) because he sacrificed everything for love. The legend has acquired a political dimension.

Tags:
Love
Desire
Narrative poetry
indian literature
culture—india
BOMB 36
Summer 1991
The cover of BOMB 36
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