Here are some annotations to selected references in Agha Shahid Ali’s Call Me Ishmael Tonight, together with some information about the poet. These are for my students in Principles of Literary Study this semester, who are reading the book this week. But perhaps it will be of some use for other readers of this remarkable poet.
The poet is sometimes referred to by his last name Ali and sometimes by his pen-name Shahid—which is also what his friends called him. I’ve chosen “Shahid.”
YouTube hosts, for the Ball State University archives, an hour-long recording of Shahid reading in 1997 at Ball State; towards the end he reads several ghazals that are included in Call Me Ishmael Tonight. Hamilton College hosts a digital archive of Shahid’s papers called The Beloved Witness, with selected digitized manuscript materials and transcripts of talks. Alas, the links to video clips in the archive appear to be broken.
For background on the ghazal genre, see the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics.
At the bottom, below my notes on the poems, I’ve added a brief chronology of Shahid’s life with dates for the history of his homeland, Kashmir.
thwarted lovers in an Arabic folk tale, which is told in many versions including a celebrated 12th-century Persian poem: Majnoon, a poet, goes mad for love. In a note to his earlier long poem “From Another Desert,” Shahid wrote: “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, in that Majnoon can represent the rebel, the revolutionary who is a model of commitment. Laila thus becomes the revolutionary ideal, the goal the Lover/Revolutionary aspires to reach” (Veiled Suite, 139).
- Ishmael?… / Abraham
Abraham and his eldest son Ishmael are figures in the book of Genesis in the Old Testament. Ishmael and his mother Hagar are exiled by Abraham. In the Old Testament, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac (before sparing him), but in the Qur’an, it is Ishmael whom Abraham is asked to sacrifice. Ishmael is regarded as the progenitor of the Arabs and an ancestor of Muhammad. See also the note in the foreword to Call Me Ishmael Tonight.
- Mahmoud Darwish
(1941–2008), Palestinian poet, who lived in exile for much of his career.
- Mughal miniatures
small paintings in the style of the Mughal dynasty, Muslim rulers of North India from the 16th to 18th c.
- Kashmiri paisleys
paisley is a textile pattern which was used in distinctive woolen fabrics made in Kashmir that became popular in Europe in the 18th century. The name comes from the fabric’s association with the town of Paisley, Scotland, where imitations were manufactured.
Federico García Lorca (1898–1936), Spanish poet, killed in the Spanish Civil War.
The ghazal developed from the qaṣīda, an Arabic poetic genre with similar formal aspects. Lorca, inspired by Andalusian Arabic qasidas, wrote a collection of Spanish-language casidas and gacelas, El diván del Tamarit (1934); Google finds an English translation by Paul Archer.
Anton Shammas (1950–), Palestian writer, now professor emeritus at the University of Michigan.
- Deir Yassein
Palestinian village razed after many of its inhabitants were massacred in 1948.
Yehuda Amichai (1924–2000), German-born Israeli poet.
For You (26–27)
- Michael Palmer
(1943–), American poet, associated with the experimentalist Language poetry movement. “A STATUE A RAZOR A FACT” looks like it could be a Palmer phrase, but I can’t trace it. Selections from Palmer are available on the Poetry Foundation.
- The angel of history
as in the German Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin’s famous ninth thesis on the philosophy of history: “This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.”
- What a noise the sentences make writing themselves
Palmer’s 1991 poem “Construction of the Museum” ends with the lines: “What a noise the words make / writing themselves.”
By Exiles (28–29)
- Crucified Mansoor
in an earlier publication of the poem, Shahid has a note: “Mansoor al-Hallaj, the great Muslim mystic martyr who was crucified in Baghdad for saying ‘I am the Truth’” (Veiled Suite, 297). Manṣūr al-Ḥallāj (857–922) was a Persian Sufi executed by the Abbasid regime: for a sketch of his life, see the Gale Encyclopedia of Religion, s.v. “Ḥallāj, Al-.”
- Oscar Wilde
(1854–1900) Anglo-Irish writer, famous for his wit, his aestheticism, and his scandalously public homosexuality (for which he was imprisoned and driven to exile). “Even things that are true can be proved” comes from Wilde’s preface to his 1890–1891 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.
- Edward W. Said
(1935–2003), Palestinian-American literary scholar and political writer, one of the founding figures of postcolonial theory with his celebrated book Orientalism (1979). The poem evokes Said’s New York home and his devotion to classical music (“By the Hudson lies Kashmir, brought from Palestine— / It shawls the piano, Bach beguiled by exiles.”)
Of It All (30–31)
- Anthony Lacavaro
currently (?) Principal, Aquarian Holdings, recipient of a 1998 MFA from UMass-Amherst and author of a number of poems. Presumably a student of Shahid’s.
In Real Time (32–33)
- James Merrill
(1926–1995), American poet. See on the Poetry Foundation. I am still looking in his voluminous Collected Poems for the lines cited in the epigraph.
Shahid’s note to an earlier publication of the poem reads: “Hindi word for friend” (Veiled Suite, 293). Wiktionary also offers the translations “bro, dude.”
- Daniel Hall
American poet, Writer-in-Residence at Amherst College.
Of Fire (34–35)
- W. S. Merwin
(1927–2019), American poet. See on the Poetry Foundation.
- Dara Wier
American poet who teaches at UMass-Amherst. See on the Poetry Foundation.
- “you lean over this page, / late and alone, it shines”
from Mark Strand’s poem “The Garden.”
- Reasons for moving?
Strand’s book Reasons for Moving was published in 1968. The title comes from “Keeping Things Whole”: “We all have reasons / for moving.”
- Sleeping with one eye open!
Strand’s book with this title was published in 1964.
- Darker’s first edition
a Silk Road city in Pakistan.
- WHAT THE THUNDER SAID
I won’t even give you a hint.
- Mark Strand
American, yes, poet (1934–2014).
My Word (40–41)
- James Tate
Kansas City poet (1943–2015): some poems on the Poetry Foundation.
From The Start (42–43)
- Hayden Carruth
(1921–2008). Poetry Foundation for his poems.
- The Satanic Verses
1988 novel by British Indian writer Salman Rushdie. Condemned for blasphemy by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, Rushdie was the victim of several assassination attempts.
Of Water (46–47)
- I saw Chile in my rearview mirror
because Shahid wrote a poem called “I See Chile in My Rearview Mirror” (A Nostalgist’s Map of America, 1991) which begins, “This dream of water—what does it harbor?”
As Ever (48–49)
- Ahmad Faraz
(1931–2002), Urdu-language poet.
- Christopher Merrill
American poet, translator, and journalist, and friend of the poet: see his memorial essay about Shahid.
Not All, Only a Few Return (52)
Mirza Ghalib (1797–1868), Urdu-language Indian poet, famous for his ghazals.
Even The Rain (53–54)
- “Our glosses / wanting in this world”
from Adrienne Rich’s 1986 poem “Poetry.”
- A salt pillar for the lonely lot
A reference to the story of Lot’s wife in the book of Genesis (19): Lot and his family were spared from the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, but Lot’s wife, looking back at them, was turned into a pillar of salt.
city in modern-day Uzbekistan, on the Silk Road. In his early poem “Snowmen,” Shahid writes, “My ancestor, a man / of Himalayan snow, / came to Kashmir from Samarkand” (Veiled Suite 34).
- après vous
after you (French), but the allusion is to the infamous remark of the French King Louis XV, après nous, le deluge (after Us, the flood), a byword for the attitude of a decadent elite.
Of Snow (57–58)
Hindu goddess associated with the forces of death and destruction.
see note to “Arabic” above.
About Me (60–61)
- Wislawa Szymborska
Wisława Szymborska (1923–2012), Polish poet, awarded the Nobel Prize in 1996. A translation of her poem “I Am Too Close for Him To Dream About Me” by Joann Trzeciak was published in the New Yorker, December 1, 1996.
- “Seems,” madam? Nay, it is…. /
you receive forty-four English major points if you recognize these lines from Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 2. Shahid has remixed some of Prince Hamlet’s lines responding to his mother chiding him for his excessive grief for his father.
In Marble (62–63)
- Chisti’s mother-of-pearl tomb
a Sufi shrine in Afghanistan (“shriek” in the next line puns on “shaykh,” the title given to religious leaders in Sufism).
- Taj Mahal
celebrated white marble mausoleum in Agra, India, built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in 1631.
- Hart Crane
(1899–1932), American modernist poet. The poem both quotes and alludes to Crane’s poetry.
- “I, too, was liege / To rainbows currying”
From “The Dance,” part 2, section 4 of Crane’s long poem The Bridge (1930).
- “sun took step of”
From the proem to The Bridge, “To Brooklyn Bridge.”
- “The window goes blond slowly”
From “The Harbor Dawn,” part 2, section 1 of The Bridge.
Crane again. Part 2 of The Bridge is titled “Powhatan’s Daughter”: Powhatan was the name English settlers used for the chief of the Native American people they encountered in Virginia in 1607; Pocahontas was his daughter.
- “Footprints on the Glacier”
thanks to Google, I can identify this as the title of a 1969 poem by W. S. Merwin.
- Gerard Manley Hopkins
(1844–1899), English poet. The epigraph lines are from his poem “The Candle Indoors.”
James Merrill, probably.
Beyond English (68–69)
- Baghdad is sacked
This apparently prophetic line (Shahid died in 2001, two years before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003) probably refers to paintings (“hung in miniatures”; cf. e.g. this 16th c. painting) of the sacking of Baghdad in earlier eras: most famously, Baghdad was sacked by the Mongols in 1258, leading to the downfall of the Abbasid Caliphate. But Shahid might also have had in mind the then-recent destruction caused by US air strikes against Baghdad in the First Gulf War (1991).
- never send to know for whom the bell tolled
alludes to a sermon by John Donne: Meditations 17, perhaps via Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls.
- If you want your drugs legal you must leave the States
not any more. bhung (more usually “bhang”) is Hindi/Urdu for cannabis.
- “Mother of All Battles”
widely-reported phrase used by Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 1990, in the run-up to the first Gulf War (1991).
- Lawrence Needham
American poet who has also written on Shahid.
Of Light (70–71)
- Galway Kinnell
(1927–2014), a New England poet.
- “I swallow down the goodbyes”
Kinnell’s “Goodbye,” an elegy for his mother.
For Time (73–74)
- a Guggenheim
that is, the Guggenheim fellowship, a significant award given to artists and scholars. Shahid received one in 1996.
- “Le Chaim”
Hebrew equivalent to “Cheers!” (“to life!”)
- Organized Chechens hold off Russian tanks
the (Muslim-majority) Republic of Chechnya declared its independence from Russia in 1991, leading to war from 1994 to 1996. Armed conflict resumed in 1999; Chechnya remains a part of Russia.
yoni and lingam are the Sanskrit words for the female and male genitals, respectively, particularly associated with worship of the Hindu gods Parvati and Shiva.
- On the gibbet Hallaj cried I Am the Truth
see note to “crucified Mansoor” above.
- Bartleby’s missive
Herman Melville’s 1853 short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” concludes with the narrator hearing a rumor that the stubbornly uncompliant clerk of the title “had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington.”
- Not to be Tom…I’m Viv forever
Tom and Viv are T.S. and Vivien Eliot, whose notoriously unsuccessful marriage was represented in the 1994 film Tom & Viv.
or Jamšid, mythical king of Persia, said in the middle ages to have invented wine.
- The Ganges flows from the head of Shiv forever
The wearing of ash is a practice of worshippers of the Hindu God Shiva. In the Bhagavata Purana, a Hindu sacred text, the river Ganges is said to flow from his head.
- Donald Revell
(1954–), American poet.
After You (79)
presumably the 1996 Hurricane Bertha, which, though I was in Boston at the time, I don’t remember.
In Arabic (80–81)
- perfume from a dress may let you digress
Come on, you know this one. Hint: rhymes with “blue sock.”
This poem is annotated on the Poetry Foundation, where you can also read the poetry critic Stephanie Burt’s long but very helpful essay on it. The “Kashmiri Song” by the British (Indian-resident) poet “Laurence Hope” quoted at the start of the poem was quite popular in the US and Britain in the early 1900s: YouTube preserves a 1923 recording by film star Rudolph Valentino of the 1902 musical setting by Amy Woodforde-Finden.
- “Fabrics of Cashmere”
phrases from “I am ashamed - I hide,” an 1862 poem by Emily Dickinson.
This word ultimately comes from the same Arabic root as ghazal.
- “And I, Shahid, only am escaped to tell thee— / God sobs in my arms. Call me Ishmael tonight.”
Perhaps annotation is superfluous, but I see that the Poetry Foundation notes I linked to do not tell you that Shahid is citing Melville’s citation of the Book of Job: “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee” is the epigraph to the epilogue of Moby-Dick, where the narrator, Ishmael, explains he is the lone survivor of the wreck of the Pequod. “Call me Ishmael,” quite possibly the most famous sentence in American literature, is how the same narrator introduces himself in the first chapter. In Melville’s novel as perhaps in Shahid’s poem, the exile becomes a lone escapee.
By way of general biographical background, here is a brief chronology, with some dates for the contemporaneous history of Shahid’s homeland, Kashmir, which, however, is much more than a conflict flashpoint: as Shahid’s poetry suggests, it has been a meeting-point of cultures for a long time.
1947: India gains independence from British rule. Pakistan separates from India (Partition); in the ensuing violent exchange of populations, 1–2 million people die and 14–18 million people are displaced. The legal arrangements for Indian independence promise that Kashmir will hold a referendum to decide which country it will join; the Indian constitution also gives Kashmir limited autonomy. The referendum has never yet been held, and both countries claim the territory; a significant independence movement also arises. (China also claims part of the same territory, and control is currently divided among the three.)
1949 Agha Shahid Ali b. in New Delhi, India, in an English- and Urdu-speaking Shi’a Muslim household. Childhood in Srinagar, Kashmir.
1951-3? In Indiana with his parents (who attend graduate school at Ball State University).
1953? Family returns to India.
1965 India and Pakistan are at war over Kashmir.
1968 BA University of Kashmir, Srinagar.
1970 MA University of Delhi, where he then teaches.
1971 India and Pakistan are again at war over Kahsmir.
1972 Bone-Sculpture (Kolkata: Writers Workshop): Shahid’s first book.
1975 Moves to the United States permanently.
1979 In Memory of Begum Akhtar (Kolkata: Writers Workshop).
1984 PhD in English, Penn State University (dissertation on T.S. Eliot).
1985 MFA, University of Arizona.
1987 The Half-Inch Himalayas (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press); A Walk Through the Yellow Pages (Tuscon: SUN/Gemini). Becomes professor of creative writing at Hamilton College (NY).
1989 Muslim-led insurrection against the state government in Kashmir; violent clashes between independence fighters and the Indian government.
1990 Martial law declared in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir; the subsequent decade is marked by continuing violence.
1991 A Nostalgist’s Map of America: Poems (New York: Norton); The Rebel’s Silhouette: Faiz Ahmed Faiz, trans. Agha Shahid Ali (Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Books).
1993 Becomes professor of creative writing at University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
1997 The Country Without a Post Office (New York: Norton); Shahid’s mother, Sufia Nomani, d. of brain cancer
1999 India and Pakistan fight again over Kashmir.
2000 Agha Shahid Ali, ed., Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press). Diagnosed with brain cancer.
2002 Rooms Are Never Finished (New York: Norton).
2003 Call Me Ishmael Tonight (New York: Norton). India and Pakistan agree to a ceasefire.
2009 The Veiled Suite: The Collected Poems (New York: Norton).
2019 The Indian government revokes the partial legal autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir and divides and reorganizes the state; mass arrests and lockdowns follow.
Sources: The Veiled Suite; Kazim Ali, ed., Mad Heart Be Brave: Essays on the Poetry of Agha Shahid Ali (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2017), JSTOR; “Kashmir Profile,” January 24, 2023, bbc.com; Wikipedia, s.v. “History of Kashmir”; Jahan Ramazani, “Agha Shahid Ali,” in The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, 3rd. ed., vol. 2, Contemporary Poetry, 887–88.
Last updated March 3, 2023.