for Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001)
There’s no sugar in the Promised Land.
Swear by the olive in the God-kissed land.
I heard your laughter in the jackal’s howl
When the monks chanted in the Psalmist’s land.
They knelt on the mountain top, pilgrims of the Book,
Until the viper in the rod hissed, “Stand!”
Prophets, oracles, and bards agree:
The tyrant always plays the dumbest hand.
The way you danced along the crowded bar—
The saffron harvest in a star-crossed land.
Our teacher, moon-tanned, slept with one eye open.
He was the absence of field, the sodless strand.
The faithful praying in the catacombs—
Do they measure what they must withstand?
These orders from Iberia remain
In effect: Like unto like. All others banned.
They set sail without charts or compass, searching
For the lost tribes, and never missed land.
Lava and salt spray and your final couplet:
New worlds inscribed in parchment, pumice, sand.
The cemeteries above Sarajevo
Extend the boundaries of a lost land.
Your favorite show: General Hospital.
Shall we go for a walk? No! I’ll get tanned.
In Beirut, Baghdad, and Jerusalem
The war photographers are in command.
The heart turned terrorist when the poet died.
Now all the world’s a revolutionist land.
If Paradise is full of stationary, write
To me in your most lavish, embossed hand.
Eat seven olives, my grandmother said,
And you will never live in a famished land.
Another war in the imperium?
The poet’s warnings can be read, glossed, scanned.
Unwitnessed in the night, the empty mosques
And temples burn in the Belovéd’s land.
The new exhibit in the war museum—
Portraits commissioned in a possessed land.
Ragas at daybreak, Motown at midnight:
You sang for everyone, a wind-tossed band.
Will this Christ-bearer find his only friend
In the Promised Land—in blesséd Shahid’s land?