Is history deaf there, across the oceans?
Agha Shahid Ali
On the shore, you hear nothing above the water’s
old insistence, but the slow clatter of pellets
teased out one by one from the child’s face. When
you look back at the bruised world: a dim car scaling
the lit highway through the canyon, & a window
where a hand draws a grey curtain. In the shallows,
the brown pelican resumes its last hunt of the day,
one big wing cresting the blue maw of a wave. The
swirling lift, the awkward plunge, & the squirming
hunger it comes up with in its tangled beak. The quiet
after: floating above the undertow, possessed in the feed,
as a frenzied gull lands beside it, cleaning the leftover
off its long yellow beak. How they both drift on the ebb
of this moment, sharing this warm flesh mauled open
into blessing, staring at the ocean stately as the tall
faces of ships. Once, you saw a mute girl say grace
over dinner in a language so heavy with hands,
her face closed up in a busy silence, you knew then,
the sole function of prayer was to beg the god
of oneself to be saved. So in the salt of grief, we’re
not forsaken, numbed by what exits our body in horror,
we’re not driven to claw at our faces in the dark.
The sundown flaring over the pacific, & the one
long fold of a wave trying to swim back to shore.
The evening air a cross between lantana camaras
& eucalyptus, both airy signposts of childhood
like an old croon of a ghazal in praise of alcohol
remembered only in a regressing sadness now.
You hear the river back home has changed its course,
flooding through the living rooms of your town,
an angry murk roiling with a singular desire to bring
to surface every lost map of your grandfather’s revolution.
In the valley, they haven’t finished blinding the children
with the 12-gauge, & somewhere else they’re erasing
borders as the bombsites turn green over hurried graves.
In the half light, walking up to your apartment,
the evening fog looming over the hills, you encounter
a family of deer come down from the barren hill
to nibble on dates & blue-eyed grass. At night,
you hear the coyotes howl, & you pray for the fawn,
the only startled passenger of the unit, no more than
a few weeks old, flicking its clean ears & wobbling
by the bottlebrush, not used to the stench of the animal
hunger that stops its mother still on her tracks.
HIS CHARRED HAND HOLDS THE BLUEPRINT AMONG THE ASHES
The old man loved his sleep,
my father remarked to the visitors
a week after Grandfather died.
I was twelve
& the cruel metaphor wasn’t lost on me.
And indeed, that’s how I remember
him in his final days, slumbering
through afternoons on end, alone
in the dank, half-constructed first floor
of the house we called ‘upstairs’,
with stray cats for company,
the other rooms crammed
with old wood & chests of rare coins,
brooding over this failing architecture.
This man once feared by the whole town
now reduced to a fetish
of hoarding lumber, an unreasonable fear
of hospitals, and a refusal
to face the waking hours.
So when he did die, for days
it felt like he would cough at the door
and enter, & no one would dare say a word.
Upstairs, where I never went alone
for years until
my mother cleared a room
and opened a beauty salon.
One day I took my friend there
and plucked his eyebrows clean
gnawing at a thread wound round my fingers,
just the way I’d seen my mother do it.
Five years later, a fever killed him.
I came to the city.
My uncle married again & moved
to a room on the first floor with his wife,
& my mother closed down the salon.
Now when I’m back home & go upstairs,
sometimes there is a moment
when I walk across the balcony
& enter the hall. A moment
when the old hesitation comes back
in the cobwebbed dark when a bruised cat
slinks through a broken window,
& I smell Grandfather’s musk
in the sunless air, fossilized in the dust
& old teak hollowed by termites.
I think of the dream my father had,
months after Grandfather’s death:
the old man waking up here,
resigned & hysterical as the night he died,
making a soft noise of our names in the dark,
still hearing our voices downstairs,
tentative laughter testing the air,
us going about our days through
the quiet, forgetful grief,
& hearing too the grey clamor of the street.
I imagine him wanting to burst forth
into our bright static of flesh,
through my father’s dream,
& now through this air I stand on
that his will is kneading so thin
& timeless, like a yawn that quietens
the whole world for a few edgeless seconds
to a seclusion of jaws.
Rohan Chhetri is a Nepali-Indian poet. His first book of poems, Slow Startle (Winner of the “Emerging Poets Prize”) was published recently by The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective. His poems have been appeared in or are forthcoming in Fulcrum, Prelude, Rattle and EVENT, among others. He was a 2016 Norman Mailer Poetry Fellow.