Poem

Snow on the Desert

Agha Shahid Ali

“Each ray of sunshine is eight minutes old,”
Serge told me in New York one December
night. “So when one looks at the sky, one sees

the past?” “Yes, Yes,” he said, “especially
on a clear day.” On January 19,
1987, as I very

early in the morning drove my sister
to Tucson International, suddenly
on Alvernon and 22nd Street

the sliding doors of the fog were opened,
and the snow, which had fallen all night, now
sun-dazzled, blinded us, the earth whitened

out, as if by cocaine, the desert’s plants,
its mineral-hard colors extinguished,
wine frozen in the veins of the cactus.

* * *

The Desert Smells Like Rain: in it I read:
The syrup from which sacred wine is made

is extracted from the saguaros each
summer. The Papagos place it in jars,

where the last of it softens, then darkens
into a color of blood though it tastes

strangely sweet, almost white, like a dry wine.
As I tell Sameetah this, we are still

seven miles away. “And you know the flowers
of the saguaros bloom only at night?”

We are driving slowly, the road is glass.
“Imagine where we are was a sea once.”

Gathering speed, I repeat, “Imagine,
just imagine!” The sky is relentlessly

sapphire, and the past is happening quickly:
the saguaros have opened themselves, stretched

out their arms to rays millions of years old,
in each ray a secret of the planet’s

origin, the rays hurting each cactus
into memory, a human memory—

for they are human, the Papagos say:
not only because they have arms and veins and

secrets. But because they too are a tribe,
vulnerable to massacre. “It is like

the end, perhaps the beginning of the world,”
Sameetah says, staring at their snow-drenched

arms. And we are driving by the ocean
that evaporated here, by its shores,

the past now happening so quickly that each
stop light hurts us into memory, the sky

taking rapid notes on us as we turn
at Tucson Boulevard and drive into

the airport, and I realize that the earth
is thawing from longing into longing and

that we are being forgotten by those arms.

* * *

At the airport I stared after her plane
till the window was

                         a mirror again.
As I drove back to the foothills, the fog

shut its doors behind me on Alvernon,
and I breathed the dried seas

                         the earth had lost,
their forsaken shores. And I remembered

another moment that refers only
to itself:

                         in New Delhi one night as
Begum Akhtar sang, the lights went out. It

was perhaps during the Bangladesh War,
perhaps there were sirens,

                         air-raid warnings.
But the audience, hushed, did not stir.

The microphone was dead, but she went on
singing, and her voice

                         was coming from far
away, as if she had already died.

Like this turning darkness of the fog, it
was a moment when only

                         a lost sea
can be heard, a time to recollect every

shadow, everything the earth was losing,
a time to think of everything

                         the earth
and I had lost, of all that I would lose,

of all that I was losing.

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