The Leap



Starling. Photograph by Raman Kumar, via Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC0 4.0.

The poet Agha Shahid Ali died of brain cancer in Amherst, Massachusetts, a world away from the beloved Kashmir of his childhood, twenty-one years ago today. The title of the book he published that year, Rooms Are Never Finished, testifies to the unfinished work of a writer whose life ended too soon, at the age of fifty-two.

In his first poem published in The Paris Review,Snow on the Desert,” Ali wrote about another singer interrupted mid-performance:

                          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.

Ali, too, continued to sing after darkness had fallen, with the posthumous publication of his landmark collection of ghazals, Call Me Ishmael Tonight, in 2003. Few poets have done so much to further our contemporary appreciation of the ghazal—an ancient Arabic verse form that’s shaped the historical course of classical Persian and modern Indian poetry over many centuries. What Ali once called the ghazal’s “ravishing disunities” have been adopted by American poets from Daniel Hall to Reginald Dwayne Betts, Patricia Smith, and countless young writers in introductory poetry workshops today.

I teach the poems of Call Me Ishmael Tonight, including “A Ghazal for Michael Palmer,” to my students every year. Though I never met Ali, it’s a way of remembering him. I learn something new from his poetry whenever I revisit it, and on the anniversary of his death, we’re fortunate enough to share a new ghazal by one of Ali’s own former students, the poet Daniel Beachy-Quick, in memory of the “The mind / Love rushes through.”

—Srikanth “Chicu” Reddy, poetry editor

The Leap
               —in memory, Agha Shahid Ali

The Belovéd is here, at his old desk, in the dark wood attic of the mind—
A starling sits in a chair, a student who brought a poem, learning love’s mind.

The Belovéd tells a story about his mother in Kashmir, of her ring
Through which she pulled the radiant yards of a sari, an image of the mind’s

Nature, poor starling—not the sun-bright pure silk which cannot be yours, but the ring
Worn behind the eyes, ring you cannot take off, wed to what, dear starling? The mind

Love rushes through, leaving behind no saffron thread, no saffron scent, no crocus,
No continent. The heart lives on the wound that’s killing it. The nostalgist’s mind

Is cartographer of that wound—golden grapes grow plump in the tagine, the blood
Pheasants hide in the meadow below the mountains, & God casts down into the mind’s

Gloom another sullen angel. A gazelle licks her wound. Put your faith in form
Was the hidden lesson, never said. Was, is. Eternity grammars the mind

Into ever stranger tenses. The Belovéd sits in the attic at his desk
Still waiting for a starling to bring a poem, decades since the tumor in the mind

That killed his mother killed him, too. I heard the report on the FM radio
In cold Chicago. What breaks the form break the

Mind. But doesn’t break time. What does? Ask the gazelle for a lesson on rhyme.
Now countless starlings murmur around me, reciting the same song, never mind

Never mind. & me, a starling, too. “Quick, quick, goes the starling,” do you know that poem?
That’s what you asked me when you met me. Hearing my name. Oh, Belovéd—never mind.


Dan BeachyQuick is a poet, essayist, and translator. His most recent books are Arrows (Tupelo 2020) and a collection of ancient Greek verse, Stone-Garland (Milkweed Editions, 2020).