The Veiled Sweets: Agha Shahid Ali’s Surprising Use of Humor

By Ravi Shankar


The headline of a recent newspaper article by Sadiq Ali reads, “Humourous Kashmiris now resort to dark humor.” The article goes on to describe how exceedingly the inhabitants of the war-marred land in the northwest corner of India, where Agha Shahid Ali hails from, use black humor to mitigate the ongoing violence and absurd tug-of-war between India and Pakistan over a land that has been described as “heaven on earth,” because of its resplendent natural beauty. According to the article, India’s prestigious IIT (or India Institute of Technology) is short for International Institute of Terrorism for the valley dwellers and in an exchange that could have been plucked out of a stanza of Shahid’s own work, “recently a teenage boy threatened his beloved by sending a message, “Talk to me or my heart will blow like a grenade.”

According to psychologists humor has often been used as an adaptive defense mechanism, especially in the face of stress. From the time of the 1848 March Revolutions, the Germans coined the phrase galgenhumor, or gallows humor, to indicate the ways in which cynical laughter can defuse the very real danger that might be prevalent. Another German, Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel described this phenomenon in his memoir Night, where the prisoners of concentration camps often used humor as a buffer against the unremitting suffering they had to endure.

There’s even an Italian phrase to that effect, “una risata vi seppellirà,” or “laughter will bury you”. As Martin Armstrong has written, “For a few moments, under the spell of laughter, the whole man is completely and gloriously alive: body, mind and soul vibrate in unison… the mind flings open its doors and windows… its foul and secret places are ventilated and sweetened.”

Seen through that lens, it’s not surprising perhaps that Shahid, who prematurely lost a country and a mother, and indeed his own life, should be such a famous wit, his humor always leavened by grief, his coquettish charm deepened with spiritual ardor. Take a poem like “Vacating an Apartment” from his collection The Half-Inch Himalayas (the title of the book itself an example of his sense of the absurd; the world’s tallest mountain range reduced to the proportions of a fingernail on a postcard), which begins:

Efficient as Fate,
each eye a storm trooper,

the cleaners wipe my smile
with Comet fingers
and tear the plaster
off my suicide note.

They learn everything
from the walls’ eloquent tongues.

Now, quick as genocide,
they powder my ghost for a cinnamon jar.

They burn my posters
(India and Heaven in flames),

whitewash my voicestains,

make everything new,
clean as Death.

We’ve all left behind a residence, but I daresay have never described the experience as the speaker of Shahid’s poem does, with the eyes of the cleaners compared to the popular culture reference of storm-troopers, the cloned conscripts of the Galactic Empire in Star Wars with their signature white battle armor, paragons of inhuman efficiency. The cleaners are amnesia-inducers, and they wipe the evidence of any presence with “Comet-fingers.” Leave it to Shahid to seed in the subtle stellar reference, though juxtaposed with his smile, it’s fairly clear which might coruscate with cosmic dust. Next, the very idea that a suicide note would be plastered to a wall is darkly hilarious. Who does that? Who leaves a note of intimate distress hanging around for everyone to see?

I find unexpected humor in the juxtaposition of genocide with a cinnamon jar. I can’t think of another poet that might have us grinning, however lopsidedly at the specter of mass extermination, and yet here is the speaker comparing the cleaning of his apartment, peopled with memories, to a massacre and then the whimsical and sensory image of a cinnamon jar. Accordingly, in no other poem might seeing India and Heaven (one assumes that he might mean Kashmir) in flames be a source of pleasure, but here it is, perhaps because readers are aware throughout the poem that they are in on the joke, that there’s something resolutely tongue-in-cheek about the description. Surely the cleaning of an apartment is not genocide, and India is not being razed by fire; it would be preposterous even to make the suggestion, which is precisely why the poem is so funny.

Even the end of this section with the memorable phrase, “whitewash my voicestains,” gets at the character of this speaker. One can imagine what high-pitched tones and hoarse whispers might have painted the walls with indelible stains and the cleaners, oblivious to the life lived in the apartment, clean the abode with the force of death. Again, the specter of mortality is brought into comic relief; there’s a kind of dying that happens when we abdicate a physical space but it’s melodramatic, intentionally so, to make such a comparison.

Other poems also foreground Shahid’s cheeky wit, perhaps none more so than the poem from Rooms are Never Finished whose title is longer than the body of the verse: “On Hearing a Lover Not Seen for Twenty Years Has Attempted Suicide.” The poem in its entirety reads:

I suspect it was over me.

This is classic Shahid, the narcissist who mocks himself and takes something potentially tragic (suicide) and renders it as a source of flirtation and self-aggrandization. This is even funnier, in its grim way, when we consider that the speaker of these poems has revealed to us in an earlier book that his own suicide note was once plastered to the wall of his apartment and when that study in brevity is next to another memorable one-line found poem entitled “Suicide Note”:

I could not simplify myself.

Shahid’s poems are never simple but elaborate artifices of loss and grief, papered over with passion, rendered in a signature style that is often, unexpectedly, funny, proving what 18th-century Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson described in his work Logic, Metaphysics and the Natural Sociability of Mankind: “Some of the things that happen to us appear delightful, fitting, glorious, and honorable to us, while others seem vile and contemptible, and we may discern yet another reflexive sense: a sense of things that are ridiculous or apt to cause laughter, that is, when a thing arouses contrary sensations at one and the same time… we are moved to laughter by those which exhibit some splendid spectacle at the same time as a contradictory image of something cheap, lowly, and contemptible. This sense is very beneficial, whether in increasing the pleasure of conversation or in correcting men’s morals.”

I think of Shahid’s third book, A Walk Through the Yellow Pages, as a hallmark of the incongruity that Hutcheson describes and as the funniest book that Shahid ever wrote. The title of the collection refers to the catch phrase that the yellow pages used to be described by—“let your fingers do the walking.” The poetic sequence “Bell Telephone Hours,” deals explicitly with the moment of consumerism that we live in, so at odds with the magical, ritualistic place of our emotional lives. Each of the number sections of the poem is named with one of those catch phrases that pollute the airwaves—“Call long distance: the next best thing to being there” or “It’s getting late. Do your friends know where you are?” In the poem these bits of commercial cliché are unpeeled like an onion to arrive at the void at the center of attempts to connect with one another. “Directory Assistance,” one of the poems reads, “gave me the magic number/ for Necropolis, U.S.A.” Another tells us, “I’m at the phone booth,/ talking long distance to the dead./ This is the longest distance/ I’ve called. And the bill is running up.”

What are poems if not calls placed into the ether, urgent messages to those who can no longer hear us, conversations we might have had if the facets of mortality didn’t get in the way? To render such plaintive emotions in the language of commercial culture is funny, but again the kind of humor that doesn’t make us simply chuckle as a Billy Collins poem might; rather we realize that the boundary between the comedic and the tragic is porous and that we laugh to keep from crying, to keep from dying. “I called Information Desk, Heaven,/ and asked, “When is Doomsday?”/ I was put on hold.” Who can’t relate to that fact of contemporary life, the ceaseless waiting, the lack of resolution and annoyance of having to deal with such operators? And the idea that someone can call God directly is amusing, as if we could find out the answer to life’s mysteries simply by picking up our receiver. The end of that section is existential humor at its bleakest and brightest: “God is busy./ He never answers the living./ He has no answers for the dead./ Don’t ever call again collect.”

Another poem from this collection “Language Games” seems on the surface to be an insider jibe at the turn in the poetry world towards “language poetry,” defined by critic Marjorie Perloff as “the dismissal of “voice” as the foundational principle of lyric poetry.” Shahid’s work is nothing if not the confabulation of voice, pitched against encroaching loss like the keening of furious angels. But like many of Shahid’s poems, the criticism transcends mere poetics, and the punning that takes place in this poem is delicious. We’re presented with a Scrabble game where all the speaker’s seven letters are vowels, anagrams for sleeping pills, a game of Truth AND (not or) Consequences, and a game of Charades which, through Shahid’s characteristic jocularity, gets at the dire seriousness of even the most frivolous language games:

Tableau One: I licked a saucer of milk.
You cried: CAT!
Tableau Two: I was stubborn as a mule.
You cried: ASS!
Tableau Three: I gave you my smile, like a prize.
You cried: TROPHY!

You cried: CAT-ASS-TROPHY?

Another poem from this collection, “Poets on Bathroom Walls,” begins with the speaker and his female poet friend, “sipping our Miller Lites, you/ announce you must take a break./ So you’re off, dear girl, to those/ remote regions where women do/ sitting what I do standing.” This is Shahid of the elaborate canzones and regal villanelles at his casual, American-idiom best and it would have been pleasant enough to stay on this register, light as the beer they sip on, but the poem’s trajectories takes us to graffiti on a stall in a woman’s bathroom and then, as where so many of the poems seem to arrive, to desire, the missed encounter, the belief in the redemptive quality of love, even that which takes the form of red lipstick scrawl where women pee. The world conspires against this, we realize, and the poet memorializes the missed encounter because in it one senses the crave and ache of our own innermost appeals.

A Walk Through the Yellow Pages is filled with such comedic gems, droll and mordant poems, highbrow yet ironic, but never without something sincere and deeply felt to buoy up the punch line… if there is a punch line at all. The fairy tale poems in this collection are inventive and formally funny, like “An Interview with Red Riding Hood, No Now No Longer Little,” with the epigraph from Grimm’s original tale, “how dark it was inside the wolf.” Like Anne Sexton in her Transformations, Shahid takes the raw materials of the fairy tale and makes them his own and while a Q-and-A with Red Riding Hood seems like it should be funny, brining the modern form of the interview to bear on this mythical creature, when the poem ends with the assertion, “how warm it was inside the wolf!”, any facile humor and our predetermined expectations have been overturned. Red Riding Hood craves and misses that fetal consumption, being devoured and housed in the dark belly of the beast. And another such poem, “Hansel’s Game” has Hansel and Gretel’s happily-ever-after rendered as keeping the witch in an icebox and serving her up for special occasions, their old father washing her blood from the dishes. Now if that’s not more grim that Grimm, I’m not sure what is!

My favorite “funny” poem from this collection has to be “Christmas, 1980s,” which begins in typical dark humoristic fashion:

In America
it is also the season of suicides

The trees light up red in shop-windows
What I touch is charged with voltage

I hear the lethal carols
as I make contacts
among Hell’s Angels

It’s true, of course, that the suicide rate takes a bump up during the holiday season, the counterpoint to the masses of gleeful children unwrapping excess under their glittering trees, the homeless vet poised along the steel girding of a bridge about to leap. I love the image of the speaker cruising for a date among the grizzled members of a motorcycle gang; and what a play on words, the spirit of hell’s angels, flitting from nativity scene to shop window, opening wide our eyes.

The poem continues with a litany of first-person sentences. First one, then two, then three in a stanza, then a heart-stopping ending which seems to capture the American enterprise in one fell swoop:

I lift the phone

I dial a joke
I don’t laugh

I call Cops for Christ
I call Murder, Inc.
I call Reverend Moon

I make an obscene call
to the White House

I light a candle in my window
brief for any doomed republic

the flame out

It’s funny, but we, like the speaker, don’t laugh (and again another image of the telephone, which permeates Shahid’s work, as if he was a latter day adherent to Frank O’Hara’s Personism movement, where he too wants to put “the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style”). The juxtaposition makes evident the connections—the ministry of police officers dedicated to sharing the gospel are no different than the groups of organized crime are no different than a self-proclaimed Korean messiah are no different than the very seat of American politics. There’s humor here and yet the undercurrent is one of outrage, of disenfranchisement, and when that candle goes out—poof!—it’s as if the veneer of Christmas has been dropped and what stares back at us is ourselves, only completely disfigured.

Throughout Shahid’s work there’s this vein of humor which catches us off-guard, makes us laugh, then reconsider our laughing, and then reconsider our reconsidering. As Huma Dar has written in a moving tribute to him,“his [Shahid’s] jokes, tinged with a very particular Kashmiri black humor—irreverent, risqué, ridiculous—mirrored my family’s wacky one.” Even in his final book, arguably his most austere, there are poems like “After You,” which puns on the fact of hurricanes being given commonplace names. There’s a great verbal pun in the first couplet of this ghazal—“no one is left in this world to be blamed after you”—then the poem goes on to list the names of some of the year’s hurricanes, from Andrew to George, though lamenting that, much to the speaker’s chagrin, “S comes so late in the alphabet that although SHAHID DEVASTATES FLORIDA is your dream headline/no hurricane will be named after you.” Even in the colloquy of disaster names, Shahid is a perpetual exile and does not belong.

Throughout his work, when we least expect it, we are moved by his twinkling, which destabilizes us when we have been considering such heavy, mournful subjects. In an expansive, elegiac poem like “A Fate’s Brief Memoir,” there are surprising moments where we are moved by his wit, as in the second section of the poem:

Are you feminists? YOU must be an athlete
to have climbed so neatly all this way to us.
We too outwit Ways we cannot defeat—

through dashes—so imagine! To become conscious
thus in this island universe—no past—
born cold holding steel in our hands? Jesus!

I never swear, but… notice the thinness
of breaths about to break. We recycle
them wholly black till their cobwebs incandesce

into—see those sheets: our letterheads: no last
name, just FATE FATE FATE and then for address
(cross it out!) ETERNITY. That we’ve outclassed.

To set aside the sonic mastery of the off-rhymes that begin and end the first and last line of each tercet, the humor of these stanzas is both subtle and overt, full of references and cheeky asides to other poets. Outwitting Ways that we cannot defeat, like Emily Dickinson, with dashes? That’s certainly burial by laughter. And then there’s the admission that the speaker never swears which feels full of self-conscious deprecation, especially when we know that later in his work Shahid will “seduce God Himself and fuck the sexless angels.” Then finally that wonderful parenthetical in the final stanza, with its overt reference to Elizabeth Bishop telling herself to (write it!) in her villanelle “One Art.” Here Shahid tells himself to do just the opposite and (cross it out!), which is what he does, taking no consolation in the afterlife, in what the fates might have consigned for him.

Another section of the same poem states:

I hold your breath. Look, I slow my fingers.
Do you now see why we give no interviews?
When you leave my hands will again be spiders.

What is this underlined? I hate VALUES…
I only prize a crisp prose: it sharpens
The dullest life. O, I’ve gone on. Well, spread this news:

PAST PRESENT FUTURE: not for us these prisons—
Like the Norns! What a name! One thing we know:
We won’t be compared with our Icelandic cousins;

They have no manner…

The logic of that first stanza above has the characteristic movement of a non sequitur, moving from the pun of “holding your breath” instead of one’s own, to the rhetorical question about giving no interviews, to the surreal transformation of the hands into arachnids. The poem goes on to lambast capitalized “values,” like family values or any doctrinaire type of thinking that aims to homogenize us, then claims to prize only prose, a funny idea to express in a poem! And then the speaker catches himself with the conversational “O, I’ve gone on,” then proceeding go on some more, finally arriving at the Norns, the female beings in Norse mythology that are akin to the Fates in Greek mythology who determine the destinies of gods and men. These benevolent and malevolent beings were said to arrive when a person is born to help determine their destiny. Even while acknowledging their powers, the poem makes fun of their name and then disassociates any connection with them, claiming that they lack manner, both in the sense of style but also behavior. For after all, the Norse are most known for Vikings, who are uncouth marauders of the basest kind.

The poem continues to encompass mortality and desolation, not humorous subjects, not in the least, but it arrives at its capacious conclusion only through the veiled sweets of a gently ironic and playful sensibility. This is the case with many of Shahid’s poems, which are full-throated embodiments—and embroideries—of keen intelligence and rapturous emotion, always in light of the many losses that the poet has—and will continue to suffer. According to another philosopher, the Danish existentialist Søren Kierkegaard, “humor is the last stage of existential awareness before faith” and in Shahid’s poems which orbit around matters of faith like a gravitationally compelled satellite, the comic is a stage of belief that through sheer force of will minimizes the great distance we have to travel to be reunited with our beloveds and merge with the divine. Wit is never merely witty in his work, but knotty, flirty, complex, resonant and intimately close to the facts of aesthetics and mortality, which, because such subjects are no laughing matter, can’t help but make us smile, even laugh a little, maybe even riotously in the face of those factotums and institutional killjoys who would patrol the borders of our imagination. Shahid might not have devastated Florida, but he devastates us, time and time again, in no small measure because he is so masterfully and agonizingly damn funny.

Ravi Shankar teaches at CCSU and City University of Hong Kong and is a founding editor of Drunken Boat. Recent translations of his appear at the Cortland Review, prose at the Poetry Society of America and The New York Times, poetry at the Poetry Foundation and the Chronicle of Higher Education and an interview at The Conversant and on the BBC. He judges Carolina Wren Press’s poetry book award, and his book of collaborative poems What Else Could It Be will be published by that press in spring 2015.

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