It’s no secret the poet Agha Shahid Ali was gay. Though his sexuality is hinted at only occasionally in his poems, Shahid, on a personal level, was always open about his gayness. So if we ‘ve never heard Shahid’s name mentioned much in circles of gay literati, it’s largely due to the fact that each passing month sees the release of more and more volumes of poetry, and possibly just as many anthologies, more and more of them written and compiled by out gay men. From this perspective, Shahid can get lost in the shuffle. But if you knew Shahid, or if you admire any of the work he left behind, you’ll know he can’t, he won’t be lost—not in the thumbing of newly-printed pages, not in the shuffle of our constantly-multitasking memories and not even in the folds of what was once Shahid’s rather gay wardrobe.

My account of the week I spent with The Master involves two other gay students who also enrolled in Shahid’s week-long class at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work in the summer of 1998. I will call the two other students X and Y. They were in their twenties; I was 33; and Shahid, pushing 50, was ageless in his impishness, at once world weary and wicked in his outlook. The demographics of the class made for a total of four, age-spanning queers in a group of about 15. Shahid democratically spent one evening socializing with the entire class. But he reserved one night for just the bird-boys of a feather. That same evening I was scheduled to meet him at his cottage for my individual tutorial. Eager to impress, I showed up at the appointed time, not one second too early or a minute too late.

Shahid answered the door dressed pretty much the way he always dressed for class, perhaps a little too warmly, a colorful sequined vest pulled over his long-sleeve tee, his belly protruding over his belt, his hands and wrists bedecked in yet another set of rings and bracelets.

“What?” he asked, flashing a dark-eyed, penetrating smile at me. He was shorter than I am and had to reach up to hug me.

“What?”

“Nothing,” I said. “You look very festive, that’s all. I like your necklace.”

“Oh, thank you, my dear,” he replied, looking as though he didn’t quite believe me, but moving us in the direction of a coffee table. It was sitting at that coffee table I became surer of myself around Shahid; surer that his kind of gay understood my kind of gay. He “got” the references to gay sex in my beginner’s poems. And if he didn’t pronounce any of them a masterpiece, he was engaged enough for me to understand I was getting somewhere. Because I’d brought a villanelle with me, Shahid told me the story about the first time he sent a poem he’d written in some prescribed form—a sonnet, was it?—to James Merrill. Merrill wasted no time sending the poem back—with a rhyming dictionary! A rhyming dictionary was, in fact, a required text for Shahid’s class. So it came as no surprise when one day, in class, Shahid read to us Merrill’s “Charles on Fire.”

 

              CHARLES ON FIRE

Another evening we sprawled about discussing
Appearances. And it was the consensus
That while uncommon physical good looks
Continued to launch one, as before, in life
(Among its vaporous eddies and false claims),
Still, as one of us said into his beard,
“Without your intellectual and spiritual
Values, man, you are sunk.” No one but squared
The shoulders of their own unloveliness.
Long-suffering Charles, having cooked and served the meal,
Now brought out little tumblers finely etched
He’d filled with amber liquor and then passed.
“Say,” said the same young man, “in Paris, France,
They do it this way”—bounding to his feet
And touching a lit match to our host’s full glass.
A blue flame, gentle, beautiful, came, went
Above the surface. In a hush that fell
We heard the vessel crack. The contents drained
As who should step down from a crystal coach.
Steward of spirits, Charles’s glistening hand
All at once gloved itself in eeriness.
The moment passed. He made two quick sweeps and
Was flesh again. “It couldn’t matter less,”
He said, but with a shocked, unconscious glance
Into the mirror. Finding nothing changed,
He filled a fresh glass and sank down among us.

 

Actually, besides Shahid reading us the poem just to show how subtly half rhymes can be put to use—“consensus,” “unloveliness,” “glass,” “matter less,” Shaid read it to us to show how Merrill hypnotically laced “Charles on Fire” with “vaporous eddies,” “amber liquor,” “a blue flame,” a “surface,” a “vessel” that cracks, “spirits,” and, finally, the word “sank”—all this to give the anecdotal poem imagistic and poetic unity. Last but certainly not least, at least not for the purposes of this piece, Shahid pointed out that the poem is about a group of gay men “sprawled about discussing / Appearances”—discussing, to put in another way, the beauty of men.

 

*

Moving from bar to street and street to bar the four of us—Shahid and his three star-struck students—were not having the most memorable night out. I was on the wagon. And Shahid and X and Y were not, one way or the other, deliriously up or depressingly down, inebriated. We may all in fact have been a little bored—if not with each other then at least with P-town’s mix of townies n’ tourists. The typical P-town tourist tends to be a clone, the hypermasculine man sporting his muscles for himself and the likes of himself.

As the night wore on we found ourselves in leather bar—a musky place where the four of us couldn’t have been more out of place. But Shahid—O, Shahid!—was leaning confidently against the bar, one elbow propped on its surface, the other at his side. X and Y and I were busy trying to make our drinks last, trying not to gawk too much at the beauty of the many men around us and trying, most of all, not to look at the TV screen. I, in particular, was trying not to look at the TV screen. I wasn’t succeeding much, you see, because one of the actors in a large orgy scene was a man I’d slept with. And since I always used illegal vapors of a sort to bait this particular man, I didn’t really sleep with him so much as I…

“I can’t imagine sex like that,” Shahid, who had not taken his eyes off the porn, finally said. “I have to have kissing. I have to have romance.”

Porn, then, is a “hot” part of gay popular culture Shahid didn’t much care for. No, for Shahid sex, it seems, had to rhyme. And if it didn’t rhyme, then perhaps it had at least to half-rhyme because, let’s face it, sex doesn’t always rhyme, even with those we love.

This above may border on the sentimental. So in my defense I will tell one more story. This particular story features Shahid’s taste in music, which, to my mind, was far more pedestrian than his taste in porn. He told it to me in a Commercial Street bookshop. X and Y were at the counter, giggling and conferring with each other while they paid for something and voila!—Barbara Streisand’s “Evergreen” came blasting over the store’s loudspeakers, causing them to quiver and vibrate. And it was then, quivering and vibrating himself, that Shahid told me about the time he’d just broken up with someone.

“I had a bloody academic commitment I just couldn’t get the bloody hell out of, which meant I had had to take a long drive across the bloody Southwest desert to teach another bloody class somewhere in the middle of the country. So there I was driving through the desert, listening to this bloody song, rewinding the bloody tape over and over again, tears running down my bloody face.”

“You’re kidding me,” I said looking around, hoping no one else had heard. “Shahid, please, tell me you’re bloody kidding me?”

“No, my dear,” he said, “I am bloody well the hell not kidding you.”

 

*

 

It doesn’t seem bloody right, does it, that I should quote “Charles On Fire” in this my tribute to Shahid and not quote from one of Shahid’s poems. Shahid, after all, could be proud. He could be ambitious and a tad sensitive. Shahid simply wouldn’t be happy were I were to leave things like this. So I will oblige The Master by quoting from “From the Start.”  Shaid photocopied and gave the class a draft of “From the Start” that week in class. Then it was simply titled “Gazelle” (only later, in the posthumously published Call Me Ishmael Tonight did it become “From the Start”). Back in New York, the fresh air of Provincetown far behind me, I would treasure “From the Start,” carrying it around in my backpack, reading and reading it, showing it to anyone who would look at it. I imagine I was struck by the audacity of Shahid, suggesting, as he does in the “Gazelle”, that God and Satan were lovers—and that God, by implication, threw Satan out of heaven after they broke up. This sacrilegious little idea probably isn’t a Shahid original and probably another, a perhaps unconscious reason I carried it around in my backpack was that it so clearly evoked Shahid’s persona. Shahid cast himself, after all, as a lover and a poet. He was so much a poet, in point of fact, that the lover get the better of the poet. Just listen to the music of these couplets (the first couplet opens “From the Start” and the final three close it). Listen, really listen, and I predict you may find you’re the one who invokes Shahid’s name at the next gay orgy you’re invited to.

 

              FROM “FROM THE START”

 

The Beloved will leave you behind from the start.

Light is difficult: one must be blind from the start.

 

Who but Satan can know God’s sorrow in Heaven?

God longs for the lover he undermined from the start.

 

“But I / am here in this real life / that I was given ….”

To what else should we be resigned from the start?

 

You have dwelt at the root of a scream forever—

The forever Shahid’s countersigned from the start.

 

 

 

Photo: Agha Shahid Ali (via Poetry Foundation)


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  • Ron Fritsch

6 Responses to “The Rhyming Dictionary, Leather Porn & Barbara Streisand’s “Evergreen”: My Week with Agha Shahid Ali”

  1. Rolf A. Leemann 25 May 2012 at 1:07 PM #

    So delighted to read your text about Agha Shahid Ali. I participated in his Port Townsend workshop, 1995 (?) and was of course impressed by is humanity and brilliant mind. If there is a commemorative book, please let me know; I’d love to contribute. I wrote a ghazel at the time and a poem about Borges he liked.
    Rolf A. Leemann
    Zurich switzerland


  2. Justin 2 June 2012 at 3:31 AM #

    Your article is so much more incisive on the idea of beauty than the debate in the comments section going on at LL’s sister page at: http://www.lambdaliterary.org/features/oped/05/23/anne-sexton-aesthetics-the-economy-of-beauty/comment-page-1/#comment-32376 Thank you for a genuine critical analysis that was a lively narrative as well.


  3. […] :::http://www.lambdaliterary.org/features/05/20/the-rhyming-dictionaryleather-porn-barbara-streisands-e… […]


  4. Ashley Tellis 20 July 2015 at 9:21 AM #

    Look, let’s face it. He was in the closet, never agreed to be in any gay anthologies, was a fucking coward and wrote good poetry. We have to deal with that. As an Indian gay poet, Im peeved.


  5. Ashley Tellis 20 July 2015 at 9:23 AM #

    Look, let’s face it. He was in the closet, never agreed to be in any gay anthologies, was a fucking coward and wrote good poetry. We have to deal with that. As an Indian gay poet, I’m peeved.


    • selina sen 7 September 2016 at 10:40 AM #

      does anyone care if you are peeved…I think he was courageous and considerate to his family…never heard of you as a poet, so suggest lets remember his words , if he wanted to keep his sexual preferences private..so what? He spoke of Kashmir best poems anyway, no place in a combined anthology.



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