Beloved Witness, Beloved Friend
By Maureen Nolan
They met as junior members of Hamilton’s faculty, living in college housing and settling into jobs in the English Department. Patricia O’Neill, who was hired to teach 19th-century British literature, had a year’s head start. She came to campus in 1986. The next year poet Agha Shahid Ali arrived bearing a manuscript of The Half-Inch Himalayas, a volume of his work that was about to be published.
The Kashmiri-American Ali was talented and sought after, with a growing reputation; it was O’Neill’s first tenure-track job. They were friends from the first. Both loved Keats and Shelley, when each was trying to lose weight they would run together, and O’Neill secured spot at Ali’s table. A first-rate cook, he threw celebrated dinner parties with expansive guest lists. He’d invite everyone from kindred-spirit academics to the College administrator for finance, fearless in his desire to get to know everyone. By drawing in faculty from Hamilton, and Colgate and Syracuse universities, Ali created the kind of lively intellectual scene that O’Neill had hoped for when she chose an academic’s life.
Later on at Hamilton, Ali would ask O’Neill to read drafts of his poems that would appear in The Nostalgist’s Map of America, published in 1991. Not that she knew anything about writing poetry, she says, but Ali wanted feedback from an intelligent reader. She enjoyed being in his sphere. “It was just fun — fun to be around a real artist and to think about it all,” she says.
Years later Ali dedicated “Farewell” to her, the first poem in The Country Without a Post Office, published in 1997 and considered by many to be one of his best works. The dedication was a nod to his pilfering of a sentence O’Neill uttered in passing: “Your history gets in the way of my memory.” “I said this in an argument with someone, and Shahid overheard it and used it in a completely different context,” she says. It ended up in “Farewell.”
Ali was born in Delhi, and raised in Kashmir, a territory in chronic turmoil, claimed by both India and Pakistan. He came to the U.S. as a young man to live, study, write and teach. Reviewers and readers talk about how Ali inhabited multiple worlds, “shifting worlds,” as Matthew Flamm wrote in The New York Times in 2001. What especially impresses O’Neill about Ali the poet is how he found relationships between his Muslim, Hindu and American cultural experiences, especially in his early works.
Ali wrote in English, creating complex poetry about longing for home and family, strife and violence in Kashmir, loss and pain. He often chose to work in two extremely difficult forms, the canzone and, most notably, the ghazal, which dates to 12th-century Arabia. O’Neill considers promoting the ghazal to be one of Ali’s biggest contributions to U.S. literature. She thinks Shahid’s interest in poetic form offered a way to constrain the emotions he felt over the conflicts in Kashmir in the 1990s.
Hamilton students, it seems, loved Ali as a teacher. “Shahid was brilliant and very, very funny. He treated poetry with total seriousness and most other things with great humor. It was an irresistible combination,” says novelist Kamila Shamsie ’94.
She met him soon after she’d arrived on campus from a school in Pakistan. When he asked her to call him Shahid instead of Professor Ali, she explained she was still adjusting to American informality. “And he said, ‘It’s one of the things I love most about America,’’’ Shamsie recalls. “So he tried from the start to break down the teacher-student barriers.”
Within the first few weeks of class, Ali had shown students, as Shamsie puts it, “how to listen to the music of language.” The lesson took hold. She still reads aloud much of her own writing. Ali left Hamilton in 1993, her senior year, to teach at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and after Hamilton Shamsie enrolled at UMass to pursue a master’s of fine arts degree.
Anthony Lacavaro ’94, who started writing poems in large measure because of Ali, also followed him to Amherst to pursue an M.F.A. “He used poetry as a means to confront, make sense of and at times berate history, politics, instinct and memory; what 20-year-old isn’t searching for that conduit?” asks Lacavaro, who still writes poetry and has published over the years. Fifteen or so of Ali’s graduate students went on to publish poems.
Ali died of brain cancer in 2001 at age 52, by then considered an important American poet of the late 20th century. He lived long enough to learn that he was a finalist for the 2001 National Book Award for his collection Rooms Were Never Finished. In it Ali writes about Kashmir and his mother’s death.
Safeguarding a Legacy
Professor O’Neill’s friendship with Ali continued after he left Hamilton, and when he got sick, she did what she could to support him. He dedicated his last poem, “The Veiled Suite,” to her. “I think he did this because in his illness he was having trouble reading and writing. I was just typing his words and reading them back to him,” O’Neill says.
During his illness she became close to Ali’s siblings, a relationship that grew into an enduring friendship. They were often around when she visited Ali at his home in Brooklyn. In the final months of his life, he moved in with his brother, Iqbal, who lived in Amherst. “His brother was very generous, so when I would go to Amherst I would just stay at his house. I have to say, even up until the last month of Shahid’s life, there was still a constant party going on; I mean his brother just sort of took over the cooking responsibilities,” she says.
Even before Ali grew ill, O’Neill had pondered how best to celebrate his time as Hamilton’s poet. After he died, she landed on the possibility of creating a Hamilton archive of his papers, which were stored with his brother. In 2009, O’Neill approached Special Collections, but it was the College’s Digital Humanities Initiative that became the first repository for a selection of the late poet’s materials. Thus was born The Beloved Witness, an effort to explore the potential of digital scholarship in literature and to expand Ali’s audience. O’Neill and Ali’s sister Hena Ahmad co-direct the project.
“For the next two years I was able to get permission to digitize samples of the different formats in which Shahid’s works and papers were held,” O’Neill says. “The pilot project was really a proof of concept for the idea of digital archives and what they could do to make a writer’s process available to an international community, something which seemed especially important in Shahid’s case.”
The digital archive includes select videos of Ali introducing and reading his poems, drafts of his poems and other papers — and a “ghazal creator” that helps users write their own poems in the challenging form.
In 2011, O’Neill made another pitch to the College library about acquiring Shahid’s collection, which his family had agreed to donate to Hamilton. By 2012, Ali’s siblings and the College signed a contract to create the Agha Shahid Ali Special Collections. O’Neill had worked for years toward that possibility; between 2009 and 2012, she made two or three trips annually to Iqbal Ali’s attic to sort through the substantial collection.
“Mostly I remember being overwhelmed by the amount of material: hundreds of books, at least 10 large plastic containers of papers, videos, audio tapes, at least three file cabinets full of papers, piles of telephone bills, mortgages, doctors’ bills, student papers in boxes — and none of it organized at all,” O’Neill says.
Ali, apparently aware that he might someday be archived, saved a vast amount of materials. Among the stash were letters from prominent figures, including writer Salman Rushdie, poet James Merrill and Edward Said, a Palestinian-American writer and scholar. The archive also includes correspondence and materials donated by Hamilton alumni, Shamsie and Lacavaro among them. (O’Neill is always looking for more.)
The final piece of the archive, Ali’s personal library, became part of the collection last summer. A number of scholars have traveled to Hamilton to work with the archive, including a Fulbright scholar from India. O’Neill is convinced the archive contains a trove of possibilities for Hamilton senior projects and for master’s and doctoral work.
“It’s fitting that Hamilton should host the archive,” Lacavaro says. “It was a pivotal place for Shahid’s development as a poet — his engagement with Kashmir, his engagement with form, which had all clearly been there in his early work, really exploded into what would become maybe his finest book, Country Without a Post Office, which he began there.”
Various students have worked on both sides of the archive — digital and paper — over the years. The first piece of The Beloved Witness was the senior project for English major Sarah Schultz ’12 — a digitized exploration of Ali’s poem “Snow on the Desert.”
Will Newman ’14 worked for about a year burrowing into boxes of Ali’s correspondences, trying to organize them without getting drawn into the letters, which was a challenge. He got involved after he took a course with O’Neill that focused on ways to work with literature beyond the printed book, for instance multimedia projects.
O’Neill retired from Hamilton in 2016, but she and Ahmad remain co-directors of The Beloved Witness. For a decade now, Ali’s poetry has informed O’Neill’s academic work. These days she’s revising a paper on using digital technology in literary interpretation of Ali’s ghazals.
The University of Michigan Press is collecting essays about Ali’s poetry for a volume, to which O’Neill contributed a short bibliography of his early publications. She’s hoping the new book and the published work of scholars who have used the archive will spread the word about the collection.
“The Special Collections and the digital archives will, I hope, lead people back always to the poetry itself, which even now, after many readings, still moves me and reminds me that whatever concerns I have about the current political situation, Shahid knew how to hold on to the truth of our too-human condition,” O’Neill says. “‘Mad heart, be brave’; is the final line of the poem ‘The Country Without a Post Office.’ Good tagline for our days as well.”
Poems reprinted with permission.
Originally published in The Veiled Suite: The Collected Poems
(New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2009).
Feel the patient’s heart
Pounding—oh please, this once—
— JAMES MERRILL
I’ll do what I must if I’m bold in real time.
A refugee, I’ll be paroled in real time.
Cool evidence clawed off like shirts of hell-fire?
A former existence untold in real time ...
The one you would choose: Were you led then by him?
What longing, O Yaar, is controlled in real time?
Each syllable sucked under waves of our earth —
The funeral love comes to hold in real time!
They left him alive so that he could be lonely —
The god of small things is not consoled in real time.
Please afterwards empty my pockets of keys —
It’s hell in the city of gold in real time.
God’s angels again are—for Satan!—forlorn.
Salvation was bought but sin sold in real time.
And who is the terrorist, who the victim?
We’ll know if the country is polled in real time.
“Behind a door marked DANGER” are being unwound
the prayers my friend had enscrolled in real time.
The throat of the rearview and sliding down it
the Street of Farewell’s now unrolled in real time.
I heard the incessant dissolving of silk —
I felt my heart growing so old in real time.
Her heart must be ash where her body lies burned.
What hope lets your hands rake the cold in real time?
Now Friend, the Belovèd has stolen your words—
Read slowly: The plot will unfold in real time.
(for Daniel Hall)
At the Museum
But in 2500 B.C. Harappa,
who cast in bronze a servant girl?
No one keeps records
of soldiers and slaves.
The sculptor knew this,
polishing the ache
Off her fingers stiff
from washing the walls
and scrubbing the floors,
from stirring the meat
and the crushed asafoetida
in the bitter gourd.
But I’m grateful she smiled
at the sculptor,
as she smiles at me
a child who had to play woman
to her lord
when the warm June rains
came to Harappa.