‘Something has happened now for me to prevail,
no matter what remains of this final night.
… I’m still alive, alive to learn from your eyes
that I am become your veil and I am all you see.’
Agha Shahid Ali wrote “The Veiled Suite” for a collaboration with artist Izhar Patkin. It was the last poem Shahid wrote before he died of brain cancer in 2001. On a spring night, Patkin’s “Veil Suite” fills the long gallery with rooms of translucent walls bright with translucent paintings, illuminating Shahid’s poetry in a retrospective show at Mass MoCA, and Agha Iqbal Ali, Shahid’s brother, reads Shahid’s poetry aloud.
Seeing the pieces is hard, Iqbal said, and breathtaking. To walk from room to room, building from image to image, enveloped in those veils, becomes a spiritual experience. More than looking at a painting — he is engulfed by it. Patkin does not re-create the exact imagery in a poem but reinterprets it to create a work on its own.
‘When you sit in that room to experience it you have to get into the center and walk around, to pirouette, and with each turn you will see something differently.’ — Agha Iqbal Ali
“When you sit in that room,” he said, “to experience it you have to get into the center and walk around, to pirouette, and with each turn you will see something differently.”
Shahid wrote a book called “Rooms Are Never Finished,” and Patkin has created each room there is a representation of another aspect of his work. Iqbal imagined his brother’s delight, if he could walk though them.
“If he got to see this, he’d say “O! My rooms!” — to see those veils so filled with so much.”
Shahid and Patkin began this work together 15 years ago, through Anne MacDonald, a San Fransisco book publisher, who started a series of books pairing writers and artists. She had Patkin in mind, and she looked for a writer he might work with — for 20 years, Patkin said.
Shahid was “not American-born,” he said, “but lived here for much of his life and wrote in American vernacular.” Both came here from other cultures, Patkin from Israel and Shahid from Kashmir.
“I had the sense, living here, that I couldn’t just use stories and metaphors I grew up with, because they would be misunderstood,” Patkin said. “Working with Shahid taught me it doesn’t matter. Jump into the depths of the story you want to use, because you know it as rich and powerful. He took me over the edge with his courage.”
’If he got to see this, he’d say ‘O! My rooms!’ — to see those veils so filled with so much.’ — Agha Iqbal Ali
In the room for “Evening,” the original poem is very Indian, Iqbal said, and the imagery there very Western. A poem invoking trees like “the dark ruins of temples,” a sky like a saffron-robed priest, and a beautifu, dark goddess with a bells about her ankles, shares a room with a sunset in a stone piazza swept with pigeons.
The work has a worldliness to it all, Iqbal said. The priest could be Tibetan, Malaysian, Burmese, and the backdrop could be Venice.
“You are forced to think you’re a citizen of the world,” he said, because Shahid and Patkin both are. “They are encouraging everybody to be citizens of the world.”
‘Jump into the depths of the story you want to use, because you know it as rich and powerful. He took me over the edge with his courage.’ — Izhar Patkin
Patkin’s rooms lead people who walk through them from Tel Aviv and the ports of Israel to Andalusia, once the heart of Muslim Spain — from Eastern European villages to a Maryland cemetery in cherry blossom time — sharing the sadness of leaving home.
In his poems, Shahid has made a physical place where a Jew and a Moslem can meet in friendship, in shared excitement, Patkin said, and show that any conflict between them is an illusion.
“What (Shahid) does with metaphor I try to do with visual perception,” he said.
And Shahid and Patkin chose to center their work around the veil, knowing it has many meanings and cultural resonances. Patkin has painted shadows on translucent walls, but he sees his images full of mass and substance.
“When you give a shadow to a figure, you make it present,” human and alive, he said.
‘When you give a shadow to a figure, you make it present,’ human and alive. — Izhar Patkin
Iqbal traced the veil in Shahid’s poems across the decades. Something that hides, separates, may also be something delicate and incandescently beautiful, he said. He recalled a poem Shahid wrote about a moment in time when the British Empire shut down the looms of Bangaladesh:
“… those transparent Dacca Gauzes
known as woven air, running water,
evening dew …”
The veil in India has a romanticism, love, feelings wrapped around in it, he said.
He remembered Shahid speaking that poem aloud when Jacki Lyden interviewed him for NPR in July 2001. He remembers Shahid’s intonation.
“He thought poetry is not drama,” Iqbal said. “He was insistent — do not go into theater when you’re reading poetry. I remember him saying don’t, don’t, don’t perform, just read the poem.”
On the NPR interview, Shahid spoke from memory, and Iqbal read a poem aloud because Shahid could not remember it, and at that point in his illness Shahid could not see well enough to read it.
Shahid wrote Veiled Suite for Patkin not long after.
‘… those transparent Dacca Gauzes
known as woven air, running water,
evening dew …’ — Agha Shahid Ali
“I’m astonished he was able to write it in the condition he was in,” Patkin said. “He was battling brain cancer. His short-term memory was compromised, and he was legally blind, and he took on the tast of writing a Canzone. The rules of structure are so strict.”
In a Canzone, the form Dante used to write his Inferno, each line ends in one of five words or sounds in a set order.
“It took a long time to understand the rhythm and reflections it creates,” Patkin said, to find its deepest message for him. “It took a year to feel that I was ready to start an adaptation of it.”
‘What’s beautiful about him, he doesn’t lose his sense of optimism, his spirit.’ Izhar Patkin
Grieving himself, for Shahid and for losses in his own family, Patkin found in Shahid’s last poem anger and loss — and hope.
“What’s beautiful about him, he doesn’t lose his sense of optimism, his spirit,” Patkin said. “The cause of all great poetry is heartache. And he gets to have the poem.”
In the end, he said, Shahid moves from veil to prevail.
This story first ran in the Eagle on April 25, 2014, in my time as editor of Berkshires Week. My thanks to VP of News Kevin Moran.