Snow on the Desert

“Each ray of sunshine is seven minutes old,”   
Serge told me in New York one December night.

“So when I look at the sky, I see the past?”   
“Yes, Yes," he said. “especially on a clear day.”

On January 19, 1987,
as I very early in the morning
drove my sister to Tucson International,

suddenly on Alvernon and 22nd Street   
the sliding doors of the fog were opened,

and the snow, which had fallen all night, now   
sun-dazzled, blinded us, the earth whitened

out, as if by cocaine, the desert’s plants,   
its mineral-hard colors extinguished,   
wine frozen in the veins of the cactus.

                     *   *   *

The Desert Smells Like Rain: in it I read:   
The syrup from which sacred wine is made

is extracted from the saguaros each   
summer. The Papagos place it in jars,

where the last of it softens, then darkens   
into a color of blood though it tastes

strangely sweet, almost white, like a dry wine.   
As I tell Sameetah this, we are still

seven miles away. “And you know the flowers   
of the saguaros bloom only at night?”

We are driving slowly, the road is glass.   
“Imagine where we are was a sea once.

Just imagine!” The sky is relentlessly   
sapphire, and the past is happening quickly:

the saguaros have opened themselves, stretched   
out their arms to rays millions of years old,

in each ray a secret of the planet’s   
origin, the rays hurting each cactus

into memory, a human memory
for they are human, the Papagos say:

not only because they have arms and veins   
and secrets. But because they too are a tribe,

vulnerable to massacre. “It is like
the end, perhaps the beginning of the world,”

Sameetah says, staring at their snow-sleeved   
arms. And we are driving by the ocean

that evaporated here, by its shores,
the past now happening so quickly that each

stoplight hurts us into memory, the sky   
taking rapid notes on us as we turn

at Tucson Boulevard and drive into   
the airport, and I realize that the earth

is thawing from longing into longing and   
that we are being forgotten by those arms.

                     *   *   *

At the airport I stared after her plane   
till the window was

                      again a mirror.
As I drove back to the foothills, the fog

shut its doors behind me on Alvernon,   
and I breathed the dried seas

                      the earth had lost,
their forsaken shores. And I remembered

another moment that refers only   
to itself:

                      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.

And just before the lights did flood her   
again, melting the frost

                      of her diamond
into rays, it was, like this turning dark

of fog, a moment when only a lost sea   
can be heard, a time

                      to recollect
every shadow, everything the earth was losing,

a time to think of everything the earth   
and I had lost, of all

                      that I would lose,   
of all that I was losing.

Agha Shahid Ali, "Snow on the Desert" from A Nostalgist's Map of America.  Copyright © 1991 by Agha Shahid Ali.  Used by the permission of the author and W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. This selection may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Source: A Nostalgist's Map of America (W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1992)
More Poems by Agha Shahid Ali