Mass MoCA will hold an evening of poetry to honor Agha Shahid Ali


NORTH ADAMS -- "Some-thing 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.

Patkin's "Veil Suite" paintings, rooms with translucent walls, illuminate Shahid's poetry in a retrospective show at Mass MoCA, where Agha Iqbal Ali, Shahid's brother, will read Shahid's poetry on Thursday, April 24.

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," Iqbal 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's collection "Rooms Are Never Finished" became a finalist for the National Book Award in 2001, and Patkin has created each room in his "Veil Suite" as a representation of aspects of Shahid's work. Iqbal imagined his brother's delight, if he could walk though them.

"If he got to see this, he'd say ‘Oh! 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 looked for a writer he might work with -- for 20 years, Patkin said.

Shahid was "not American-born, but lived here for much of his life and wrote in American vernacular," Patkin said

Both came here from other cultures, Patkin from Israel and Shahid from Kashmir, and both bring stories from many places into their work.

"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."

Shahid wrote and taught across the U.S. and drew stories from wherever he lived. He also translated the work of well-known poets writing in Arabic and encouraged poets writing in English to understand Arabic forms of poetry, like the ghazals he wrote in English in "Call Me Ishmael Tonight"

In Patkin's room for Shahid's translation of "Evening" by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the original poem is very Indian, and the imagery there very Western, Iqbal said.

A poem invoking trees like "the dark ruins of temples," a sky like a saffron-robed priest, and a beautiful 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, 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 they both are. "They are encouraging everybody to be citizens of the world."

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 an East Coast 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 Muslim can meet in friendship, in shared excitement, Patkin said, and show that any conflict between them is an illusion.

"What he does with metaphor, I try to do with visual perception," he said.

Shahid and Patkin chose to center their work around the veil, knowing it has many meanings and cultural resonances.

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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.

Iqbal traced the veil in Shahid's poems across the decades. Something that hides, separates, may also be something delicate and incandescently beautiful.

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. 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.

He wrote "Veiled Suite" for Patkin not long after.

"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 task 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."

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.

If you go ...

What: An evening to celebrate the poetry of Agha Shahid Ali

Where: Mass MoCA, North Adams

When: 6 tonight,

Admission: $7



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