Born in New Delhi, Aseem Kaul now lives in Minneapolis, where he is Assistant Professor of Strategy at the University of Minnesota. Aseem’s poems have appeared in The Cortland Review, nthposition, Rhino and Softblow, among others, and a collection of his short fiction, titled études, was published in 2009.
Tonight, you recite Ghalib from memory;
because poetry, like blood, must come from the heart.
Taking a sip from your glass after every couplet,
the scotch rhyming perfectly the melancholy on your tongue.
You cling to nostalgia like an empty mirror,
to the scent of this language that withers like flowers.
You gather pain the way the sky gathers,
pinprick by slow pinprick, the stars.
Somewhere between question and answer
the feeling dissolves. The need to sing becomes
the struggle not to fall. And you arrange
your ruins into one last gesture,
knowing the Beloved will not heed your call,
knowing she will prove false, like God, or the Moon.
You write to me from Delhi,
speak of summer blackouts,
of how, disconnected from the machines,
you thought of Ghalib –
the bomb blast of his grief
leaving the city in ruins –
and how the history of loss
could be written on a feather.
When the power returned
you turned the lights off,
lit a candle to see
the darkness a little better,
and still the shadows
were not the same.
“Madness”, Ghalib writes, “is never without its reasons;
surely there is something that the veil is meant to protect”
And I think of all the years we have spent
listening to these ghazals, the verses
falling from our lips like pieces of exquisite glass
from broken window frames;
shaping our mouths to his sadness,
unbuttoning our collars to let his words stain
the rubbed language of our songs.
What have we been hiding from,
my friend? What longing is this inside us
that we disguise in a dead man’s clothes?
It’s a painting about war:
about civil war and the way
hatred makes us all family,
the way two wrongs will feed
on each other till they both
taste about the same.
So it has to be wrong
that it reminds me of us
eating ice cream in the park
that October, reminds
me how you pressed
your lips to mine
for one squeezed instant,
how your tongue curled
cold in my mouth,
how I pulled away surprised;
and how, in that moment,
spoon still in hand,
you looked good enough to eat.
There are nights beyond voices;
nights when all you listen to
is the static on the radio,
its sound of in-betweens;
haunted by disturbance,
by the endless galaxy
of daydream whose pipes and whistles
remind you how long it’s been
since you danced with a stranger,
or stayed up till dawn
with the volume turned down low.
You wanted something more –
a song you knew the words to,
the sound of human speech –
but are content to sit
by this fire of crackling frequencies,
the hiss of its sympathy
like the echo of some long-ago
Babel, a clamour of stations
that murmurs the air; displacements
you prefer to the silence
they inhabit, if only for the sense
that there is someone else out there.