Book Review: Bone-Sculpture by Agha Shahid Ali

Bone-sculpture is Agha Shahid Ali’s first book of poems, published in 1972, by Writers Workshop, Kolkata. It’s a short book with 28-32 pages(based on the edition/format) containing 14 poems. This book is currently out of print. But you can purchase an e-book copy by contacting the publishers (https://www.writersworkshopindia.com/contact-us/).

I’m not sure about the context of this collection or the exact years when the writer worked on these poems. So I can’t confirm whether the poems are directly influenced by the India-Pakistan war of 1971. But we can’t deny this possibility since the poet was born and brought up in Srinagar. Also, his writings show clear influences of a past rich with memories from Kashmir and the nostalgia or affection he feels for his ancestors’ place.

At the beginning of the book, it is mentioned that the poet was in his early twenties and taught English in Hindu college, Delhi when he published this collection. So this book was published before his migration to America. But when he says,

” i have my hopes

hopes which assume

shapes in alien territories” (Poem ‘dear editor’),

it makes us wonder if he is actually just talking about writing or hinting at his future diasporic life. Poems like ‘dear editor’ reflects the literary ambitions, worries and dreams of the young poet. His encounter with truth and illusion while watching the film ‘Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” also becomes a poem in this collection.

Death as a theme persists throughout the book. Flesh, blood, bones and corpses become repeated images and symbols. When he writes:

“… It’s
futile to light oil-lamps here
and search for grandfather or
forgotten ancestors. Their

flesh must have turned soft as dust
and how can one complain to bones?”(Poem ‘Bones’)
,

we can’t help but think about Kashmir: the region and its conflicts, how past is still constantly dragged into the streets of her present days, how time hasn’t healed the wounds, how the smell of bloodsheds still linger without forgiving or forgetting, how we are still complaining about the actions and decisions of old bones turned soft as dust in old graves.

A lot of internal conflicts of the writer are portrayed in this collection. I felt some amount of resignation and escapism in poems like ‘Autumn in Srinagar’ and ‘Fragment-IX’.

“take me
far from here
of my own accord
on my own understanding.

I have gathered the leaves for winter.”(Poem ‘Autumn in Srinagar’)

“I do not have cures nor do I protest.”(Poem Fragment – IX)

In the poem ‘Another death,’ the emotions of hesitation and uncertainty is portrayed:

“Is death worth dying?” (Poem ‘Another death’)

How else can we describe the poem ‘Cremation’ but as an act of resistance despite the biggest tragedies?

“your bone refused to burn
when we set fire to your flesh

who would have guessed
you’d be stubborn in death? (Poem ‘Cremation’)”

Overall, the book is not a passive read. Each poem in this collection deserves to be examined closely, in detail. The fingerprints of the writer and the miseries of his people are etched in the still wet clay of his poetry. The personal and political are inseparably entwined.

“his friend like his
dead friend he tells
me
I am. This is then my
identity: a

kinship with tombs a smile borrowed from
a dead child.” (Poem ‘Fragment VI’)

Disclaimer : I’m just a student of literature. If there are any mistakes in the write-up or any new / different perspectives about the book that you wish to add, please reply in comments.

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