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A History of Hell

by Agha Shahid Ali


Hell, then! Pandemonium’s walls have diamonds.
We who lost our lovers on earth are welcome;
all are welcome, mirrored among the angels
lonely with pity.

Pity? Yes, for Heaven (To us what music,
we who trade in love) and for love’s first story:
God and Satan—Iblis,* first monotheist,
jealously guarding

God as only he could have known Him. “God’s so
lonely . . . else would He,” asks one fallen angel,
emphasizing lonely, “else would He, would He
punish man so? For

none of you can understand Him.” Sorry,
now for God, and full of such longing myself
while on Earth he’s missed in his ruined temples,
what can I do but

stare at sky-sized posters of God in mirrors?
Archived here, these stolen reflections, kisses
pressed on guarded tablets of Heaven’s chipped Word,
numbered and signed by

God—and him? “Please tell us,” the angels beg him.
Kiss and tell? Will that suit this devil-lover?
Framed in every mirror, now really smiling,
bevelled sapphire,

God to me is closer, he shrugs his shoulders,
than the jugular is to man, so even
now, bereft of love, I must guard God’s secrets.
Call it perverse or—

“—What?” the angels, taking their wings off lightly,
say. It’s simpler,” he interrupts, “it’s that . . . Well,
come and try”
—he’s pouring some wine—“this vintage
aged here in cellars,

Heaven’s ruby. Under my wings I hid some
bottles just before I was pushed through exits,
breaking panes. What lovely reminder, this
wine, of that passion—

Heaven’s nights, His blood, then His flesh, my open
wings that tightly closed to again be opened . . .
Stop. I must. This hour, my Belovéd Tyrant
surely is weeping.”

* One Sufi interpretation of the God/Satan myth portrays Satan (Iblis) as being in love with God and thus the jealous lover when God asks him to bow to Adam.

 

Agha Shahid Ali is the Spring 2001 Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence at Baruch College (City University of New York), as well as on graduate faculty of writing programs at the University of Utah and Warren Wilson College. His seven collections of poetry include The Half-Inch Himalayas (University Press of New England, 1994), The Beloved Witness: Selected Poems, and recently, The Country Without a Post Office (Norton, 1997), which focuses on turmoil in Kashmir, where he is from and where he spends his summers. (2001)


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