‘A Glass of Tea, a View of the Atlas’ by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

Trade

An assortment of crooked 
and straight arrows
for the crest of a bulbul 
or a handful of sesame

Uncut turquoise
for juices of scorpions and glow worms
                                             A dozen poisons 
for an embroidered collar/
                                             a pinch of saffron/
                                             abalone knob

Spotted eggs for knotted shoes 
Peacock feathers for beet sugar

                                              How much fur 
                                         will buy cloves for my toothache?
                                      How many sprigs of mint/
                                          radishes to restring your rabab? 

The market is spinning 
between us 
                                        How much of us has been stolen
                                           by the ghosts of aromas?

When night comes 
there is spinach again
for the promise of quail 
Your dream of cake
feeds on wild berries

                                            You kiss my cold shoulder
I comb 
out the market from your hair

A Glass of Tea, a View of the Atlas

You give me Fez honey on Fennel cakes

in a ceramic saucer because you
say, to eat from this bitter clay (glazed and
caressed with geometric precision), will
draw me into the shapeless sob of the
future. You read invasion’s epistle even
in the smoothness of ebony— ashes
of ancestor acacia on your lashes—
I raise my tea glass to level with your
eyes, the snowy Atlas scintillates behind
you— cream on your dish of weeping clay.

 

Untying the knot of ker-chiefed bread in a cedar grove

she would shudder, your mother, child of exiled
Andalus, memory embossed with two kinds of
histories— one flitting like a citron
butterfly, the other wrapped in linen,
knotted, turned to cinder over a cedar
flame— tongue of the grand inquisitor
leaping from Spain to Morocco, night-sweats,
door-chains, the informants and their fistfuls
of gold, the choke-hold of banned prayers.
Tender, the bread sponges the lava of fear.

 

Only the footed teapot’s shadow

on the wall dismantles its truth, its rigid
stance and military-medal-silver
muted in the bounty of the skylight
flecked with pheasant foot-stains from nightly rain.
Its handle forms the shape of a perfect
heart, if there is such a thing, and between
breath of Konya and bloodbath of empire,
furs of sable, mink and squirrel, and the
soft grasp of a baby around the planet’s future,
there are names for the divine in every tongue.

 


Serendipity

“Straight from the tea gardens to the teapot”

Slogan from the island of Sita, thieved goddess
who takes her tea cold in America-of-the-
ice-blue-eyes, new trail of old jewels. Not my grandmother’s
time yet, the rupee coin in India bears an empress
looking away, facing West. On the reverse,
under a wreath, the coin says: East India Company
As in, coffers/coffins, divide/conquer. Neck to
navel, garlands of tea bags exhale the sweet manure
of Ceylon around Sir. Thomas Lipton, delicate-dark fingers
ghost across lifelong tea terraces, burial grounds of language

 

“You can buy estates here for a song,” Lipton’s agent says

Fungus consumes the coffee crop in Ceylon
before sellers and drinkers do, and like a kiss
snuffing a flame or a diamond in the ashes of a dead
lover, it seals Lipton’s fortune: Georgetown Semi-Weekly
Times says the Scottish grocer and tea Mogul Sir Lipton
(“the largest landowner in Ceylon and one of the wealthiest
tea merchants in the world”) is looking to
invest a sum of half a million in South Carolina—
A day for the rain raga, Serendip showers silver
dollars, pounding the earth with the reign of tea

 

Under the Tea Table, Watching CNN

Euphoric, gold-maned lion with tea (or assault
weapon?) in its raised paw, “Ceylon,” the box is
called, and sits next to a tin of condensed milk, scalloped
petunia teacups. The sweets from Alif Laila
are not real but are in phantasmagoric excess:
Syrup of Qandhaar lacing quince of Nishapur,
apples of Syria, Tus apricots, dates
of Kirmaan, Nawahand pears— I’m rocked
by the dream of a fruit-scented boat, eyes shut to
the television screen, quaking with grenades

 

Poisons of the Golden and Silver Screen

Splash of arsenic in the eye, the great
art of hooding and unhooding on screen:
naming me ‘enemy’ in the cartoon,
the four o’clock news, feature film, the late-
night talk show with the spotlight-artist of
my absurdity, star-novelist who
maps my crooked mind, catches me mid-dream
in my plum-palace of crime, catwalks, the
seven discarded veils of Salome— douses the lectern
in the slow, deep, tweed-colored toxins.

 

Fairy of Pearls and Poisons

I scratch out the horned demon on the cover
of my Urdu Dastaan and draw a fairy out of
his fangs. Not much to look at, and smaller than
the hero’s shield (the size of a peppercorn), she
saves his life with her piercing rain raga that ricochets
against the ruby-filled mountains of the dev, winning
the hero his freedom plus a trove of foreign gems:
turquoise of Nishapur, carnelian of Yemen,
garnets of Balkh. And local pearls. She will fight the famous
poisons for him: scorpion, centipede, glow worm — all, but vanity.

 

The Wise Sons of Serendip refuse premature power

refuse kneeling attendants and silk bolsters, each handing
back the crown to their father, the King, whose painstaking
work of raising princes is complete. I’m turning
pages from golden palanquins to the parched mountain
passes: parable narrated by Khusrao’s Princess
of the Black Pavilion, daughter of India, who teaches
the hero the uselessness of might against true power—
Not cleverness but forbearance saves the sons of Serendip—
Opaque watercolor ink and gold on paper, the princes hand back
my faith in a land of stolen languages, of rulers looking away.

 


Serendip Notes

  • Serendip is the Persian name of Ceylon or Sri Lanka.
  • The British East India Company’s exploitative trade policies enabled it to seize control of a large part of the Indian subcontinent. Ceylon became part of the British empire in 1815.
  • 1754; Horace Walpole coined “serendipity” for the faculty distinguishing the heroes of The Three Princes of Serendip, a tale that appears in a famous Persian poem by Amir Khusrao.
  • 1890: Thomas Lipton visited Ceylon and purchased tea gardens with Tamil workers from India. Lipton sold packaged tea throughout Europe and the USA beginning in 1890.

 

The River  [PDF] by  Shadab Zeest Hashmi

A Glass of Tea, a View of the Atlas’ and other poems are © Shadab Zeest Hashmi 

Shadab Zeest Hashmi is the author of poetry collections Kohl, Chalk and Baker of Tarifa. Her latest work, Ghazal Cosmopolitan has been praised by poet Marilyn Hacker as “a marvelous interweaving of poetry, scholarship, literary criticism and memoir.” Winner of the San Diego Book Award for poetry, the Nazim Hikmet Prize and multiple Pushcart nominations. Zeest Hashmi’s poetry has been translated into Spanish and Urdu, and has appeared in anthologies and journals worldwide, most recently in Prairie Schooner, World Literature Today, Mudlark, Vallum, POEM, The Adirondack Review, Spillway, Wasafiri, Asymptote and McSweeney’s latest anthology In the Shape of a Human Body I am Visiting the Earth. She has taught in the MFA program at San Diego State University as a writer-in-residence and her work has been included in the Language Arts curriculum for grades 7-12 (Asian American and Pacific Islander women poets) as well as college courses in Creative Writing and the Humanities.

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