Hotel Poetry

Swear by the olive in the God-kissed land—
There is no sugar in the promised land.
Why must the bars turn neon now when, Love,
I’m already drunk in your capitalist land?
If home is found on both sides of the globe,
home is of course here—and always a missed land.
The hour’s come to redeem the pledge (not wholly?)
in Fate’s “Long years ago we made a tryst” land.
Clearly, these men were here only to destroy,
a mosque now the dust of a prejudiced land.
Will the Doomsayers die, bitten with envy,
when springtime returns to our dismissed land?
The prisons fill with the cries of children.
Then how do you subsist, how do you persist, Land?
“Is my love nothing for I’ve borne no children?”
I’m with you, Sappho, in that anarchist land.
A hurricane is born when the wings flutter …
Where will the butterfly, on my wrist, land?
You made me wait for one who wasn’t even there
though summer had finished in that tourist land.
Do the blind hold temples close to their eyes
when we steal their gods for our atheist land?
Abandoned bride, Night throws down her jewels
so Rome—on our descent—is an amethyst land.
At the moment the heart turns terrorist,
are Shahid’s arms broken, O Promised Land?

Agha Shahid Ali wrote this ghazal, titled as “Land” for Christopher Merrill. It was published in 2001.
For myself, it remained an unfulfilled dream to meet Agha in person. When I joined the International Writing Program in August, one of the things on my prime agenda was to speak to Chris about his closest friend, Agha Shahid Ali.
Agha Shahid Ali, an underrated Kashmiri-American poet, was introduced to me by a very precious soul. In any way, for South Asians, ghazal remains a significant inspiration. Despite will and effort, due to numerous reasons, I couldn’t record a full-length interview on Agha Shahid Ali, but, of course, I will write in detail about how they transformed each other in this long companionship.

Fortunately, despite all fixed-up meetings, readings and hectic schedule, Chris managed to read three poems to me including a ghazal written in correspondence to the aforementioned ghazal which he, of course, dedicated to Agha Shahid Ali. These poems were recorded in a hotel room hence the title ‘Hotel Poetry’ as it was for previous recordings. The recording is embedded within this post or could be watched on my YouTube Channel i.e., Ramsha Ashraf or could be tracked down from Christopher Merrill’s official website i.e.,


“The Edge of Our World”, Waqas Khwaja and Ramsha

cat sniffing

meeting of lips and noses
bats rip darkness apart and lick roses
tongue scratches upon thorns
bleeds roses of menstrual blood
alight with this infusion
a life hidden beneath breathless blades of grass
torn and turned to provide sap for grass blades
we drink each other’s wounds
sip from cuts
long consigned to forgetfulness
opening up again
uncurl and unwind raw coils and cords
taking the pith and string of rawness
to make of it a shirt to wear
court harmonies

sublimate unities
let them bubble
and spill over the sky’s brim
sketch out its own galaxies
lapping up walls of those bubbles
we wait

for the sky to drizzle us with moments of grace
to drink in their suns

their moons

their planets
their flights of kites and swans
their arches and dips of swallow and dove
their rainbows and ravens
matching flights across the curve of seven colors
lifted and pressed by the wind on our backs
wind of manias and melancholies
squalls dark and thunderous
whirled away with them

to the edge of our world
tipped then beyond
the last boundary
beyond all borders and limits
boundaries which exist

only in minds

and veiled from eyes
physical and imaginary

rent in rags and tatters
we sweep past these ripped rags
past the tattered fringe of the universe
and enter the tunnel of timelessness, again
leaving lines of light far behind
in the curl and curve of passageways
light that tangles with the thread

of deceit and conviction it weaves every day
we take up that tangle

and toss it back into the primal rose
that started it all
with its menstrual red
glowing at its core
scarlet red!
that bulging core
projecting its primal rose
that is

both imputation and the surgence of life
unfolding its protuberant flesh to the world with a gush
unfurling in compliment and tribute
a mute

i and thou
you and me
merged and renewed
silenced and given speech
all at once

It is difficult by Ramsha

It is difficult

To voice fears in a strange melody

To spend almost all nights

With eyes wide open

To stare a starless, whitewashed, roof


It is difficult

To become oblivious of ambulance sirens

To avoid the factory buzzer at five in the afternoon

That camouflages the direct message

With a polite announcement

‘There’s a fake hope for freedom’

Inducing raw pain in sleepless eyes



It is difficult

To mention the river, the smoke, mixed

With private anxiety and tasteless food.

The sugary fluid one forces down

The throat in the name of Chai.

To leave the memory behind

Of late night chats, body odours,

Of alien friendly sights.

To forget the silent struggle, and,

A constant anticipation of comfort.


It is difficult

To move against the wheel of time

While desiring those two days

To last forever.

Holding onto the last impression

Of the self being strong enough

To bear the burden of departure.


It is difficult

To come out of dark spheres

To write sleazy poems

About a woman in [a refugee camp,

About another woman

Stuck with the enigmas of youth

About the betrayals committed

Under slogans of freedom


It is difficult

To sing a song of self

While one sees and hears nothing

While the day is full of nightmares

While the home starts drowning

Under the mirth of tears.




On a glamorous rainy day, a man was shot dead,

in front of a foreign policeman’s local house,

the bullet left a tiny rabbit–hole in the forehead

providing a perfect sight for ghost-story-writers.



It affected nothing; no one had known the man,

people forgot, most did it in a few hours, but

a few took their time through the blue of days:

alarm for collective pain did not resonate.


Guns had taken over, schools were shut down,

food went missing and it wasn’t required as well

in any way the dead needed coffins not edibles.

Life is a comic series of errors; exile being one.


Exile is an imperative, fear made them realize.

Blood, bread and dead, a perfect theatricality

and a good cathartic way of pitying others,

not themselves, ones suffering from amnesia.




Madison Street

After when the old night wraps

and cuddle the tired spring-day

in its arms. People leave

the Madison street for the Downtown weekend charm.

Its loneliness made me lost my way, twice.

I mistook Jefferson for Madison,

walked and walked

until the darkness hit my eyes.

Upon my asking the black boy

who works on the gas-station guided

the way back, dismantling my almost

white-supremacist-belief about blacks

and them being indecent and insensitive.

After getting slapped satisfactorily,

when I stepped on the Madison street,

I thought of you and your aloofness,

however, I knew the thought would die

after I enter my room and insert

‘faith-is-dead 417’ using the keyboard.




Street Shame by Ramsha Ashraf

When the nights get too dark, too grotesque and too blurry to show the light of stars, which in fact, even in bearable times, keep smiling at the ordinariness of the earthlings, you try to forget whatever little you know.


Stench of the garbage,
It was born into,
Is enough to suffocate it.
The body is rotten,
To the core of its existence,
But the pretense exists
For the fear of being found out
Is too strong to shed the shell off.

The shame of the street,
That stinks of unprotected gutters,
naked, malnourished, and fearless children playing with nothing but pebbles,

The anxiety of being singled out,
And above all,
The horror of denying
What was expressed as its impression
Of defiance and rebellion,
What was mistook as its pride
In blood and belonging,

All is a burden for it to breathe…

It bleeds… It still bleeds…

It is not a human anymore

But cannot let the shame fall off its shoulders.


“Walking Around” by Pablo Neruda

Translated from Spanish by John Felstiner



It so happens I’m tired of being a man.

It happens I go into tailor shops and movies

shriveled up, impervious, like a felt-stuffed swan

steering through waters of origin and ash.

The smell of barbershops makes me break out sobbing.

All I want is the quiet of stones or wool,

all I want is to see no stores or gardens,

or merchandise or eyeglasses or elevators.

It happens I’m sick of my feet and fingernails

and my hair and my shadow.

It so happens I’m tired of being a man.

Still it would be a treat

to panic a notary with a cut lily

or do in a nun with one smack of an ear.

It would be sweet

to run through the streets with a green knife

screaming till I died of cold.

I just can’t go on as a root in the dark,

swaying, stretching, shivering with sleep,

downward in the sodden guts of the earth,

musing and steeping, every day eating.

I don’t want so much misery for me.

I can’t go on being root and tomb,

lonely cellar, warehouse of frozen

stiffs, croaking from grief.

That’s why Monday flares up like petrol

when it sees me coming with my jailhouse mug,

and howls like a wounded wheel as it rides by,

making hot bloody tracks toward night.

And shoves me to certain corners, certain dank houses,

hospitals with bones sailing out the window,

to certain shoe stores reeking of vinegar,

streets as frightful as gullies.

There are sulfur-tinged birds and hideous intestines

hanging from the doors of houses I hate,

there are false teeth forgotten in a coffeepot,

here are mirrors

that must have wept for shame and horror,

umbrellas everywhere, poisons, and navels.

I’m walking around with calm, eyes, shoes,

rage and forgetfulness,

I walk along, skirting offices and orthopedic shops,

and backyards with clothing hung from a wire:

underpants, towels, and shirts that weep

slow dirty tears.


Federico Garcia Lorca presenting Pablo Neruda: Madrid, December 1934

“I say you are about to hear an authentic poet, one who has forged himself in a world that’s not ours, that few people perceive. A poet closer to death than philosophy, to pain than intellect, to blood than ink. A poet filled with mysterious voices that luckily he himself doesn’t know the meaning of. A true man who does know that the reed and the swallow are more permanent than the hard cheek on a statue…He stands up to the world, full of honest terror, and lacks two things so many false poets have lived with?hate and irony. When he’s about to condemn and raises his sword, suddenly he finds himself with a wounded dove between his fingers.”

pb 1
Chilean poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda in Stockholm with his wife Matilda after he received the Nobel Prize for literature.