KR OnlinePoetry

The Floating Post Office

From The Kenyon Review, New Series, Spring 1997, Vol. XIX, No. 2

(Note: The post boat was like a gondola that called at each houseboat. It carried clerk, weighing scales, and a bell to announce arrivals.)

Has he been kept from us? Portents
of rain, rumors, ambushed letters . . .
Curtained palanquin, fetch our word,
bring us word: Who has died? Who’ll live?
Has the order gone out to close
the waterways . . . the one open road?

And then we saw the boat being rowed
through the fog of death, the sentence
passed on our city. It came close
to reveal smudged black-ink letters
which the postman—he was alive—
gave us, like signs, without a word,

and we took them, without a word.
From our deck we’d seen the hill road
bringing a jade rain, near-olive,
down from the temple, some penitent’s
cymbaled prayer? He took our letters,
and held them like a lover, close

to his heart. And the rain drew close.
Was there, we asked, a new password—
blood, blood shaken into letters,
cruel primitive script that would erode
our saffron link to the past? Tense
with autumn, the leaves, drenched olive,

fell on graveyards, crying “O live!”
What future would the rain disclose?
O Rain, abandon all pretense,
now drown the world, give us your word,
ring, sweet assassin of the road,
the temple bell! For if letters

come I will answer those letters
and my year will be tense, alive
with love! The temple receives the road:
There, the rain has come to a close.
Here the waters rise; our each word
in the fog awaits a sentence:

His hands on the scales, he gives his word:
Our letters will be rowed through olive
canals, tense waters no one can close.

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Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001) was a poet and teacher. He authored a variety of collections including A Walk Through the Yellow Pages (1987), The Half-Inch Himalayas (1987), A Nostalgist’s Map of America (1991), The Country Without a Post Office (1997). His collection, Rooms Are Never Finished (2001) was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2001. He taught at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Princeton College, and in the MFA program at Warren Wilson College.