The Significance of Allusions to Native Americans

Interpretations on Snow on the Desert by Agha Shahid Ali

In many of his poems in the volume Nostalgia’s Map of America Ali draws on the Native Americans of the American southwest as a culture of multifaceted loss, having been brutally massacred by European settlers, forced out of their lands, and culturally overshadowed by American dominance. Their traditions are dying and their population dwindling. Ali identifies with the Native Americans for their loss but also for their struggle to maintain a sense of identity, which is increasingly challenged as they have become disconnected from their land. But rather than mourn the loss of their culture, Ali draws the Native Americans into his notion of a globalized world by breaking down the walls of their isolation and connecting them to other cultures.

As the culminating poem of Nostalgia’s Map of America, it is fitting that Ali draws on Native American tradition in “Snow on the Desert.” In this poem he describes the Papago Native Americans and their tradition of using the leaves of the saguaros plants to make wine. Ali describes the plants, native to the desert, as possessing human characteristics: after being picked, their leaves soften, like human flesh, and then darken “into a color of blood” (line 20). The saguaros only open their leaves at night, but as Ali drives through the desert, the sun is rising, the “sky is relentlessly / sapphire, and the past is happening quickly” (lines 27-28). The sun intrudes on the night, and the past, attached to the rays of sun, begins to rush in. The saguaros are caught in the sunrise and as they stretch “out their arms to the rays millions of years old” the past returns, “in each ray a secret of the planet’s origin, the rays hurting each cactus into memory” (lines 30- 33). Here memories are equated to pain, and thus the plants become a kind of victim to memory. While we might wish to avoid painful memories, the poet uses the saguaros to remind us that despite our efforts to safeguard ourselves, we cannot avoid memory and the pain that resurfaces through greater knowledge of the past.

To further the metaphor of the saguaros as human, Ali relates the cacti to the Papagos. He writes “they too are a tribe / vulnerable to massacre” (lines 36-37). The reality of genocide thus connects the histories of many people and places. The idea of massacre may also suggest that losing our distinct cultural identities is as painful as actual death. Memory of such loss, whether of life or culture, brings the speaker, the landscape and the Papagos together in this poem and in a number of other poems in Nostalgia’s Map of America.

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