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from the April 2011 issue

Modern Poetry of Pakistan

Reviewed by Swetha Regunathan

For a country often drawn in newspapers as the backdrop of mosque and market bombings, troubled politics, and underdevelopment, poetry seems to waft through every aspect of Pakistani life.

In the foreword to Modern Poetry of Pakistan, Chairman of the Pakistan Academy of Letters Fakhar Zaman assures American readers that they “will be both surprised and delighted by the kaleidoscopic colors of [Pakistan’s] poetry.” While his promise reveals the asymmetry of the global literary order, it also challenges it. For a country often drawn in newspapers as the backdrop of mosque and market bombings, troubled politics, and underdevelopment, the possibilities for literary expression are not grim; to the contrary, poetry seems to waft through every aspect of Pakistani life.  As the “fragrance that spreads everywhere in a subtle, almost imperceptible way, poetry transcends all borders and nationalities,” Zaman tells us. It is precisely this sense of permeability and syncretism that the poets of this collection challenge us to reckon with.

Waqas Khwaja, one of the translators of the collection, introduces the volume with a brief lesson on Pakistani poetics. Considered the most popular poetic form on the subcontinent, the ghazal contains a series of couplets regimented into both a tight rhyme scheme and thematic autonomy. Since each couplet may change dramatically in tone, trope, or voice, a ghazal may be, more appropriately, a chain of miniatures— only seemingly disparate—arranged neatly side-by-side as though in a gallery. While the ghazal form doesn’t prevail in the anthology, it seems to nonetheless haunt it; even those poets concerned with contemporary social or political issues seal their stanzas with questions, pleas, and avowals of faint, often imperceptible hope—echoes of the metaphysical questions and riddles posed by the classical ghazal.

For its linguistic and historical breadth (the collection features forty-four poets writing in seven languages) and its inclusion of both renowned twentieth-century Pakistani poets (pre and post-partition) as well as lesser-known contemporary poets, Modern Poetry of Pakistan is a revelation. Those looking for an introduction to the richness of the region’s poetry won’t be disappointed. Meanwhile, those who are more interested in issues of cultural translation may be disappointed by the absence of the poems in their original languages. A collection that bears the responsibility of translating an entire cultural ethos for the West necessarily leaves room for assessment and contention. But by the same token, the lack of the original Urdu, Pashto, or Punjabi casts these poems as transcendent—even universalizable— aesthetic events independent of their linguistic or cultural contexts. This is perhaps why the anthology succeeds—it isn’t simply a project of cultural transmission, but an important artistic contribution, in its own right, to world literature.

Organized in a loose chronology, and by poet, the collection offers close encounter with each writer’s oeuvre. There are, nonetheless, images, anxieties, and ideas that converse with each other throughout the book; the recurring motif of the eyes is one of them. When the eyes gaze at the beloved or the unattainable object of desire in a modern Pakistani love poem, they reveal the traces of Sufi mysticism, poets like Hafez and Rumi, for whom the eyes both empower and agonize the devoted lover whose beloved never sees him, or whose God can be searched for—even found—but never seen. The alert eyes of the modern Pakistani poet are also everywhere, peering out of this collection’s pages and registering not the veiled beloved, but rather, the concealed injustices of his or her day.

In “Hassan the Potter,” the mid-twentieth-century poet N.M. Rashid writes:

The corpses of these pots,
etceteras of some mortal story,
are our azan, the sign of our inquiry.
In the silence of their hour of death they speak:
“We are the eyes which open inwardly,
which gaze at you, seeking out every pain,
knowing the secret of each beauty.
We are the longing of that night’s empty room,
where one face, like a tree branch,
leaning over another,
had left in each human heart
a rose petal.
We are that night’s stolen kiss.”

The pots, here figured as poets, bear witness to secret acts and stolen kisses. But the threat of the poetic speakers slipping into passive observance and detached aesthetic contemplation, into becoming the “etceteras of some mortal story,” is challenged throughout. The poems’ distinctly modern political concerns and their reflections on a tumultuous century for the subcontinent and its neighboring societies are expressed through scathing, condemnatory imagery or aggressively activist rhetoric. Many of the poems, like Iftikhar Arif’s “The Last Man’s Victory Song,” grapple with Partition, religious strife, and oppressive political regimes.

Arif writes:

The Shah’s fellows are satisfied that desecrated heads and
chopped-off arms
hang from the city’s walls,
and there is peace everywhere.
Peace and silence.

It is precisely this balancing act between old values and new political realities that makes Modern Poetry of Pakistan at once jarring and seamless. In “The Chador and the Walled Homestead,” Fahmida Riaz challenges her duty to wear hijab, deeming herself “the traveling companion of the new Adam/ who has won my trusting fellowship.” This new Adam, Riaz suggests, stands in for the dream of modern Pakistan itself—a society always conscious of tradition while striving for its own vision of modernity. The walls of the homestead, like the chador (a loose black robe worn by Muslim women) will be torn asunder, revealing a society moving forward “in open air, with sails spread wide.” In “Aqleema,” Riaz gives life to the sister of Cain and Abel, who is given little attention in scripture:

born of the mother of Abel and Cain,
born of the same mother,
but different . . .
She, the prisoner of her own body,
in the fierce sun
stands atop a burning rock.
Look carefully at the imprint in the stone.
Above the slender thighs,
the intricate womb,
Aqleema has a head, too.
Allah, speak sometimes to Aqleema too,
ask something!

Adopting Aqleema as a figure for the invisible woman of history, Riaz makes a direct appeal to God and suggests that poetry can rewrite the past, make amends for it, and use it to illuminate the present.

The eighteen men and women who have translated for the anthology are literature professors, critics, artists, scientists, activists, and poets hailing from Pakistan, India, and the diaspora. Their varied scholarly and professional perspectives, and the choices they’ve made as translators, undoubtedly add complexity to the poems presented in Modern Poetry of Pakistan. This ambitious collection then offers a benchmark for future modern Urdu and Pakistani regional literary anthologies, of which there aren’t many. Moreover, the compendium offers a promise in its sketch of modern Pakistani poetry—of layered meanings, woven by the poets and their translators, the metaphysical and the political, the past, the present, and the common courage of poetic vision.

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