written by Najia Sabahat Khan
On the 3rd of March, I attended a session called Kohl and Chalk: Readings and Conversation with Poet, Shadab Zeest Hashmi at T2F. I hadn’t heard of the poet before, and didn’t know what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised.
The talk followed the different stages of her life, affording the audience a deeper look into the poems and their composition. However, the poems are not esoteric, or to be viewed through the narrow chink of the poet’s particular experience; they are quite enjoyable on their own, and invite the reader to have his/her own interpretations. That is the poet’s intent: ”I want to be friends with my reader, whoever that reader is.”
Shadab spent the first twenty years of her life in Pakistan, and has spent the other twenty in the U.S. The moderator, Afia Aslam, introduced her as a poet of ‘immense talent and skill’. This was evident from the first poem read:
“I was never
a black and white begum
blooming out of a soufflé
of silk gharara,
leaning on a gold cane,
nor a sepia Sahab Bahadur
with his shoe on the lap
of a native.”
“…When I close my eyes
I am the ripped tire
rolling beside a barefoot boy
with a stick
I spin to his whim
across a rocky,
jasmine scented hill.”
-excerpts from It’s In Sleep a Soul Will Know Itself.
The poet explained that the poem is about the Arab Spring and is a “rant against Empire”. However, as with her other poems, there is a delightful, subtle intersection of the personal and political. It’s like a soft-spoken person trying to be heard in a din. “It’s really trying to talk about, finally, the fact that the actual focus is on the ordinary person. We’re all that person, we really are, but we fall into the trap of defining ourselves and identifying ourselves with other people’s definitions. It’s really time to go beyond that.”
Another poem read was Facial Palsy. Shadab commented that, “So much of this book has to do with identity…Muslim identity, Pakistani identity, American identity, Pakistan-Muslim-American identity, hyphenated identities, multiple identities…so this poem is an emblematic poem; it sort of represents this whole madness of looking for oneself.” The poem is about a time when half of the poet’s face was paralyzed.
There are two interesting points here. Firstly, identity is a personal/political search that is hard to explain without the discussion turning into a set of assertions and counter-assertions that may pit one identity against the other:
“And you, face, feeble as falling ash, an eggshell when it breaks for trembling new chicks, a treble that even the swift air won’t carry, one half of you abandoned, its muscles the weight of lead, dragging to keep up with the sprightly half.”
-line from Facial Palsy
Secondly, though, there is the state of being, with the contradictions coexisting.
“There is rouge from Paris, coconut oil from Orissa, Turkish bracelets, flame-colored roses from the garden, the sewing machine’s crescendo.”
-line from Facial Palsy
The poet deals with both beautifully, and tells her story without alienating the reader.
On a personal level, the moderator noted how Pakistani the imagery in Shadab’s poetry is, and asked if she still thinks of Pakistan as home. She does, the poet said, though she is still split about what home means. “There’s a home in our memory,” she reflected, talking about how some things have changed while others haven’t.
Having grown up in Peshawar, Shadab said, “It’s very strange…I never really saw the war [the Russian invasion of Afghanistan] itself, but I could hear it.” Some of her poems deal with (directly or peripherally) this war. However, the poet never comes out and talks in grand terms about the war; rather, her poems focus on the small, almost unnoticeable changes – unnoticeable, of course, in the face of large-scale death and destruction – and give her work the feel of documentation.
still trying to remember
the space between news and songs
voices in mud”
-excerpt from Radio Moscow
Fascinatingly, though, the poet is not only good at presenting experiences; her skill and versatility as a writer cannot be fully appreciated without also considering a set of creative historical poems that were read out: Gunga Din’s Revenge, Jinnah’s Typewriter, Fatima Jinnah Enters Her Brother’s Study, and Malabar Hills.
“Your typewriter has been found
in a tangle of seaweed
clacking over the waves of the Arabian Sea
in sand-grit staccato
for sixty-odd years
churning the same speech”
-excerpt from Jinnah’s Typewriter
I found the composition of these poems, in particular Gunga Din’s Revenge (which is based on the Kipling poem), very interesting. From a technical point of view, it is difficult to balance the creative and the historical (or the material from the source) – to create something new without compromising its historicity. However, Shadab Zeest Hashmi makes it look effortless, and is able to communicate with the reader through the richness of her imagery.
There is something very special about this poet. The session was followed by conversation, and Sabeen put her finger on it: “the blade of sarcasm” is missing from her poetry. Her poems are not cynical or dark. She does not try to show off and is not overtly clever or pretentious. In fact, the poetry is almost earnest.
“I think writers should be brave enough to be vulnerable,” said Shadab, and I agree. It’s no wonder that I haven’t come across many new poets that I like – the poetry is devoid of meaning because poetics seems to have become a set of language exercises. Shadab’s poetry, though, manages to avoid the stagnation and stereotypes of modern poetry without compromising an examination of the modern condition and its themes. It is thus, by default, refreshing and welcome; what makes it all the better is it’s a set of original, rich and accessible poems.
“We weep in both languages
And anything round is a planet”
-excerpt from Notes for My Husband
Shadab Zeest Hashmi’s book, Kohl and Chalk, is available at T2F.