HOW is it possible to craft silence? Perhaps in the same way that a painter crafts light out of pigment, shape out of shadow, perhaps in the manner that saints have spoken of from their hallowed tombs — with words only the supplicant can hear.
It is the silence of Athar Tahir’s words which resounds in the empty hours of our supposedly full lives. Reading Tahir is almost eviscerating, in a way where there is only the sound of one’s own fragility breaking against the beveled edge of his voice. Whether Tahir writes about his deceased sister in “Requiem Sonnets” or about the colonisation of a languishing subcontinent in “A Certain Season”, Tahir pulls one into the quiet abyss of our lives which we dare not face for fear that we may see too much. The intensity of Tahir’s imagery is counterpoised with the gentleness of his sensibility, set off yet again by the unexpected beauty of things known and unknown, seen and unseen, felt and unfelt. Tahir’s gaze is gentle, yet his vision is incisive, almost frighteningly clear. He sees the shadow before the shape, the empty canvas before light falls upon it, creating a presence where none was perceived before, evoking emotion we often bury deep inside our veiled nakedness.
Tahir’s latest collection of poetry, The Last Tea, is held reverently between the leaves of a finely designed cover, graced by details of an 18th century print Tea Ceremony by Isoda Koryusai. Along the edge of the front cover is Japanese script written by eminent calligrapher Yumi Tohyama who has employed a technique referred to as ‘dual letter writing’ in which the script is simultaneously in Japanese and English. The Last Tea is divided into three distinct parts: the first, is a testament to Tahir’s profound veneration for the soil; an intense love for all that signifies the local, the native, the personal, and the primeval. Disciplining the structure of these poems with an economy of words while drawing out the potent rhythm of the stanzas commands serious attention to Tahir’s gift of precision as well as evocation. He appears to quietly call one’s attention to the form as well as substance of his verse, for both are indeed equally compelling, equally significant.
First to herald spring this robust tree
like crucifix turned on its axis
Bleeds red handfuls
that to the ground in a halo.
— from “Bombax Malabaricum”
Tahir clearly does not intend to merely entertain or to pique the casual reader with his offerings: these are works of a mind which is fearless in its ability to transform the hidden into the ‘zaahir’ ; the evident into the material.
The second section of the collection is titled Haiku Aviary. Employing the Japanese form of the traditional haiku — a three-line poem with 17 syllables, written in a 5/7/5 syllable count, Tahir continues the tradition of focusing on images from nature, emphasising simplicity, intensity, and directness of expression. The entire section is dedicated to feathered creatures that fill our landscape visually and aurally, enriching it without acknowledgement. From the ordinary sparrow to the now endangered vulture, Tahir speaks of these creatures with the love a mystic feels for all things which make up the universe, for all things which make us human:
A white heron lifts
Shaping into permanence
flight on paddy fields
— from “Heron”
Tahir’s understanding of the calligraphic arts is reflected in his ‘visual’ poems, written and composed visually to evoke the sensibility of the verse itself. Written vertically, employing the up-to-down movement of the Japanese script, these poems form a part of the third section titled: Japan Journal. Clearly there is an admiration for not just the natural but also the spiritual environment of the country which appears to have captivated Tahir after several visits to the island nation. In “Kyoto 2” Tahir moves the letters of his poem down the page, each one following the earlier one to form a pictogram:
Kamo river trees
droop branches like Kanji script
Blossoms pink pauses.
He delves further into the notion of form marrying content when he scripts in curved lines his ode to nature in “Tokyo Sakura I”:
Such hectic scatter
of petals the wind dislodged
drunk on suddenness.
It is as if a breeze has blown the words across the page much as it has scattered petals across the landscape.
To be able to read Tahir without entering a trance-like state of consciousness would be near impossible for those of us who yield to this incessant prodding, this ceaseless reminder of how vast and wonderful the universe is, and what we make of our place in it.
For Tahir, each element of experience, and each experience of the elements, is worthy of poetic appreciation. For him, a tree is no longer a tree, the death of a loved one is not just a departure, and the absence of words is not necessarily silence. He crafts the most exquisite emotion into the barest composition, stripped bare of unnecessary embellishment and offered in pristine grace and graciousness:
Stand in each other’s silence
or sit and share its fragrance
— From “Love”
The Last Tea pays homage to all things Tahir holds dear to his heart and to his distinct sensibility as a son of the soil but also as a citizen of the world. Schooled in literature at Oxford, traveling through the West, and working in Pakistan’s rural hinterland as a civil servant, Tahir carries many mantles with steady poise. While his earlier collections are odes to his immediate, all-embracing environment, peopled by loved ones and loved creatures, The Last Tea goes beyond temporal borders and reaches out to worlds unknown, little understood, yet very close to the mystic sensibility which runs through Tahir’s core and through the corps of his verse.
It is therefore not enigmatic at all that an 18th century Japanese woodcut graces the cover of this latest collection, for even in the distant lands of the East, Tahir sees the extraordinary in what we usually glance at and dismiss as ordinary. Perhaps this is why he has named his collection after a Japanese ritual of preparing, pouring, and sipping tea to represent the feast that is offered to us in the form of the most exquisitely crafted verse which celebrates the local as well as the global, but which must be savoured — each movement of the ritual deliberate followed by a slow release of acknowledgment that we are a part of a magnificent world, crafted by a magnificent hand.
The Last Tea
By M Athar Tahir
TanaBana Publications and International Center for Pakistani Writing in English, Kinnaird College, Lahore