HERE is a generation of men and women, serious or casual readers of poetry who, for the first time, picked up Azra Abbas’s seminal poem, ‘Mez par rakhay haath [Hands on the table]’, felt a punch in the gut, read it again, and wondered when modern poetry became like this. I went through the same feeling, not knowing where to put her in the shelf — between Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Noon Meem Rashid, and Majeed Amjad? Or an emerging Fehmida Riaz and the uproarious and anarchic Jaun Elia? A very senior poet once told me that one way of recognising great verse is that it doesn’t remind you of anything you have read before. I hadn’t read much poetry before or after, but Abbas’s strange, haunting poems stayed with me much after I had closed the book. And sometimes I found myself with my hands on the table, to try to remember the images from that first poem that I had read about hands on a table.
Twenty years ago I interviewed Abbas for Newsline magazine and, like a star-struck fan, asked her that staple question: what would she have done if she weren’t writing poetry? It was a stupid question because she was already doing a lot. She was a full-time teacher at a Karachi college, an occasional militant activist for teachers’ rights, and was raising four young children. Her answer became the headline for my interview: “If I wasn’t writing poetry, I would be a terrorist.” She said that with a straight face, as if she was giving me an obvious tip about raising children. Terrorism wasn’t fashionable then. It was associated with Irish and Palestinians freedom fighters and some obscure outfit called Red Brigades somewhere in Europe.
Two decades later, reading her collection Andheray ki Sargoshiyan [Whispers of the dark], I realised she wasn’t joking about the terrorism bit. She does believe in setting off small explosions on the page. She also believes in changing the world through these small explosions, or at least disfiguring it. And when she believes that her poetry can’t change the world, or even her reader, she resorts to prayers and curses, which is in itself an exquisite form of poetry.
Sometimes her poems are weather warnings, sometimes bulletin boards from the bazaar, sometimes whispered admonitions. Some of her poems are, indeed, delicate curses, others are shouting matches; some are quiet prayers, others are howls of protest and some are jokes so elaborate and so heartfelt that you smile and clutch your heart at the same time.
I am sure there are no casual poets, but Abbas takes her poetry very, very seriously. She takes poetry more seriously than our generals take their wars. She is surer of its magical potential than our sectarian mullah is of his sermons, or our street politician is of his lies. She fusses over the form, her subjects, and how it’s read. And on those rare days when she is stuck, she prays to the gods of poetry, who often oblige because they know that she will go on writing regardless of their approval or otherwise.
Andherey ki Sargoshiyan (POETRY) | By Azra Abbas | Aaj ki Kitabain | ISBN: 978- 696480150 | 168pp.
In Andheray ki Sargoshiyan her poems cover an astounding range of subjects, voices, and forms. From the rising prices of tomatoes to a sea napping in a boat, her imagination takes her places that more traditional poets would find not very poetic.
Abbas is not apologetic about being political, and she is always political even when she is being playful. Her poems do a little dance on the page. Sometimes they are the joke and the hapless laughter that follows. Sometimes they just sigh and evaporate.
She is very aware of her environment — the birds and the fish, the sea and the forest, the open manholes of our existence. Her poems are populated by smokers sniffing their unlit cigarettes, women sharing the secrets of motherhood with house sparrows, and the merchants of death eating dried fruit in their pleasure palaces. Her favourite kind of woman goes to hell and is accused of stealing other people’s sins. On one page she expresses a desire to be one with the migratory crane and on the next worries about a country in a coma with nobody to pinch its cheeks and bring it around.
There are no dividing lines between the personal and political in her poetic world; she takes the scattered lives around her as if she were writing her autobiography and talks about her most intimate feelings as though she were giving a state of the nation address.
Creating entire worlds with short, simple lines, Abbas makes you think about the magic of poetry, and renews your faith in human imagination. She talks about the possibility of rain in the city, as if that were the only thing that mattered in the entire universe. She talks about how the city prepares for it; there are gutters waiting to receive the ones who will be electrocuted, crumbling roofs with their open-mouthed laughter, thirsty roads. The clouds look down and are astonished at the welcoming preparedness of the city, but the promise of rain turns out to be a profound hoax that everyone wants to believe, like everyone wants to believe in life, like everyone wants to believe in poetry.
The reviewer is a journalist and an author.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, January 29th, 2017