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Subversion of poetry and language

Updated June 11, 2017

Waqas Khwaja has been writing poetry for about five decades. His first collection, Poems, was published in 1979. Since then he has published four collections of poetry and a book of prose. With five decades of writing poetry and going through the experiences of immigration and displacement, there does seem to be a progression of him as a poet, which is but natural for any good writer.

Six Geese from a Tomb at Medum, his second book published in 1987. The poems are mostly related to character sketches, creating portraits of people seems to have such an overwhelming influence on the poet that the cities and things also appear as characters. The images of trees, birds, night and sky are recurrent in it and all the local images like trees, flowers, myths, rituals and birds appear in his next book, No One Waits for the Train, published in 2007. Another book by Khwaja, Mariam’s Lament and Other Poems, was published in 1991.

Khwaja, a PhD in English literature, has been teaching literature in the US since his immigration in 1994, and he seems to have developed his own philosophy regarding language and poetry. In his prose book, Writers and Landscapes, he says: “The writer too lives in paradox, at more levels than one. His existence, his feelings and emotions, are as much determined by the language he uses as that language is determined and created by him. He liberates himself only by consigning himself to the script of text.

“The evolution of language and thought is a process of perpetual subversion against the accept symbol, image or character, attempting not only to assimilate it to itself but, paradoxically, to recreate it on its own terms.”

Waqas Khwaja seems to have broken free of the shackles of convention without damaging the spirit of poetry and readers see subversion that he refers to unfolding in, Hold Your Breath. The recreation of form language and language with the themes, rooted in his native as well as adopted land go side by side.

Khwaja’s subversion against conventions of poetry in his new book centre around, among other elements, the lines of Urdu in his poems and his political poems. Though it would be wrong to say that any poem can be ‘apolitical’ or without an ‘agenda’ but when compared with, Six Geese from a Tomb at Medum, the number of political poems has increased manifold in Khwaja’s work.

Regarding the subversion against form and tradition, the best example of his craft can be seen in his poem, Piya Torey Nain. In this poem, one can read classical raga as if the poet has deciphered the notes as words and sounds come from the classical singers Ustad Amanat Ali Khan and Ustad Fateh Ali Khan and given them words, following the complete pattern of ebb and flow and high and low notes in English language where Piya Toray Nain become ‘beloved your eyes’. Rendering a subcontinental classical raga into a poem could not be done a better way. The pattern poem is Khwaja’s way of paying homage to the classical singers of Patiala Ghrana.

Primer is another poem where the poet has not only broken the conventional form, he has broken the words into parts in an attempt to recreate new vocabulary. He took the sacred words and names from various religions, including Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism, and broke them in such a way that letters of one word can also be read with the part of another word which might be from another religion. This looks like a conscious attempt on the part of Khwaja to show that one concept in any religion can be joined with the other opposite one. The spiritual concept of oneness and doing away with barriers against “the other” has been evoked in this way.

Living in a foreign land, the matter of identity and lost sense of belonging that one loses as an ‘alien’ remain pricking questions for any sensitive mind. In the poem, I was Born an Enemy, Khwaja writes; I was born in many lands/I have travelled across many seas/scaled mountains and trekked through timeless deserts/mujhay dekho tou sahih meray jism kay kitnay tukrray hain/aik aik hissa kabhi jiska naam tha/aur woh apnay naam say pehchana jata tha/aaj gumnaam hay.

Though it’s been decades since Khwaja migrated to the US but many of his poems in his new collection are about his native land and are steeped in nostalgia and personal grief. These themes are there in the poems like, I dream of my father, kughu kohrray (clay toys), Today I am a Muslim Weaver. However, it does not mean that Khwaja is always looking back and did not have sensibility of the American life. He has dedicated the book to Eric Garner, the black man who was killed through a chuckhold by white policeman and title poem, Hold Your Breath, has used the metaphor of breathing and breathing space or lack of it in the American life as Garner’s last words were “I can’t breathe”. It looks like Khwaja’s take on the American dream the way Arthur Miller and Edward Albee have done in their plays.

In the second poem for Eric Garner, Khwaja writes; Ek lafz jo keh nah saka/i can’t breathe/i can’t breathe/ek saans jo lay nah saka/i can’t breathe/i can’t breathe/meray jism ki mael he/mera kul asasa hae/i can’t breathe/i can’t breathe/aap meray jism ki kaan ko khod kar/apnay asasay banatay haen.

In Going Back, Khwaja juxtaposes his native land where ‘nothing seems to have changed’ with his America and American dream and concludes that though social conditions and problems might be different in both lands but human affliction is same in both the countries.

Published in Dawn, June 11th, 2017