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Anis Shivani is a prolific and well-known Pakistani-American poet, critic, short story writer and novelist who has produced a substantial body of work in less than a decade. His poetry is remarkable for its continuing preoccupation with literature, culture and language and a discourse that incorporates the written word, the oral tradition and the imagery of art and film. This runs through the two very different collections discussed here: Whatever Speaks on Behalf of Hashish (2015) and Soraya: Sonnets (2016)

In an interview with Shadab Zeest Hashmi, Shivani had asserted that the title of his second volume of poetry, Whatever Speaks on Behalf of Hashish, gives the book and its focus on emotions a sense of distance from the agency of writing. The poems, however, follow a pattern established by his earlier, more political collection, My Tranquil War (2011), with a number of poems providing an intertextual engagement with, or being addressed to, a literary figure, cultural icon or a specific work.

Some of the most noteworthy poems include ‘December 31’, a graceful sonnet that engages with Bernadette Mayer’s acclaimed poetry collection Midwinter Day, while ‘The Death of Frank O’ Hara’ becomes a rapid, desperate, surrealist dance of life and death that builds in manic images of the fatal car accident that ruptured the liver of the celebrated 40-year old poet and art critic, Frank O’ Hara.

Anis Shivani’s poetry is cerebral and obscure but always challenging

The poet also contemplates the great Cordoba-born polymath Averroes in a three-part sequence of that name. Although Ibn Rushd, the Arab name for Averroes, is not mentioned, it is implicit to the imagery. Shivani goes on to play with language, encapsulating both past and present, change and permanence, and melds myriad references including Biblical lore and Greek mythology, space travel and sea voyages, mysticism, science and arithmetic.

Shivani continues to journey across different cultures in ‘Sonnets to X’, a sequence of 15 love poems. These are constructed as a traditional complaint. They are addressed, in the second person, to an anonymous lover and traverse quarrels and differences of perception. The literary references to Lawrence Durrell, Constantine Cavafy, John Berryman and Rainer Maria Rilke, or figures such as Sappho and Dante’s Beatrice, add to the sense of drugged romance in which the unequal relationship between the lover and the beloved also symbolises that of the coloniser and the colonised, or migrants to new homelands in the West. Shivani captures perceptions of the orient and the oriental through Western eyes in poems such as ‘E.M. Forster in Alexandria’ and ‘The Beats’. The latter — with its reference to Paul Bowles, Allen Ginsberg and Tangiers — recreates the post-Second World War generation of American Beat poets, who were encouraged by Bowles to gravitate to that Moroccan city where the expatriate Bowles lived.

In other poems, Shivani comments on violence and conflict. ‘War’ creates dreamlike images that challenge concepts of the enemy as the alien other and is built up of three-line haiku verses. The first begins:

“I am your naked Japanese proxying for health/ The moon blooms in occupied hours, printing/ Thumbnail of illiteracy on very good days.”

Shivani’s cerebral poems often border on the obscure, but constantly challenge the reader to unravel deeply embedded references, suggestions and innuendoes. However, in his next book of poetry, Soraya: Sonnets, the intricate interplay of language, rhyme and imagery achieves a much greater poetic resonance and complexity. The innovative use of words and sounds that draw on myriad languages and cultures adds to the rich texture of each poem.

In Mudlark (an electronic journal of poetry and poetics) Poster 111, Shivani explains: “Soraya is an experiment in the baroque possibilities of language, juxtaposing the archaic and the techno-contemporary in the same sonnet, counterposing Eastern and Western terms of reference, mashing together scientific and medieval worldviews to observe the sweet confusion of unforeseen competition … I wanted Soraya to be a statement about the degree to which excess is underestimated as a factor in aesthetic beauty, how excess can escalate vocabulary to a level of articulate comprehension … I wanted to let the dynamics of baroque sound push me toward an awakening of positive historical sensibility, as I tried to expose the ways in which surrealism keeps betraying its anchoring in the revolutionary future.”

Shivani has been fascinated by the sonnet for many years and Soraya, consisting of 100 sonnets, is a particularly ambitious work. The poems were written not as individual works, but perceived from the very first in their entirety as a book. The first sonnet begins:

“Heavy water, Soraya, hectares of lithium/ Your angry locusts, past the 17th/ Year of pining, while your carnival mermans/ We — mercurial, mentholated, mephitic natives/ Revive the rhythm of breathing in rhumba/ Rewrite the vitreous books to void/ Sprocket of hope to your sprouting reich/ Each of the 13 colonies tone-deaf.”

The very name Soraya, which has come to Urdu via Arabic and Persian and is also a Hebrew name, means variously (according to language) bright star, a constellation, a gem and a princess among others. In Shivani’s sonnets, Soraya, as the beloved, is open to many interpretations — political and personal. At the same time, Soraya is also a metaphor for the author’s love of language, which emerges with such clarity throughout. Subcontinental references such as Thar and Dehradun are all absorbed into Shivani’s lively and cunning verbal constructs. Sonnet 29 begins:

“Sutlej, Panjnad, Chenab, swag of suzerain/ Clothes, the suspense kills combfish clones/ Soraya’s coma/ Comaneci’s colza (drape coma to Nothing), carousel to arak, aquifer aging/ Like aphorisms of apologia; akrasia/ Less noticeable than albatross in an air sac…”

In fact, Soraya: Sonnets is quite an exceptional collection and unique in Pakistani English literature. Shivani has now completed a new poetry volume, which should be out soon.

The reviewer is a writer and a critic

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 2nd, 2017