As a general trait I am wary of poetry that aims to speak directly about current events. It is a discomfort borne out of experience: more often than not, poems about immediate events have not undergone the gestation, the reflection required to surmount the raw emotions engendered by news. And while such poetry can record naked emotions, it often fails to provide any insight beyond the banality of anger, disgust or grief.
So it was with a measure of trepidation that I picked up Peerzada Salman’s debut book of English poetry, Bemused, an apprehension that was magnified upon seeing poem titles such as ‘Freedom of the Press’, ‘Suicide Attack in Quetta’, ‘Nuclear War’, ‘Donald Trump’, ‘Girl From Fallujah’ and ‘Sabeen Mahmud’ — a mutual friend who was felled by assassins’ bullets in 2015. I reasoned this was to be expected from a journalist with a sensitive disposition — Salman has worked at Dawn for over 14 years and people in the cultural and literary firmament are familiar with his prolific output over the years — but it didn’t help quell my unease.
However, a funny thing happened as I began to read. I began to enjoy the unexpected turns of phrase and the sometimes surreal associations. I realised that while Salman the poet may often draw his inspirations from Salman the journalist, his wit, wordplay and way of looking at things often pulled one out of the realm of mere reportage. Consider these lines from ‘Freedom of the Press’: “The caption has no verb/ Truth has no blurb.” Or this from ‘You Should Apologise’: “The poet-emperor’s sons, they tell me/Always had wobbly heads/ Bloody high-falutin’ thoroughbreds.” Here rhymes have been used for visceral impact, but their simplicity can often be deceptive, hiding allusions within them that trigger emotions within the discerning reader.
A debut collection of English poems allows its writer to address his personal obsessions
Take for example, Salman’s poem on the death of celebrated Urdu writer Nayyar Masud: “I haven’t lost faith in words yet/ I haven’t lost faith in birds yet.” Masud’s most celebrated story, Taoos Chaman Ki Mynah, of course, refers to a mynah bird.
Then there are refreshing turns of phrase employed by Salman that indicate a unique poetic sensibility. In ‘Nuclear War – I’ he posits “The ground, split open, like the heart of a jilted lover”; in ‘Suicide’ he refers to “Meat, tender like the first night of love”; in ‘Monitor Lizard’ a water bottle becomes “the daisy cutter of the soul”; in ‘Door’ he rues that “My legs have begun to feel the burden of requited love”; in ‘A Celebrity’s Death – I’ he says “Death bores/ The life out of me”; and in ‘The Black Bra’, “The strap slung down that white marmoreal shoulder/ Like a boa slowly constricting its prey.”
Does all of his wordplay work? No. Sometimes Salman can try to be too clever, allowing showy rhymes to overpower the gravitas of what he is setting out to say. This can at times be unexpectedly bathetic. But there is enough evidence here of a mind trying to capture and distil a vast store of knowledge, experience and reading. Certainly the poet’s mental canvas is wide-ranging, and there are plenty of allusions, ranging from literature (James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, Majnun, Ernest Hemingway) to pop culture (Aishwarya Rai, Jethro Tull, Playstation 4, Kurt Cobain, Quentin Tarantino) to, of course, politics. But like one of his acknowledged teachers, the Urdu poet Jaun Elia, Salman never allows overt pretentiousness to overpower his verse.
So why does Salman write poetry? Unlike prose which he also has a facility with (he is also a short story writer) and which can allow him greater margin for exposition, poetry is concentrated and its punch can feel more personal. What compels him to expose himself? What, to use a colloquialism, is eating at him? The three biggest themes in these 60-odd poems, in my opinion, are anger, his love of poetry itself and a sense of mortality.
The anger is directed primarily against the undeserving who get heaped with accolades — bad writers (“blithering idiots with bucketful of words”), those he terms the “Facebook literati”, pretentious artists and the culture of celebrity. Sometimes the anger is turned into sarcasm: “I’m an artist as fake as my work/ And I’m proud of it/ I’m so frigging proud of it/ That I feel like a total jerk/ As fake as my work.” But often it bleeds into a tone of bitterness: “And that mad piece of cow’s dung who calls himself a poet.” There is a sense of injustice at play here which he is obviously unable to express with as much force in his tempered journalistic writings or in fiction.
This bubbling bile is thankfully offset by Salman’s far greater obsession with the beauty of words, where poetry itself becomes a tangible metaphor. So someone is beautiful “Like the second line of an age-old sonnet”, a friend is exhorted to dance “until you become a poem”, and “She used to be a poem —/ Internal rhyming jumping from phrase to phrase” but now, “She’s a piece of prose/ Long-winded, verbose.” There is also a lament at the loss of traditions: “You live to tell the story of the death of poetry/ Or the death of every word that rhymed.”
But perhaps the most significant reason Salman wants to express his personal self, is because of a growing sense of mortality, brought on by a medical condition that is slowly depriving him of his sight. Indications of it are scattered throughout these poems. For example in ‘Nervous’: “I’m too nervous to die/ It’s my first time”; or in ‘Before the Lights Fade Out’: “Before the lights fade out/ I want the lights not to fade out/ For I have things to do/ Gods to sue/ I have things to undo.” And perhaps even more masterfully in ‘Ghosts’:
“I asked my father,
‘Do you believe in ghosts?’
He said, yes.
‘We all play host
To one or two or three…’
I asked, ‘Which one do I host?’
He said, ‘I don’t want to boast.’”
Fortunately, the last lines of the last poem in book, ‘Sabeen Mahmud —II’, offer resistance to morbidity and the rebellion of hope. “It ain’t/ Over.”
The reviewer is Dawn’s Editor Magazines
By Peerzada Salman
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 4th, 2018