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September 23, 2018


In 1981 Azra Abbas came out with her first collection of poems, Neend Ki Musafatein [Journeys of Sleep]. The first line in the book was “Paani pe chaltay huay paon hamaray hi thay” [Those feet were ours that tread on water]. It heralded a new beginning in Urdu poetry. In those days, choosing prose poem over other forms of expression was no less than trying to tread on water. But there was one iconoclast, Qamar Jameel, who spearheaded the prose poem movement and infused a certain ardour in many young writers, some of whom are still in the same phase of their creative lives. Abbas was one of those young writers.

In the past 40 years or so, Abbas has been quite consistent in publishing poetry collections. Her first was based on her initiation into the realm of love, then its fulfilment and then daydreaming about the outcome of this tryst with love. After that came Maiz Per Rakhey Haath [Hands on the Table] where some of her poems were singled out for their explicit sexual expression. Hairat Ke Uss Paar [The Other Side of Wonder] was notable for expressing the experiences of living in a foreign city (London) while Andhere Ki Sargoshian [Whispers of the Darkness] was marked by a profound, multifaceted sadness which was not felt before in her poetry.

This sadness is very much there in her new book Bheerr Mein [In the Crowd], but the word ‘sadness’ would not be enough to explain this, or any, collection. These are variations of sadness which are more discernible in the genre of prose poem than in any other form. Love, filial bonds and her beloved city Karachi have been some of the most recurrent themes in Abbas’s poetry. Now life, time and death have also cropped up as important themes with which she is most concerned.

The grande dame of prose poetry has mellowed and her anger has been replaced with wistfulness about love

Her sadness comes from different spaces. From promises of love which could not be kept; from love that is thrown into a corner or has been put in abeyance; from love that was lost or was showered over someone who did not deserve it; or just for waiting all her life for someone who actually deserved her love. But above all, this sadness is there because of the futility of the search for love which she experiences at the present stage of her life. It is a mellow sadness, devoid of the sharpness and incisiveness of Abbas’s anger of her younger days about which she had told an interviewer that, had she not been a poet, she would have been a terrorist. Now her anger has subsided into a sadness which is often mellifluous when expressing the sorrows of love.

Is it strange that she is still writing love poems? No, it is not. When she was young, she was writing about love as an experience; now she is writing about love as a remembrance of things past. She is writing about a love which was promised to be given to her in instalments, but was discontinued after the first one. She writes about the futility of the search for love in poems such as Tum Mujhe Dhoondte Rahey [You Kept Looking for Me], where both lovers end their lives trying to catch the other; even though they meet once, they fail because they are not able to recognise each other at the right moment. One poem is named Aatishdaan [Fireplace] where the titular object is reminiscing about people who used to gather around it for warmth, but now it is about to be extinguished. She is recalling the days when she used to pluck dreams from trees and when she used to walk under trees and the trees would bestow their dreams on the poet by showering their leaves and petals on her.

The futility of the search for love has enabled Abbas to think about the concept of time. This futility of life has rendered time useless. Now when time passes it doesn’t tell where it is passing and where it is hurting someone. Nevertheless, time will disassemble the entity of one’s self and take it to its usual end. That end is death, another theme which is dealt with poignantly in Abbas’s new poems.

There are some poems which try to smash man-made taboos. We can say that these are feminist poems, though Abbas is wary of defining herself as a feminist. In the poem ‘Ab Mein Post Box Mein Koi Khat Nahin Daaloon Gi’ [I Will Not Put a Letter in the Post Box] she regrets the taboo for women that they cannot post a love letter to someone out of a legitimate relationship. In another poem she regrets that she is not a “houri” and thus cannot go to the paradise promised to men. Some poems remind us of the prose poems written in the 1980s and ’90s when poetry was used as a mode of resistance. Hum Un Ke Saath Hain Jo Maarey Gaey [We Are With Those Who Were Killed] and Woh Kehta Hai [He Says] are two such poems.

In this new book, Abbas is able to find new ways of arranging poetic ideas as well. In Aik Nazm Doosri Nazm Ke Liyey [A Poem for Another Poem], two poems are presented as characters talking to each other. One poem is behind the other poem and is waiting for its turn, sadly, to be thrown into a ditch as the first poem is destined to be.

Apart from her subjects and expression, it is also worth noticing how far Abbas is able to take her poems as memorable and distinct units. In most cases, she is successful, but there are some poems where she starts with an idea and then forgets it in her stream of consciousness and doesn’t come back to it to justify its presence at the start of the poem. Those poems can be termed as just forms of expression which could not become complete entities.

Abbas has had an eventful life as a poet. She now has a rich treasure trove of reminiscences and she keeps working on them to give new meaning to her experiences. This is why poetry readers eagerly wait for her new poems and welcome her as the grande dame of prose poetry.

The reviewer is a poet, novelist and translator. His first novel Char Darvesh Aur Aik Kachwa will be published this year by Maktaba-i-Danyal

Bheerr Mein
By Azra Abbas
Aaj Ki Kitabein, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9696480280

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 23rd, 2018