In the past year, three critically acclaimed British poets of Pakistani origin — Moniza Alvi, Imtiaz Dharker and Zaffar Kunial — have all brought out important new collections: Blackbird, Bye Bye; Luck is the Hook and Us respectively. Alvi and Dharker — both born in Lahore and brought up in Britain — are well-known for their celebrated, award-winning and extensive bodies of work. Birmingham-born Kunial, the youngest of these three, is regarded as one of the most significant new poets today. All three enrich their poetry with lyrical, multi-layered images which incorporate narratives of belonging and home.
The daughter of a Pakistani father and English mother, Alvi — winner of the Whitbread and Cholmondeley awards — was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize for her powerful 2013 collection At the Time of Partition, which explored her grandmother’s journey from Jalandhar to Lahore. Migration and family life — but in England — run through her 10th volume, Blackbird, Bye Bye, which revolves around her late father and employs bird-life as metaphor. In ‘Motherbird’, Alvi conjures up “A big blousy bird in the nest/ The vee of her beak wide open”. She captures fragility, solitude and sorrow through this solitary figure who eats little and endures the prickle of twigs in her nest though it has a soft, moss-lined floor. In that tiny space, her belongings include “the boxy sharp-edged carriage clock/ Next to her downy bed/ Belongs to the grander epoch of Fatherbird” — a reminder of time flying by.
Alvi’s spare, tight, skilled poems merge suggestion and ambiguity, the real and the surreal, as well as symbolic imagery of the blackbird as a spirit — a link between heaven and earth. Alvi travels back into the past in ‘The Coldest Winter’ which describes Fatherbird’s migration to England, while ‘A Photo of Fatherbird’ describes him looking down from above after his death. Both poems are written in a horizontal v-shape, suggesting a bird’s wing or a flock of flying birds. ‘When Motherbird Met Fatherbird’ tells of opposition to her parents’ marriage, too: “So many feathers of the world/ Were ruffled … They’re from such different countries/ It’s unnatural/ But the clouds parted to let them through/ The sky sang”.
Three collections by British poets give Pakistani English poetry new dimensions
At the heart of the collection is a moving 16-part sequence, ‘Afterlife of Fatherbird’, which commemorates the memory of Alvi’s father. She alternates between the first, second and third person in a part-conversation with him. She longs for him to visit her in a dream; when he does, he seems even more alive than he did before his death — she reveals he had suffered from dementia. She reminisces, “You had a talent for friendship, were drawn to/ Other migrants, all of you holding/ The fine wavering thread of here and there”.
The next two sections expand the canvas to include poems inspired by the surreal bird paintings of Spanish artist Remedios Varo Uranga and Alvi’s English translations of Franco-Uruguayan poet Jules Supervielle’s ‘Being Alive’ and ‘To the Birds’ as well as French poet Saint-Jean Perse’s ‘Bird and Naturalist’ and ‘Bird and the Artist’. She considers memory, life and death in ‘A Long Reign’ and ‘They Made Their Nest’. In ‘Less Much Less’ she bids farewell, writing, “pack up my cares and woes/ Light the light/ I’ll arrive late tonight/ Blackbird, bye bye/ Bye”, which engages with that popular old song ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’.
Dharker, winner of the Cholmondeley Awards, received the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry for a body of work shortly after her quiet, moving and sophisticated 2014 collection Over the Moon in memory of her late husband, Simon Powell. Her seventh book, Luck is the Hook, continues to consider joy, sorrow and uncertainty, but focuses on chance and fate and expands the parameters to include history, mythology and language, as well as Dharker’s childhood in Glasgow. In ‘Chaudhuri Sheikh Mubarik Looks at the Loch’, Dharker dwells on the linguistic coincidence which gives her father a proprietorial pride for Loch Lomond because he pronounces it “with an och, not an ock/ To speak proper Glaswegian like a true-born Scot/ And he makes the right sound at the back of his throat/ Because he can say khush/ And khwaab and khaamosh”. In ‘Stitch’, language-specific terminology becomes a de-marker of difference: “Cathy’s mother says/ She is her sweetheart/ My mother says I am a piece of her liver.”
Dharker conjures up vivid, elegant images of the subcontinent, too. ‘A Haunting’ is a tale of unrequited passion incorporating references to charpoys, jasmine flowers and sugarcane fields. ‘Send This’ conjures up the city of Lahore and its miniature paintings, Anarkali bazaar, gulmohar trees and koel, but the expatriate narrator does not want to be reminded of it: the city has changed and “That home/ Is long gone”.
Several poems play with the imagery of the pomegranate — a fruit native to South Asia and integral to European and Biblical lore — as a metaphor for different forms of exile and migration, longing and loss. The six-line ‘Six Pomegranate Seeds’ celebrates the fruit’s texture: “The taste of a world I remembered/ The colour of gardens/ Before I threw away the sun”. This, in turn, engages specifically with the myth of Persephone, who ate a pomegranate and was condemned to the Underworld for six months every year. In ‘Warning’, Dharker employs a double entendre, suggesting the pomegranate as the original forbidden fruit of Biblical lore: the word is derived from ‘pomum’, Latin for ‘apple’.
Whether writing of adolescence and adulthood, wartime and peacetime, churches and cathedrals, unexploded bombs or climate change, Dharker employs nuance and innuendo to great advantage. She creates many spectacular images, including the very title of ‘The Elephant is Walking on the River Thames’. In it, she recreates a historical event from 1814: amid a bustling London fair alongside the frozen river, an elephant steps on the thick ice, “and sails by, more/ Graceful than any stilt walker or skater”. The final poem, ‘The Tide of Humber’, has an innate musicality which blends the timeless rhythms of the Humber estuary and its waters with the timeless movement of people across the ages and their discovery of new worlds. As the tide comes in, “the land wears the water like a shining veil/ And the water bears the moon like a sacred jewel/ And the heart is a fish/ And luck is the hook/ Which flips it up between water and land/ Between Humber and Hull”.
The son of a Pakistani-Kashmiri father and an English mother, Kunial made his debut with the 24-page Faber New Poets 11. His first full length collection, Us, was shortlisted for the 2019 T.S. Eliot Prize. The negotiation of identity runs through it. ‘Ys’, a clever five-part sequence, plays with words, sounds and terminology and takes its symbolic title from a bifurcated tree trunk. The poems include Kunial’s parents’ separation, his father’s return to Pakistan and Kunial’s discovery of Hanif Kureishi’s fiction which includes the words: “My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred/almost” [italics as in original]. The complexities of ‘almost’ run through Kunial’s poetry.
In ‘Hill Speak’, Kunial contemplates his father’s expressive, unwritten language known variously as Pahari, Potohari and Pahari-Potohari and said to have had a script — Landa — in Buddhist times. In ‘I’, he discovers his father named him after Bahadur Shah Zafar because he recalled his 13-year old self, carrying bricks in Pakistan, listening to “the last King of India’s” poems recited by fellow workers. Kunial refers to Mughal and colonial history in a few, spare, moving lines, leading up to words attributed to the exiled monarch, which speak for the displaced and suffering across centuries: “Lagtaa nahin hai dil mera ujrre dayaar mein/ No pleasure for the heart in this derelict land”.
In ‘Self-Portrait at the Bottom’ Kunial comments on a possible DNA test: “I am split. 50 percent Europe/ 50 percent Asia”, but each category has many subdivisions: his genetic makeup ranges from British, Irish, Scandinavian, Greek and Russian to South Asian and Chinese. The title poem focuses on the colloquial use in the Midlands of ‘us’, which can be singular or plural and infer inclusion or exclusion.
Several poems, including ‘Prayer’, refer to Kunial’s mother who died of cancer. In ‘Poppy’, he describes the celebration of this specular flower and its byproduct — opium — in different cultures, centuries and languages and leads up to a painful reality: the poppy’s derivative morphine being administered to his suffering, dying mother. Kunial reflects on his mother’s English inheritance in the Midlands in ‘Stamping Grounds (Earlier)’ and ‘Stamping Grounds (Later)’. Both addressed to Kunial’s late grandfather, they play on the word ‘stamp’: he imagines his grandfather bringing up Kunial’s mother “behind the counter of the Polesworth post office, on Bridge/ Street; your home turf handed down from your mother/ A sub-post mistress, who’d tap messages in Morse”. His grandfather lies buried in the same graveyard as his many forbears, “in the grounds that ring the Abbey at Polesworth”. Both poems commemorate the lives of those Kunial has loved and lost; while the traditional post office, overtaken by technology, becomes enshrined in memory, too.
All three collections are remarkable and very different. They give Pakistani English poetry new dimensions and need to be known and read more widely in Pakistan.
The reviewer is the author of Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English
Blackbird, Bye Bye
By Moniza Alvi
Bloodaxe Books, UK
By Zaffar Kunial
Faber and Faber, UK
Luck is the Hook
By Imtiaz Dharker
Bloodaxe Books, UK
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 11th, 2019