The fundamental difference between a piece of prose and a work of poetry is that the latter has in-built rhythm. This means that the arrangement of the words used in a poem makes its movement lilting in a way that the story it’s trying to tell, or the message it intends to put across, becomes inalienably attached to, and sometimes bound by, the way consonants and vowels complement each other. This is usually done by poets with the help of literary tools such as rhyming, alliteration, enjambment, refrain etc.

Pakistani poets writing in Urdu — adept users of free verse included — have this innate sense of rhythm in them. It has basically to do with the fact that they can’t keep away from the effects of the ghazal, even if they don’t like the genre. Those who choose to write in English usually come from two backgrounds: either they have studied English literature and therefore are familiar with iambic pentameter, trochaic tetrameter and suchlike; or, they are proficient in the language and feel it is their best mode of expression.

Wajahat Malik’s first collection of English verse, Charsi Nama and Other Poems, is a clear indication of the fact that he loves poetry. The compositions are in his preferred language, but the title of the book is taken from an Urdu poem by Gul Zaman Charsi — Malik’s alter ego. So he knows how words in different languages help a piece of poetry flow, or make its movement stodgy. Those who watch Pakistan Television (PTV) would know Malik — who grew up in Mansehra — as a travel show host. His bio in Charsi Nama suggests he has also lived in Seattle in the United States, where his poems and short stories were published in different publications.

Before analysing his efforts, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to reproduce here the opening piece in the book. Titled ‘First Opium’, it emphasises, in a roundabout way, the Urdu word charsi:

The waterfall is on fire
Squirming with a liquid scream
Ashes are hiding spirits
And the flames burn
With gallons of passion
Darkness is high
Sipping the sound of life
While laughter is the only
Animal curled upon
The lips of smoking strangers
We are sliding on set stones
Chasing shadows of the outside
We are rising
Dreamers on the bamboo floors
Naked in the lingerie of
A steaming jungle
We are crawling into spaces
Between the blinking stars
We are the playful children
Husking dreams in the barren
Rice paddies of a blissful night

A travel show host’s first book of English poems is evidence of his romanticism, his love of nature and his ability to impalpably merge the personal with the impersonal

Clearly, there are poetic tools employed here, the foremost of which is personification, or giving human attributes to the inanimate: “squirming with a liquid scream”, “naked in the lingerie of a steaming jungle”, “laughter is the only animal.” Malik also appears (I repeat, appears) to come from a school of thought where images take precedence over meaning. These images may come across as surrealistic because — since the poem’s title is a clear giveaway — they have been invoked as a result of a certain ‘influence’.

At the same time, in reading the above poem what cannot be missed is Malik’s affinity with nature. This is a man who not only loves nature, but finds solace in it. Some of the references, such as the one to paddy fields, impart a verdant, agrarian touch to his lines whose movement is just like the waterfall that’s on fire — a nice oxymoron.

If you’re a travel show host, then it is not hard to understand that you would be a nature buff. But then where does the very important element of psychological landscape, from which no human can escape, fit into the scheme of things? Does it precede nature or follow it? It is hard to tell in Malik’s case. It can be said, though, that they’re mutually reinforcing. The poem ‘For the Children of Astonishment’ is an example:

We are the wide-eyed children of astonishment
Prowling through the starry skies
Looking for the darkened pleasures
That shine through our silent eyes
We know that you know
Where we have been
Taverns in the sky
Where we were high
Lusting for the elusive wisdom
Drinking between words
And passable lies
I gave her the eye
And she saw through it
Visions of green goodness
We had been served
Lavender pleasures
Promised golden books
Higher roads and
Stranger thoughts
That rose like fattening winds
In the sails of our soaring ships
And our concord souls
Dove deeper into the blue
Wide eyes of the children of astonishment

Notice how the natural and the personal collide here without making an ear-splitting sound. There are phrases such as “starry skies” and “lavender pleasures” with a sprinkling of the colours green, golden and blue nicely mixed up with “darkened pleasures” and “passable lies.”

Also, the plural pronoun “we” without fuss segues into the personal: “I gave her the eye.” This means that, for the poet, the world outside is as much responsible for the changes — or lack of them — of the world inside. Or it could be vice versa.

Then, amidst all of this, there is the very personal side to Malik’s creative output. The personal oftentimes merges impalpably with the impersonal (society, nature). However, the intensity that one can sense from such material comes from the depth of his being. ‘Misunderstood’ will endorse the claim:

What I said, rests in my heart
The spring came and left
Perhaps a fantasy, all lost
We misunderstood the season
I stood misread by reason
The blossoms, your fragrance
A yearning from afar
What I said, still rests in my heart
Those were heady times, a new beginning
Sirens of a strange promising call
The seasons winked, we stood betrayed
We blinked, the colours of fall
The blossoms now a withered leaf
Whispers in my heart
“We are the children of shifting seasons,
Love is transient yet a permanence of naught”
It hasn’t rained in a while
The sky, an orange rot
The winter is upon us
Our love, musings of an afterthought
I want you to understand
I want to stay misunderstood
Lest what I say
Stays at will in my heart

Again, the closeness to nature is unmistakable, but notice how many times he uses the word “heart” in the poem. This goes to show that Malik is an incorrigible romantic because one of the many definitions of romanticisms is: preference of imagination (heart) to reason (mind).

The reviewer is a member of staff

Charsi Nama and Other Poems
By Wajahat Malik
Sang-e-Meel, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9693533521
88pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 24th, 2021

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