More Transgressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz By Anjum Altaf LG Publishers (Delhi) ISBN: 9383723939 60pp.

The timeless quality of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry and its multi-layered resonances across cultures, have been a source of inspiration to many, including the distinguished academic Anjum Altaf, who transmuted and adapted Faiz’s poems into a 2018 collection, Trangressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

He has now followed it up with a second volume, More Transgressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, in which he points out that“each poem is inspired by an idea or a feeling evoked by a particular poem by Faiz, but is not a translation.” As such, he has not included the Faiz original, as he did in his former volume.

However, the footnote to each poem gives the name of the Faiz original and the names of its translators, ranging from Agha Shahid Ali, Estelle Dryland and Baran Farooqi to Khalid Hasan, Naomi Lazard, Victor Kiernam and Shiv K. Kumar.

In some instances, Altaf’s poems employ the title of a well-known English translation, though Altaf’s renditions are always his own. He says: “I have often challenged myself to find the few words in which to capture the essence of a Faiz poem.” The result is spare, precise verses, imbued with resonances and metaphors.

A second collection inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry uses the great Urdu poet’s poems as starting points for the English poet’s reflections on their themes

Many poems embody the spirit of humankind — defiance and quest against great odds. including ‘Pen and Ink’, which draws on Faiz’s poem written in jail; Altaf’s verse comments on the power of words, despite censorship and imprisonment, culminating with: “Links in chains shall speak in lieu/ When my lips are sealed by you.”

Several poems deal with tyranny and embody both the public and personal response to Faiz’s poems, which are often recited as an act of defiance against authoritarian acts of injustice. In ‘City of Lights’, another Faiz original written in jail, Altaf captures the struggle between hopelessness and hope: “Beyond despair, loneliness and pain/ Lies the city of hope/But it is dark; I search in vain/ Perchance my love will light/ A lamp tonight.”

Absence and silence run through ‘Solitude’. Here images of nightfall and a silent street, lead up to the lines: “The door is open/ The table set/ But no one/ Will come here anymore.”Meanwhile ‘Voice’ captures the ambiences of silence, created by not-speaking and not-listening and asserts: “Voice is not word nor ear/ Voice is what we see and share.”The poem is followed by ‘In Search of Lost Words’, which further contemplates lost narratives, and voices that need to be heard and bear witness.

At different points of time, Faiz Ahmed Faiz endured both imprisonment in Pakistan, and exile from his homeland to foreign lands. Altaf draws on both to comment on the uncertain and unknown. In ‘Exile’, the pain of displacement, loss and separation in an alien land can also be read as a metaphor for incarceration in a harsh alien place. This becomes an interesting contrast to ‘From a Prison’ which celebrates the importance of dreams, imagination and hopes of freedom amid the limitations and trials of prison life; while the skilled ‘Solitary Confinement’ captures another mood: yearnings, emotional turmoil, despair.

Throughout, Altaf’s poems follow their own trajectory and have a quality which stands on its own, though the standard does vary. Altaf uses to his advantage the rhythms of nature to comment on human suffering and aspirations too. The elegant ‘Seasons’ begins with “Autumn strips the trees bare”and leads up to the lines “Spring thaws the wintry freeze/ Season of resurrection and repair.”The poem becomes a metaphor for the vicissitudes of life and living.

In ‘Nocturne’, Altaf extols the wonders of the moon which, in turn, illuminates the hopes, dreams and joy of the lover and the beloved. The poem and its imagery adds to the symbolic mysticism in the celebration of nightfall and in ‘A Prison Evening’, beginning with the lines: “Who can imprison/ Night’s beauty, a fragrant breeze/ Sunlight dancing on trees/ Who can prevent the moon caressing the high and low/ The stars transmuting dust to glow.”

While ‘A Prison Morning’ welds both the harsh realities of daylight and prison life with references to jailers and ghost-like fellow prisoners, it adds that none of this can take away the spell of soothing dreams as “Night follows day, night follows day.”

Faiz Ahmed Faiz had strong bonds with East Pakistan too. His shock at the events of 1971, and its consequences, are expressed in a sequence of three poems. The first, ‘Transformations’, tells of suffering and the transformation and revenge that war creates: “An offering of blood may expiate a shame/ But blood has long drained out of my body/ Replaced by an insidious poison.” ‘Sorrow’ tries to move beyond tears, blood, enmity and separation: “Better to seek new eyes/ To reflect on our sorrow/ Through all the colours of the rainbow.”

The third poem ‘All That Has Been Left Unsaid’ first appeared in Transgressions, under the title ‘Bangladesh’ and engaged with Faiz’s ‘Dhaka Se Waapsi Par’ [On Return From Dhaka]written after Faiz’s visit to the newly created Bangladesh. Altaf has reproduced this poem in More Transgressions, albeit with a different title,“to respond to readers who wanted all three of Faiz’s poems on the 1971 tragedy in one place.” The poem becomes a telling comment on wordlessness, an inability to speak of a devastating past, leading up to the final verse “What would it take/ To trust again/ To feel/ Without the need/ To say.”

More Transgressionsis a significant follow up to Transgressions and similarly becomes a conversation with Faiz as well as an unusual contribution to Pakistani English poetry.

The reviewer is the author of Hybrid Tapestries:

The Development of Pakistani Literature in English

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 12th, 2023

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