At this moment, as the world grapples with a rapidly spreading virus, two contradictory impulses can be observed: borders are being reinforced around nations in the interest of isolation from without and within, while simultaneously, we are observing unprecedented international scientific collaboration. On the ground level, class differences and prejudices can be augmented and yet, to defeat COVID-19, it will be necessary to rise above them.
On the individual level, to get through the difficult months ahead, those who find their regular lives upended are looking to find ways to occupy, distract and comfort themselves. That is, however, not always easy. If some avid readers are finding themselves struggling to settle into a novel or a work of nonfiction, that’s where poetry can offer respite.
But how are we to read poetry in a time of disruption, uncertainty, and exceptional circumstances? Do we look to contemporary voices, or to those from the past—classical themed works that have echoed down the years, the centuries, speaking to love and loss, peace and war, and everything in between? Shahr-E-Jaanaan: The City of the Beloved, the new collection by Pakistani-American poet, translator and ghazal singer Adeeba Shahid Talukder, offers, in its own unique way, a blend of both. This collection, reaches across vast distances to call on traditional tales, and iconic Persian and Urdu poetry, and bring it home and into the present day, into the lived reality of a young Muslim American woman’s experience of life in New York City.
New York City. When Talukder composed these poems, and when I first read them, who could have known that before I would write my reflections on this book, NYC would have become the epicentre of a global pandemic? In some ways the altered circumstances imbue certain pieces with a new aura; in other ways, nothing changes at all because so many of these poems deal with those elements of growing up and coming into one’s own that are at once smaller and greater than any global catastrophe.
In her Preface, Talduker acknowledges her influences, a litany of prominent Persian and Urdu poets who have formed and informed the way she views the world. They include Mirza Ghalib, Mir Taqi Mir, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Allama Iqbal, Mirza Sauda, Noon Meem Rashid, Ibn-e-Insha, Agha Shahid Ali and more. Her intimate knowledge of the literary traditions and poetic forms is evident and effortless, but her objective is broader. She seeks:
to defend and decolonize this universe—its beauty, its grandeur, its intellectual feats. At the same time, I defy the patriarchy of it, the patriarchy with which so much of literature is cursed.
That is an admirable objective—to honour and challenge a world so thoroughly dominated by the male voice. And yet it is that strong modern feminine presence that makes this collection so powerful.
Written over the span of a decade, there is an ongoing theme, developed throughout the course of Shar-E-Jaanaan, of a young woman’s experience navigating the dynamics of her immigrant family and their expectations, coping with questions of identity and self-esteem, exploring sexual independence and romance, and, finally, falling in love with a white, non-Muslim man. While grounded, or often returning, to an urban American setting, she effortlessly draws on the beauty, passion and tragedy of classical imagery and legends, passed down in Persian and Urdu poetry, often writing in response to specific lines or images from the ghazals of Faiz, Ghalib and others. However, rather than being restrained by her benefactors, she is buoyed by their legacy. The result is a work of remarkable elegance.
The first poem “When in the dark / my mind brightened” opens with a stark confession that sets the tone for the collection that will follow:
I realized I could no longer
wait to be beautiful. Thus, I pushed
bangles upon bangles
onto my wrist, rubbing
my hands raw with metal
Each time a bangle broke, I watched
the blood at my veins
with a grim face,
feeling more like a woman.
It ends with the speaker’s mother, facing her maturing, possibly troubled, daughter with terror. The first section, “The Wine Cup” returns to the tension between mother and daughter through a sequence clearly set in Manhattan that closes with a classic maternal concern: You’re getting older, and there are such few boys.
Traditional elements, and poetic influences become more evident from the second section on. Her notes at the end of the book introduce the stories from which she draws inspiration and acknowledge the poetic lines woven into, or referenced, where relevant, so familiarity with Urdu literature is not necessary, but some background would certainly further enrich the experience. She calls on several epic themes, with the seventh-century Arab legend of the ill-fated lovers Laila and Qays notably surfacing in a number of pieces. In this tale, when Qays, a poet, is forbidden to marry his beloved beauty, he takes to running through the streets calling her name and composing love poems. His erratic behaviour earns him the nickname Manjoon, or madman, and he is forced into exile.
Other poems incorporate lines, or images drawn from one or another of her literary touchstones. In the light of the current state of the world, “If It Were (after Ghalib)” seem especially poignant now that I return to it:
The hospital sheets cover my face. No one sees. My eyes are closed, my
hands spread like a hem. The walls white like jasmines.
I sing: I would die happily, if it were once.
The patients’ quarters are hushed but I can hear his breathing, the
way he smiles into my neck and ear. In each room, his bulk rises
and falls beneath the thin blankets. In each room, his face in the blue
light. I scream and scream.
His arrow was half-drawn. The liver aches, anticipating its touch.
The scale cannot measure my weight. I am a goddess; the sickle moon
and East River are mine to feed. I shred all the roses, let the torn petals
fall all over the tiles.
The true context of this poem will later come clear in the titular sequence, “Shahr-E-Jaanaan: The City of the Beloved”, the centrepiece of the book . It opens with a reference to the events that followed the assassination of Pakistani Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, on December 27, 2007 and its very personal impact, halfway across the world:
At December’s end Benazir died
in a suicide attack.
. Men burned
tires, cars, banks,
petrol pumps and factories
Perhaps in grief.
The nights in New York
were clear, cold
and I read Faiz
in a way I never would
again. In Washington Square,
the benches were empty.
What follows is a harrowing account of the speaker’s descent into madness, accompanied in her mania, by God and her poetic saints, culminating eventually in hospitalization and echoing back to the poem I quoted above. It’s devastating, horrifying and strangely familiar, but on my first encounter I did not recognize it for what it really is.
Talukder’s poetry frequently captures the dramatic sweep from ecstasy to despair, an element I read as an attraction to the heightened intensity of desperate romance, loss, madness, and suicide (real or threatened) that features in so many traditional Asian legends. I could not help, for instance to note how often reference to the story of Laila and Manjoon appears. But until I read an interview with the poet, I was unaware of her own personal bipolar history and her desire, through her writing, to break down some of the misunderstanding and stigma she has faced. Looking back, that explains some of the unspoken level of attraction I felt to these elements in my initial reading, for I, too, am bipolar—this kind of emotional instability is more than poetic for me, it is real. I’ve known madness and hospitalization myself.
This is a collection that came to me, unexpected, through a publisher’s inquiry. The appeal was, first and foremost, to the language and the poet’s connection to Persian and Urdu literature, something my travels and connections in India have started to bring to my attention. The true beauty here, though, lies in the fluid crossing of borders—of language, nation, era and gender—not as an act of re-imagining or re-purposing, but a full-bodied act of translating a rich literary heritage into something new, vital. In this respect, among the illustrious Urdu forebearers of this young Pakistani-American woman, the late Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali holds special relevance. His body of work spoke to both sides of his life and identity, to both of the homes he knew, but he was able to address that space where the two meet—the hyphen.
The maturity and diversity displayed in Shahr-E-Jaanaan is impressive, a testament to the many years over which it came into being (her first book, What is Not Beautiful was also written and released during this period). In our rapidly evolving new world, Adeeba Shahid Talukder is a poet, and performer, to watch.
Shahr-E-Jaanaan: The City of the Beloved is published by Tupelo Press.