One should never judge a book by its cover, they say, but one look at the sumptuous cover and lovely Urdu title of Adeeba Shahid Talukder’s Kundiman Prize-winning poetry collection and you feel something extraordinary is contained therein. The cover picture is a lavishly detailed historical painting of a wedding, full of people in attendance, and a veiled bride and haloed groom on horseback. I noticed the bride in contrast had no halo. A “city of the beloved” at once evokes the realm of fable, like the gilded translation of A Thousand and One Nights I discovered unexpectedly in a place I normally never enter—Sak’s Fifth Avenue—in an odd corner, from which I had to be dragged away, for it was written in poetry. Once you enter its gate, Talukder’s poetry immediately transported me to an elsewhere both otherworldly and viscerally recognizable. Her words sometimes seem like exotic essences, distilled from a mix of common speech, a floating ghazal canon, a lexicon accented with rosewater and curry, nightingale-song extract, and her own spare voice that spares nothing. That spareness brings to mind a description of The Little Prince’s author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s language as ethereal, eliminating all unnecessary words. These two qualities give her a voice that is both unforgettable and invasive: my thought-patterns began to formulate themselves after hers, she so elegantly validates human emotion.
Perhaps one normally does not seek validation from poetry, but there’s a quality to her work that validates even the most mundane, commonplace, or painful experience. Thus one reads in “Crossing Manhattan Bridge”, “Beads of light,/ the curve of the rosary/ the sky bleeding stains of henna—// they always block the sun,/ the East River.” And suddenly NYC becomes a mythical city, incorporated into another more celestial country where the extraordinary and ordinary meet in both beautiful and sometimes horrifying ways. The resulting lyricism is perhaps not surprising from a poet who is also a singer. All the better for appreciating the ghazal spirit here, since ghazals too are indelibly bound to music, as well as painful or intense emotion.
Because the author is a translator of Urdu ghazals such as those of Mir Ghalib and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and I am a fan of both to begin with, I was already looking forward to it like, say, a trip to the Himalayas. Would she be writing formal ghazals in English? No, but with her language’s mythic opulence delivered by air, that is, on something like butterfly wings, these poems are more like ghazal essences, like frankincense and myrrh in blown-glass vials. For example, in the poem “Ammi,”
My mother whispered verses over water,
left large knives beneath our beds
to rid us of her own evil eye.
Half-bitten suns appeared.
They could not soothe us to sleep,
too slippery to be sewn.
Here she reveals her story-telling skills, to sew a patchwork of her own life, of which her mother “Ammi” is a principal character, mythologized by the gilding properties of the poet’s language combined with the sense of how much to leave out. It is in those “too slippery” silences that a certain narrative magic is woven into her poetry, leaving us more space which we can inhabit with our own “half-bitten” narratives. Perhaps that is how her words penetrate my thought-processes and I find myself thinking in her voice. Or perhaps this is because she speaks from a kind of collective voice without being formally framed as such.
She does not say “we”; but who does not identify in some way with her narrator in this excerpt, after being rejected by a man who had just shared marriage vows with her the night before, from the title poem “Shahr-e-Jaannaan: The City of the Beloved”?
I smeared lipstick on
without a mirror,
spread my scarves across
the dirtied carpet,
lay out my journals
like sacred texts.
Scissored my hair
so it fell like rain,
smothered my palms
with lotion and talc
until they silvered
at last.They told me to stop.
They told me I was no prophetess.
But I was,
for I was wrathful.
The power of these lines lies in her word choices, a rebellion and self-reclamation: “smeared” sneers at the ever-present “mirror;” “scarves” that define/ hide/ protect a woman “spread…across/ the dirtied carpet” as if curated, even the carpet reminiscent of a prayer rug defiled; her own writing becomes “sacred texts;” hair, another adornment for male attraction, “scissored,” so much more visceral and precise than “cutting,” which “fell like rain,” making her a shamanic rainmaker; palms “silvered,” both godlike and reminiscent of the Quranic narrative of the Prophet Moses, one of whose miracles was an appearance of shining hands/palms. The word “wrathful” so often reserved for gods or prophets is hereinafter hers to wield. Her beloved has betrayed her and she has become a “prophetess”, a woman of power and sanctity, a province too often reserved for males only, here regaining her dignity and humanity by her own hands. I personally felt validated by this.
She invites us in many of these poems to question why she is expected to marry “someone, anyone” as a solution to emotional breakdown, why she is told “there are too few boys,” implying her life is in danger of dwindling along with the supply. As a victim of mental illness/ anguish, she faces herself, and in that painful process brings us a path forward in the taut interrogations of her lines, where the oppression of cultural tropes couched in elegant language is transformed by imaginative reclamation, as she does here in “Kathak: The Dance of the Courtesans”:
Shackle yourself until
hold your wrists
beneath your jewels.
Now dance; the city awaits you.
Here we have “shackles” that turn her ankles to gold; her “jewels” that feel heavy without reference to their weight, only to her “wrists// delicate beneath” them; “the city awaits you” intimating both prestige and bondage.
Men gather at saints’ tombs,
but rush to your doorstep
with greater madness.
Let them gaze at you
until you begin to tremble;
allow yourself to be slight-
as glass will learn:
you were made to break
The poem here instructs the dancer in the art of being a courtesan: both to seduce with her beauty, and to self-destruct or “break” as the ultimate fulfillment of her “duties.” The word “break” as in “breaking in” a horse or domesticated animal is also a part of this. The instructions might be given by another courtesan as a warning that this self-destruction must be merely a performance art, “made” implying the role is made by others for their own needs, not hers, their needs being to see her in whom “all beauty converges” broken, tamed, even shattered. “Made” also suggests objectification, artifice, like a doll, which of course is to be dehumanized, both upward, as in “goddess”, and downward, as in something not whole, “broken.” It sounds almost as if the “men” are iconoclasts, but in fact the opposite is true. The warning contained within is understood: keep her own self out of this, don’t let her very self/soul be broken, let this be pure artifice, remake herself as iconoclast. The final section brings us a scene out of a film where the spurned lover dances at her ex-lover’s wedding, smashes a lamp and dances over the shards, “leaving crimson footprints all over the white sheets.” A dance from the heart, from her real self destroys all pretense.
Everywhere I find transformation in these poems, language spare yet piercing: “crimson” elevates mere “bloody,” making even an ugly truth somehow beautiful. And herein lies the essence of the ghazal: that the language must be beautiful, an elevated language of poetry. Dick Davis, in his essay “On Translating Hafez,” observes that in Persian poetry, unlike English, “What is unexpected, unnatural, miraculous, producing puzzled or overwhelmed wonder in the observer, is, ipso facto, considered poetic.” Since the Urdu ghazal tradition and indeed the language itself, with roots in Persian and Hindavi, is like the Persian ghazal tradition, this fits here, hence the wondrous choice of verbiage in this book. He also notes that different poetic traditions contain “conventions as to which language, topoi, and tropes are considered to be intrinsically poetic and thus suitable for poetry,” of which Persian and Urdu tend to the mythically empowered and beautiful. This poet, however, has created her own “elevated language,” choosing from a rich tradition certain words that repeat like threads tying the whole collection together. Some are featured in section titles, like “wine cup” (wine a common ghazal trope), “nightingale,” “shackles,” and “water;” others appear in many poems: “rose,” “mirror,” “dust,” “silver,” “moon.” She reinvents their applications, playing on their contradictions. And unlike Davis’ assertion that ghazal poetry “resolutely avoids enjambment,” Talukder’s ghazal-inspired free verse magically uses it to enhance those same tropes. Using the line break to suggest both breakage and maintaining a certain inner wholeness is quite a feat accomplished in the above lines, worth repeating here,
allow yourself to be slight-
Note the breakage of “slight-//ed,” gives us both the sense of insulted or demeaned and, by separating the “slight,” the dual senses of insignificant or minimal, and delicate or “slight of frame.” This opens up multiple possibilities: she is being hurt or demeaned, but maybe only slightly hurt, affecting just her outward persona, or she “allows,” an act of free will, her persona to be “slight”, of lesser strength/ power, hence breakable. At the same time, in the second line above, the poet creates a “whole” being by cramming the “You” after the broken syllable “-ed.” The period necessitates a capital “Y,” signaling this is the true self, self-respected, a comma separating her from “fragile,” a term which her true self nonetheless owns, making it selected on “her own terms.” And so when we reach the end of this “lesson,” that the dancer learns that “you were made/ to break” is indeed also a double entendre, enacted in the scene from the film.
Another example of how she plays with the contradictions within traditional ghazal tropes is in how others use that elevated language for ulterior purposes, and what a violation such use is, as in “Mumtaz Sahib of the Round Glasses,” where Mumtaz jumps from saying “your eyes/ are like nuts/ like almonds” (where, misinterpreting her laughter, he “placed a breath strip/ on his tongue”) and a little later “he stripped/ metaphor from love:” “My skin gleamed like the moon” and “My eyes were lakes at night./ He wanted to plunge/ into them, naked.” Note how “stripped” ended with “naked,” and how “nuts” for eyes changed to “lakes” where he wanted to “plunge.” Here the language is offensive, the double entendre sexual, cheapened by their use for an imagined conquest, revealed to be even worse as he tries to change the dynamic later by writing to her, “you are like my daughter, like my daughter.” Even the word “daughter” reveals how little he understands about himself, let alone others, for this poem reveals that he is the one stripped naked, for he has violated himself.
There is tradition and contradiction in her title too: the “city” here is at the heart of ghazal culture, both as an actual place such as New York City or Karachi, and as a fabled place wherein the beloved resides. The irony in her title poem is that the “city of the beloved” is the very place where love is betrayed, where trust is abused and suffering reaches new heights. We learn from this collection about the ghazal trope “cruel beloved,” but she presents her beloved without the often-requisite attractiveness. Her beloved is not transcendent but mean-spirited, whose betrayal gives her the illusion, in the mirror of the world around her, that she has been made “not beautiful”. As shown above, in response she transforms herself into a “prophetess,” the feminization of the word itself an empowerment. And the city is ultimately with her, indeed is at the very heart of ghazal culture, as Shadab Zeest Hashmi explains in her essay “Ghazal Cosmopolitan,”
Cosmopolitanism is defined in the dictionary as “being free from local, provincial, or national ideas, prejudices, or attachments; at home all over the world”; it is necessarily an active appreciation of disparate entities, a rejection of narrow constructs of identities…
The ghazal, in its structure as well as its sensibility, not only allows contraries to cohabit but, in the best compositions, makes a demand to frame polarity in the same space.
This is one of Talukder’s poems’ most striking qualities: her ability to “frame polarity.” One might not be surprised to know that, as she said in this interview, she has been diagnosed as bipolar. From this, I believe she has gained a particular brilliance in expressing both mental anguish and contradictions—having already rediscovered and reclaimed the poetically transcendent Urdu language and engaged in the practice of writing. In confronting these polarities, she is particularly adept at smashing the aforementioned “attachments,” especially as they relate to the patriarchy inherent even in the history of the ghazal. In other words, she is a true iconoclast. This observation requires no sleuthing—included is a poem entitled “Idol,” where iconoclasm itself is another illusion:
all the idols are gone,
god, how many candles
were lit in search of you, snuffed
when you were found?
they hold you still
force us to bow down
The very pronouncement that “all the idols are gone” gives birth to another, forced idol. Iconoclasm in fact in this view is continuous— the very pronouncement of a static victory undermines it. She speaks to the difference between the expression of one’s inner life/ “soul” and imposed, often oppressive dogma. This reflects the “cosmopolitan” approach to the meeting/ melding of different religions and world-views, the opening up of each to the other rather than using these differences as a means of dominance, although the history of that is also addressed in her poems. This brings to mind a line in one of her poems (“Tell the angels not to touch me/ without permission”) from her chapbook What Is Not Beautiful, “Beauty is a constant state/ of unrest.” From “unrest” can arise life and transcendence. Is the pursuit of beauty, a major theme in this book, like the pursuit of God/god/ truth, misguided if it seeks something static, a matter you can finish and put to rest? Indeed both beauty and God must be alive to exist at all, life itself being dynamic. Certainly these poems give us lyrical evidence of that.
And so one cannot enter this collection unchanged. That, perhaps, is the most telling aspect of Talukder’s poems, which speak to, and use, the subtle dynamics that make beauty and love even possible. With translations of Faiz, Mir, Ghalib, and other ghazal poets woven within and between them, these rare pieces open for us a gate to their cultural origins. Urdu, a rich, majestic language described by Shadab Zeest Hashmi as “the child of the ghazal”, was in that sense created by and for poetry; and from that tradition, Talukder has extracted her verbal essences, to which she has subtracted, for the most part, the superfluous, the overused, the inessential, the dross. Which is not to say it doesn’t speak to the “dross” of our lives. On the contrary, it is her direct engagement with the pain and conflict of our lives and relationships which imbues us with the sense that life itself, both a creative and destructive force, can be met and survived with a resilience and truth of our own. Although these poems derive from the poet’s own unique and often harrowing experiences, they are reciprocal, and when the reader at last closes the gate to this book, it will have left indelible traces of rose petals, moon, honey running through veins, candles, moths—the deeply subtle presence of a halo.
Siham Karami is a poet, essayist, and the author of the poetry collection, To Love the River (Kelsay Press, 2018). Her work has appeared in The Orison Anthology, Tiferet Journal, Pleiades, Able Muse, The Rumpus, and many others. Nominated multiple times for the Pushcart prize and Best of the Net, she is currently working on a chapbook of ghazals. Check out her blog at sihamkarami.wordpress.com.
Shahr-e-Jaannaan: The City of the Beloved is available for purchase at Tupelo Press