I first read Faiz Ahmed Faiz when I was in high school. Here was a poet that sang grief and love as if they were one.
Starting this review with Faiz seemed appropriate to me, as my first encounter with the Urdu poet came from Naomi Lazard’s translation of The True Subject. A collection of selected poems opening with “Any Lover to Any Beloved” delivered in two parts, I was immediately transported back to those verses, when I took Adeeba Shahid Talukder’s Shahr-e-jaanaan: The City of the Beloved into my hands.
Arabic poetry is one of the oldest metric forms, sprung from the brow of oral traditions. What falls under the umbrella of Arabic poetry is vast, being carried into Turkish, Hindi, Persian, Urdu, Bengali, Azerbaijani, and other Asian poetic traditions. So much variance and original style is here that western academia has struggled to do much else than scratch the surface. From the Foreign Service Institute of Language Difficulty Rankings, all the above languages (with the exception of Arabic) are considered incredibly difficult for native English speakers to understand, requiring a minimum of 44 weeks of constant immersement to learn. Arabic, considered a category 5, is one of the most difficult, requiring up to a minimum of 88 weeks. As such, the English speaking world does not often get to encounter this rich tradition of poetry, leaving much unearthed.
Adeeba Shahid Talukder’s Shahr-e-jaanaan is that unearthing, a wending display of the classical ghazal form and equally a rebellion from strict characterization. Talukder’s work speaks to the push and pull of the amorous life, her words achieving a certain satyadvaya; a middle course, between delirious naivete and volatile sadness.
There, he let slip his robe / and they all knew: / his flesh was God. / The sky split, mountains fell / as he hung in the sky, / gleaming like wine. / That night, Revolution walked / to the gallows— / lips red, hands silver, / curls like black rain. / His heart, she found, / was ash. / She circled it seven times, / then fell, flaming, / at his feet.
Longing is the gravity that exists within all of Talukder’s writing, a cacoethes present in many of the poems where a reader can feel the opposing forces of ‘do’ and ‘do not do’. Shahr-e-jaanaan is a title most suited, as the work is full of bodies, stacked and tightly spaced and forced into abiding by each other as any citizen of a major metropolis will understand. Adeeba Shahid Talukder’s world is as large as it is squeezed; stuffed full of legend and tradition, modernity and materiality, the known and the unknown. Talukder’s words bend well with their antonyms, showcasing a flexibility of reality more present in shorter works such as in the Japanese haiku tradition, leaving a sensing in each poem that there is much more present than what is shown.
Containing 48 poems broken up into eight parts, a reader is quickly taken in by verse both reflective and foreboding. “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 / and glass. […] That night, my mother / looked into my eyes with terror. / That night, she wouldn’t let me leave.” Throughout Talukder’s collection there is a constant cyclical theme of succumbing to the pains of bondage and then, radically, breaking free. Love and pain, grief and joy are plainly regarded as one entity, such as a coin holds two faces, and in respect to the amatory of ghazal tradition, Talukder’s chapbook is a journey to and from desire, expressing the inevitable accompaniment of joining with separation, love with loss. Shahr-e-jaanaan is both destruction and rapture.
In Sufism there is an old story of a woman named Rabia, an 8th century slave whose love for God was so strong it inspired her owners to set her free. The story goes that she is said to have told God that if she loves him because she fears hell, then she should burn in hell, and if she loves God because she desires heaven, then she should be denied heaven. This tale is one frequently relayed in Sufi mysticism, as a sort of allegory to a Sufi’s deepest purpose, which is total unadulterated union with the divine.
At the end of Adeeba Shahid Talukder’s Shahr-e-jaanaan: The City of the Beloved there is a turning moment, where the river of Talukder’s words curves and heads out to sea. In these last ten or so poems, the coat of unrequited love that steps through all of Talukder’s work evolves into a broader examination of yearning, yearning beyond the mere communion with human form and into something greater. God frequents here, as does Talukder’s own womanhood and the oppressing factors that often accompany the two. In this she reflects on the mechanical advantage that often occurs with women and their faith, where a trade off of forces is foisted upon them by patriarchal mechanisms. But Talukder’s poems express a resolute desire to commune with the divine unimpeded, such as Rabia expresses in her confession of love. Talukder wants to love, because she chooses to, and in this bold action she attains access to the nemesis of doubt: hope.
The etymology of ghazal is an interesting one. One original translation posits the direct meaning of ghazal to ‘the wail of a wounded deer.’ Through this we can see why ghazals so often reflect the pain of unreturned love and heartache. But, Talukder’s philosophy for the dichotomies of love seems to be we love because we do, even if it hurts us, even if we will receive nothing tangible in return.
“the breeze wakes us from the dark
If the wounds are blooming,
the roses will too.”
Adeeba Shahid Talukder, from “mirror of the world”
fill your vases with water
for spring is here:
in this blossoming
some roses may also.”
Faiz Ahmed Faiz, from “The Rebel’s Silhouette”
In the poems of these wonderful poets, poets like Talukder, Faiz, Darwish, Hafez, Ghalib, & Rumi, there are more roses than wounds.
Four out of five stars for Adeeba Shahid Talukder’s Shahr-e-jaanaan: The City of the Beloved.
The featured image is a mosaic in the Baku Metro in Azerbaijan. It depicts Khosrow and Shirin , two lovers from the famous tragic romance by the Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi (1141–1209). It tells a highly elaborated fictional version of the story of the love of the Sasanian king Khosrow II for the Armenian princess Shirin, who becomes queen of Persia. The Baku Metro (also called Nizami Ganjavi after the poet) is full of beautiful mosaics such as this one and contains over 22 miles of bi-directional tracks, transporting millions of people yearly. Via Wikipedia – Thank you.)