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Light and heavy things in Zeeshan Sahil’s Karachi

Light and heavy things in Zeeshan Sahil’s Karachi

‘The cage was empty,
And the vase in your window
overflowed with white flowers.
In the Bookstore, a new book
Of poems had arrived.’

Released in the summer of 2013, Light and Heavy Things marked an important moment for all English speaking poetry enthusiasts, namely the first moment that the late Zeeshan Sahil’s free-verse poetry (or rather, a minute sample of it) became readily accessible outside of the pages of an anthology.

A man often and rightly praised for his subtle mastery of contemporary minimalism, it is perhaps above all his mastery of seemingly antithetical ideas that has left its deepest impression on his readers.

From the political sphere to his own front door, and from the confusion and sometimes violence of packed city streets to the chimes of a small bird sitting on a windowsill, what’s incorporated within Sahil’s art is an image of his Karachi.

It is an image rife with juxtaposition and conflict, an idea of a homeland and a soul that are both an amalgamation of the irreconcilable pressures and unmeasurable beauty of life in modern day Pakistan.

In ‘Birds’ the speaker tells us directly that;

‘It is a lie
that after the rain in Karachi
the sprouting grass
doesn’t have blades
deep green and soft.
Or that the trees
don’t give shade
without the help of clouds…

… In Karachi,
birds that fly from trees
live with us
through the sound of bullets and bombs;
perch on walls; always
they gather somewhere
to pray.’

The first four lines opening with a double negative, ‘Birds’ is overflowing with purposeful contradiction; the indignation of the speaker to those who might cast dispersions over his city, the juxtaposition of the ‘blades’ of ‘soft’ grass and of birds and bullets, of war and prayer being employed within the same breath.

What this serves to do, other than to keep us on our toes, is to draw out and showcase the polemics that comprise everyday life, and to make art out of them.

Even the title, Light and Heavy things suggests that what we are about to read is something born out of a struggle for equilibrium, a struggle that each verse captures and brings home wonderfully.

For Sahil, free-verse was a way to paint large watery brushstrokes over the canvas of emotions he experienced, and while his poems were often very short glimpses into lives, the themes they cover just explode out of the page, awash in sombre, sometimes sinister imagery.

In much the same way as Ghazal poetry (his own now fully collected in another book; ‘Wajh-e Begangi’) tackles pain and love in tandem, Sahil’s prosaic poems do much the same, often jumping from not only polemic notions in ‘A Poem For You’, but offering the reader of the poems little relatable cinematic insights into every one of the speaker’s favourite memories:

‘The world is the wrong place to live
If one has to live forever.
Each day life
would become more unbearable.
But the happiness of riding on the bus
with Saiduddin,
and the melting wax from the candle burning
on your dressing table,
and the smoke collecting on your mirror
make up for everything.’

The speaker of this poem cannot reconcile himself to a life that goes on forever, and instead finds spiritual nourishment in the small, tangible memories that give him joy.

Yet, in another second we are told that all of these little treasures amount to nothing, pale in comparison to his love:

‘Your uneasy presence makes
The stars unnecessary, the moon redundant,
And the sea superfluous.
Your memory and the mounting pressure
Around my heart make me pray.
Despite the eternal anger of God toward poets,
My prayer always begins with you.’

Thus flitting back and forth between love ‘your uneasy presence’ and pain ‘the mounting pressure around my heart’, sorrow ‘each day would become more unbearable’ and joy ‘make up for everything’, painting for his audience a balanced picture of the torture of his private love, Light And Heavy Things contains page after page of intelligent, powerful symbolism.

Also read: Urdu writers and poets who died young

Not afraid to include little self-deprecating jokes too, ‘the eternal anger of God towards poets’, and not shy when it comes to ripping apart his own verse, anything he could describe as something ‘superfluous’ when compared to his love, there are easily many comic moments to be found amongst the tragic, but they are always with Sahil located side by side.

While generally less overtly political than poets like Javed Shaheen; poems like ‘Taliban’, ‘Gestapo’ and ‘Untitled’ do tackle sensitive issues head-on, though speaking more through allusion than anything else, letting the reader unravel the intent and find their own meaning.

To take an excerpt from ‘Taliban’:

‘Birds in flight
will forget their songs,
and those that remain
in their nests
will die of fear.
They will dream a dream
of a life that is like a dream,
but when morning spreads it’s light
people will switch on their radios,
and the Taliban
Will creep in through the window.’

Within these lyrics, only the word ‘Taliban’ seems almost out of place, as if it’s something that literally creeped into the verse, an alien from another story.

It is juxtaposed against descriptions of the natural world, of flowers that ‘blossom and wilt on their branches’.

Even in a poem that wrestles politics specifically and might in another author’s hands be understood as contentious, ‘Taliban’ skirts around this, it knows it’s main topic is of Karachi, of describing for us a time and place from which we are being spoken to directly, and of which no one fragment is all encompassing.

VIDEO | Be afraid of poets by Zeeshan Sahil

Zeeshan Sahil’s poetry always manages to elevate itself above just politics, above any one notion or group, as if in everything he wrote he was trying to show us that things were more intricate, more convoluted than we think.

The Gestapo spoken of in the poem of the same name could similarly be absolutely any dictatorial force that ‘controls everything except our dreams’, rather than specifically the dark agents of the Shoah. The poem refers to something specific to the author, and yet something ambiguous also:

‘Upending books-
until the words
disappear from the pages.
They play our albums too loud
and sing over the music.
They toss our cat
into the street from our balcony
and threaten our friends
over the phone.’

Because of this ambiguity, inside the pages of this little book are doubtlessly verses that will speak to everyone equally.

Themes of family, of social conscience, of melancholia, of unrequited love are things that most people can relate to, and that is what it means to try and capture a city, capture a country, capture a person in verse.

In my opinion, Light and Heavy Things: Selected Poems Of Zeeshan Sahil is an important stepping stone for the literary community.

Too frequently are movements and artists lost because of a simple language barrier. More’s the pity when they share so much stylistically with contemporaries from other countries just waiting to hear them for the first time.

It was actually after reading ‘Black Bird’, the opener of the collection and one of my personal favourites, that I immediately drew a comparison in my mind with Bukowski’s ‘The Bluebird’.

Not just because both are about birds, but they share a poetic spirit as two sides of the same coin, Sahil’s birds free from their enclosure; ‘The engine let out a scream. I stared out of the window. Dreams built their nests in my eyes, and the cage was empty’ and Bukowski’s stifled and trapped; ‘there is a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out, but I pour whiskey on him, and inhale cigarette smoke, and the whores and the bartenders and the grocery clerks never know that he’s in there’.

When first reading up on Zeeshan Sahil, I was in fact surprised to find out that he was all but unheard of in the US, so comparable are his poems with authors like Allen Ginsberg, Bukowski and Whitman stylistically, because of its prosaic, disjointed layout.

One of only a handful of Pakistani poets to spearhead the free-verse scene, others including Nasreen Anjum Bhatti and Afzal Ahmed Syed, another important reason to shout about Light and Heavy Things is that so little of these artists work ever gets translated from Urdu.

More famous poets like Faiz Ahmed Faiz have been more fortunate, but if one wanted to find any of Nasreen Bhatti’s free-verse, they would have to look inside the pages of a much larger collection translated Pakistani literature (Modern Poetry of Pakistan is a particularly decent collection).

Also read: The best of Urdu poetry

With this in mind, it’s refreshing to be able to buy a collected edition, as brief as this particular offering is at only 56 pages, of Author specific poetry from the heart of such a rich scene, and if I could have picked any author to share with a wider, English speaking audience, I would have picked Zeeshan Sahil.

A man, who in just under two decades contributed eight collections of free-verse poems, as well as Ghazals and much more submitted in Urdu, I am truly glad to have read such a well translated and carefully picked selection of poetry embracing variety in verse in a way quite unlike any other.

Quotidian, phantasmagorical, ever one pluck heartstrings; Light and Heavy Things is a little triumph in the name of art.

Zeeshan Sahil, you will be sorely missed.

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