An enigmatic journey of self and language
‘Poetic form frees us from the fetters of self’, —WH Auden
Mazhar Nisar’s central concern in The Frozen Lake is the attempt to make sense of the relation between the self and its surroundings, a concern explored repeatedly through a number of different voices. This ample book reintroduces a poet of versatile intelligence and exceptional linguistic range. Mazhar Nisar’s scenic lyrics, quizzical meditations, verse letters and vignettes offer an attractive personality and a plenitude of wonderful lines.
The crabbed syntax, the inversions, and the half-rhymes, which seem to parody the very idea of literary language, are characteristic of Nisar; it seems that ‘poetry’ is itself one of the experiences or constraints to be mediated. Sometimes, the effect is startling, as in the repetitions in The Green Bar.
In this instance, the added emphases combine paradoxically with the overtly archaic diction in an urgent attempt to make it new, questioning what it is about this language that is shared. Yet the lines also point to another further characteristic of Nisar’s: an odd lack of distinction between the record of the senses and that of imagination. It seems that the blurring of boundaries is deliberate – designed to emphasise the lyric freedom to think feelings and feel thoughts.
Nisar’s poems could be described as dream narratives, and at their best, they have the unsettling quality of a dream, of something significant conveyed in time-worn forms. At other times, however, the self threatens to become something of an albatross:
For the many nights that sunk into the rising sun/
Revealing the cold barrenness lying by my side/
For the table for one in a crowded restaurant/
I forgive you.
Nisar’s linguistic choices imply an archaeologist’s values: he cherishes rare finds, obsolescent constructions and specialised vocabulary:
In that moment, Hope’s pride in his comfortable incarceration/
Evaporates as he stands on the edge/
Gazing enviously at the unshackled dance of the unleashed.
In Revelation, his rhythms place the complex subordinations of 18th and 19th-Century English prose into modern free verse:
In the kiss of the first drops of monsoon rain/
Love descends on the chosen like a sacred revelation/
For them, the only way is unconditional submission to/
the will of the Divine.
Sometimes Nisar appears to be tacitly quoting to imply sources even when none is in evidence. Nisar’s poems resemble letters and essays, histories and landscapes, rather than sculptures or creatures or songs; in geological terms, they are not igneous nor metamorphic but sedimentary, accreted from independent bits:
My poems are thoughts unfinished/
A rain dance devoid of rain/
A mirage in search of the horizon.
Far behind their cluttered surfaces, the poems can reveal a clear, sad, Larkinesque core:
The toil of thirty and two years was slated/
To come to a grinding halt today/
Akbar the peon, would finally be off the official leash, one poem muses; in another: Queued in abject subservience/
To dictates of the grind/
We remain oblivious to/
The futility of the human construct.
Nisar’s alienated stoicism might also remind one of Peter Reading. But he deploys a stethoscope and a mallet where Reading would use a jackhammer. The worst thing about Nisar’s work is its diffuseness and its low ratio of forests to trees: the best thing is its respect for its own intelligence and its refusal to simplify, streamline or talk down.
Amid the lyrical musings of poems, and notwithstanding Nisar’s tendency to leave metaphors drowsily swimming around, there is a sharp poetic vice emerging, as in Strangers, whose terse tercets offer a brief nod towards Blake. This polemical voice emerges again in Lament of the Bleeding Mountains. This is less an elision of specific historical circumstances and more an exploration of the human cost of oppression. The poet longs for spiritual strength amid historical carnage.
Nisar has a disarming awareness of the dangers of his own method of writing. It is not necessarily a valid criticism to say that each of his books is ultimately a record of the imagination rather than the senses. Like the early Romantics, Nisar dons his mantle consciously and intelligently. This is precisely the kind of paradox that he delights in.
He can be likened to the poet Emily Dickinson. Like Dickinson’s, Nisar’s poetry is a spiritual diary. She, too, is a metaphysical poet whose subjects are love, death, heaven, hell, eternity and language. Like her, Nisar is at the heart of his poems; he is intimate but rarely personal. Nisar comes across as an individualist seeking, at times despairingly, to lose himself in the greater glory of his God. For instance, the strength of Provenance of a Poem can be found in Nisar’s belief that song or the poetic voice, however fragile and mutable, is his best available answer to all the injured things.
It would be wrong to deny Nisar’s quirky humour and his talent for observation, especially his eye for natural detail. In some of the better poems, Nisar puts human feelings in their place by setting them against the greater canvas of nature, as in The City of the Unkind. Sometimes, however, our appreciation of this kind of delicacy is compromised elsewhere.
However, his attention to the coordinates of sign, sound and meaning is far from random and becomes a rallying point for poets who believe that poetry should unleash the immanent music of language.
Mazhar Nisar has the right idea about poems: that they are structures of felt thought which may be more thoroughly appreciated through attentive reading. His poetry, at first sight, can appear meandering, its long lines unspooling across the page. It is, however, worth persisting with. The listlessness is actually densely structured, with clauses that deliberately qualify, contradict or invert what goes before. The result is not torpid at all; but energetic with its own chronic uncertainty.
The Frozen Lake
Author: Mazhar Nisar
Publisher: Sang-e-Meel Publications, 2023
Price: Rs 1,000
The reviewer is an art critic based in Islamabad