For Rizwan Akhtar, Lahore is not just a menagerie of trite exoticisms but also a city which has broken its promises
Whenever one tries to think of Pakistani poetry in English, the moment becomes a Zen riddle. In Urdu and Punjabi we have giants: Ghalib, Iqbal, Faiz and Faraz in Urdu; and Shah Hussain, Bulleh Shah and Waris Shah in Punjabi. Even when publishers reject the manuscripts of new poets (writing in any language) and new poetry books are remaindered and, nobody can think of Ghalib, Iqbal and Faiz going out of print. In English, things are different. The region has produced Taufiq Rafat and Agha Shahid Ali. To some extent, Waqas Khwaja has also contributed to the globalisation of South Asian Anglophone poetry. But the arena of poetry is not as vibrant as that of the novel. English novelists from Pakistan have made their mark on the world of letters: Mohammed Hanif, Mohsin Hamid and Omar Shahid Hamid have "achieved some valid pages" (a phrase used by Borges to describe the worth of his own writing).
In the context of this divide between Pakistani Anglophone fiction and Pakistani Anglophone poetry, Akhtar has arrived with an impressive list of poems published in magazines all over the world. To estimate the number of his online poems, this reviewer enters his name in a search engine. The results are too numerous to be believable: the search engine returns approximately 2,000 hits even if one removes references to General Rizwan Akhtar and the army and makes every result have the word poem in it. A major portion of these already-published poems are gathered in the volume under review.
The most refreshing part of this venture is Akhtar’s choice of the publisher. This is the first book of English poems to come out of the Punjab University Press, a publicly funded, non-profit entity. If Akhtar’s book can help Punjab University become famous for its patronage of poetry, it will be a welcome change in an otherwise moribund situation.
The book opens with a poem titled ‘The Dancing Courtesans of Old Lahore’ and speaks of "the noises in dark rooms," "wooden stairs," and "a veranda without creepers" in "arabesque alleys". Originality and greatness inform the clever turn of phrases and Old Lahore and its dancing girls have their exotic charm but the poet contains the disruptive potential of this locale. The risqué radicality of the location is soon placated by "sweating bodies" turning to "ablutions" flowing "on white ponds". It seems that the poet, like ‘The Panther’ of Rainer Maria Rilke, "paces in cramped circles" because "there are a thousand bars".
The book is about Lahore but Cairo and Copenhagen are there too. For Akhtar, Lahore is not just a menagerie of trite exoticisms but also a city which has broken its promises. ‘Children Bombed in a Park in Lahore’ talks about "each survivor" being "a miniature of his past/versions of life between rubble and smoke." The rubble and smoke in Lahore is also a reflection of the nature of things in Southern Punjab where "brick-makers build cities out of raw dust" while "their women sell stone jewels" and "ancestral politicians and pot-belly contractors/sell villages and labour of sturdy cotton pickers".
The voice is fresh and the speaker is self-assured when the topic is silence: "you cannot beat my design/I am a poet with a manifesto;/bearing blisters/I occupy the other side of tongue". Akhtar is at home with words and silence in equal measures and the location of home is also not a problem. The sensibility and the idiom are neither local nor foreign. Online, one can even find ghazals written in English by the poet but they are not included in this book. Here is how English is given the distinct South Asian flavour through the genre of the ghazal by Rizwan Akhtar:
The day you appeared with a smile and hairs falling on shoulders
Ghazals escaped everything entangled in hairs falling on shoulders
this time even eyes were wide open engulfing me from such distance
Who told you to brave such a design letting hairs falling on shoulders?
This experiment follows the footsteps of Agha Shahid Ali who tried to popularise the English ghazal as a hybrid genre. Here is an example of this experiment:
I’ll do what I must if I’m bold in real time.
A refugee, I’ll be paroled in real time.
Cool evidence clawed off like shirts of hell-fire?
A former existence untold in real time …
Home and location, globalisation and localisation, enunciation and aporias are some of the concerns that make Akhtar write and the book is a welcome addition to a growing body of newness emerging in this region. Goethe had set the path for this hybrid expression through his West-Eastern Divan and Rizwan Akhtar has created his own mark on the road carved by the masters.