On being the reverent versifier

May 17, 2020

Afshan Shafi’s new work of poetry makes for a poignant read, one to be savoured leisurely over a course of time

“My sentences are pale dust, pale reels of a woman in a cabinet of ice. these ghosts are words where the ink has dried. let the ghosts slip their silken ankles over your frontiers…”

Afshan Shafi, poet, and editor for The Aleph Review, writes experimental and surreal poems in her new book of poetry, Quiet Women. Although the book is around 60 pages long, the glossy pages and graphical illustrations embedded with the work of verse make it a poignant read, one that has to be read leisurely over a course of time, to fully engage with the narrative the poet has built.

Quiet Women has a voice of the conscious narrator – much like the discourse of Virginia Woolf’s subjective narration – wherein the poet makes use of the first-person expression very rarely. Rather, there is a relative dialogue with the reader under a premise which is universal. Shafi’s style is lucid, yet meticulous. She does not use one extra word or verse to replicate an idea, not even for the sake of continuity, for she chooses the finest word in her diction to have her say and then moves on, leaving the readers to familiarise themselves with the connotation the verse has built on both surface and at deeper levels.

She writes about her craft of writing, in more than one place but not as a thorough subject to put one’s self on paper, but as an unconscious reference, telling the reader how the craftsman struggles to keep the selfish need of self-glorification away from a piece of writing, which otherwise would only be read off as an extension of the writer’s personality. Such poetry, would not have a general appeal for the readers.

For instance, in the first poem titled, How to Be a Reverent Versifier, Shafi writes,

To begin, you must speak in

another voice….

….keeping your tone full of


The fluoride-fresh appeal in Shafi’s work is both in her form of poetry and the subject she picks. She writes of the surreal and of the real, fused in one another. Her diction is as verbose as it is plain; her voice is reliable in one work and suddenly becomes that of an unreliable narrator, in another; her symbols are as psychosomatic as they are physical. The magnitude of her experimentation is a testimony to her vast ability to be a post-modern poet, and write in an immaculate flow, even when the style is free and avant-garde much to the extent of gliding along the helm of flarf, the most modern, rebellious form of poetry. Although she does say at one point, “All literature is evil”, one does hear the irony, for the worst literature does to a man is chaff the heart and soul to the point of them becoming seething blisters, raw and sore at all times. One agrees.

In the words of Richard Wilbur, writing poetry is talking to oneself; yet it is a mode of talking to oneself in which the self disappears; and the product is something that, though it may not be for everybody, is about everybody.

Part of a poem titled, Successful Neon, reads as:

You knew you couldn’t fight him with beauty alone, didn’t you

You knew that what made you a man was poetry, didn’t you…

You were the only doe-eyed one in an abandoned school with superman pliancy

The excess of those boys and girls; a gauntlet of yellow butterflies in the sun on acid…

In the words of Richard Wilbur, writing poetry is talking to oneself; yet it is a mode of talking to oneself in which the self disappears; and the product’s something that, though it may not be for everybody, is about everybody. Shafi’s work in verse is replete with odes and nods to men and women of the past. They are probably people she admires and has made them part of her textual structures. Such is the formation of a poem with verses borrowed from Rumi, Robert Browning, and Vladimir Nabokov – an interesting concept, of exercising the comparative and complementary technique of remotely distant voices to create a cohesive discourse.

Her works feature quotes and dedications to Veronica Forrest-Thomson, poet and critical theorist (1947-1975); Sylvia Plath, confessional poet (1932-1963) and Egon Schiele, figurative painter (1890-1918) all of whom died young, and are given a place under the set of poems titled, Young Ghosts. Interestingly, she changes her style, as she writes her odes to the three artists in Young Ghosts, and leaves a striking mark – while writing of the painter, she repeats a line,

…his women do not smile. Neither midnight nor acid rain. Raspberry cheeks and soles of the feet… his women do not smile…

There is a reminder of Rabindranath Tagore and of Antoine de Saint-Exupery as well as of Coco Chanel. There are fifteen pieces of poetry, altogether, which cannot be called poems alone, since some of them have been written in sets, as a collective narrative. The poem that spoke loudest to the reviewer, is Country, Glass Slipper which Shafi wrote after looking at a painting by rebellious and political artist / painter from Iran, Farideh Lashai. The painting in question is Zinc Borders and is an abstract work of art, which brings to fore the image of a wall in Iran, imprinted with blobs of colour, after a bombing. The shades of red around the corner pare a smudge of gore and the hues of copper over the edge signify the old heritage of the country with aged walls, copper coloured from the top but maligned and blackened with the fire. The said work of art is not a part of the book, but it is very much in the reader’s mind as Shafi weaves her spin over the painting with words, presenting a canvas utterly compatible with that of the artist:

I did not receive what I was


My home disappeared /green

dams (one fuse)…

Iran, I must keep you from

eloquence in your red forests,

I wear

a black corona around my


like a Queen.

The book has its own share of artistic and graphical sections, in black and white and juxtaposed thoughtfully against each poem. The illustrators are by Samya Arif, Marjan Baniasadi and Ishita Basu Malik. Shafi knows her language, her technique and her canvas and all three of these are massively explored and displayed in this book of poetry.

Quiet Women

Author: Afshan Shafi

Publisher: Newline

(Lahore Cantt)

Pages: 58

Price: Rs 600

– The writer has authored two books of fiction, including Unfettered Wings: Extraordinary Stories of Ordinary Women (2018)

Afshan Shafi’s Quiet Women makes for a poignant read