Vagabond thoughts and itinerant dreams

September 19, 2021

Wajahat Malik’s debut stands out for its mesh of the pastoral, the modern and the archaic

Vagabond thoughts and itinerant dreams

I’ve often liked poems by Wajahat Malik whenever I’ve come across them in magazines; their fluid rhythms and forceful language add up to something that can both entertain and enlighten. And it’s true that the contents of his latest offering do nothing to disappoint my expectations of his work. The poems take off from some idea or experience or observation, and move compellingly towards their climaxes. Each poem is a unit of energy and succeeds best when the energy holds to its natural length – the poems closing where the energy runs out.

Malik opens with disarmingly limpid statements that take off laterally to implications you can’t quite define but understand subliminally: “The waterfall is on fire/ squirming with a liquid scream/ ashes are hiding spirits/ and the flames burn/ with gallons of passion”.

He has also written short stories, dazzling in their originality and in their difference, not just from the short stories of his contemporaries, but even from one another. His cache of perfectly judged short stories kept him solvent for much of his writing life. But he’s perhaps first and arguably foremost a poet, whose debut, Charsi Nama and other Poems is remarkable for its dexterity, for its strange formal mesh of the pastoral, the modern and the archaic, and for its haunting liminality: “You remember the day the sky fell?/ and I the child, ran into the fields/ and picked up all the stars/ while you brought the moon to me/ but the wind came wailing to us/ and we both tender at heart/ set the whole universe free”

Translated loosely, Charsi Nama sounds like ‘the diary of a doper’ or ‘the journal of a druggie’ – a paean to the culture that spawned liberation of the word from censorship; decriminalisation of some of the laws against marijuana; and the birth of Beat Generation. Malik seems to propound, like a latter-day Beatnik, that he’s ‘looking up and out, wide-eyed, streetwise, and on his own’. Reading his poetry now it is possible to see crackling synaptic paths back to Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and forward to Philip Larkin, at the same time as noticing a contemporaneous use of texture and line-breath which makes for interesting comparison with a writer like Neal Cassady. But such a fin-de-siècle comparison makes it very clear: something vital in Malik, in both the life and the work, transcends any fin.

Charsi Nama (Jahalat kay Naam) itself appears in Urdu at the end of the book as (to borrow a stanza from Malik’s poem Still Life): “a bolt of lightning/ stuck in the flower pot/ mad wind on Prozac/ dead on the spot”. Attributed to Gul Zaman Charsi, the long poem suggests a mood of almost-bleak despair, a sermon of condescension that can easily dribble away and go out with a dull thud.

There are two poets here. One writes unpretentious, accomplished lyrical verse – of which there’s a lot about. The other is ambitious, ostentatious and occasionally pretty good, but not quite there yet.

If Malik’s stories are revolutionary, his poetry has much in common with them – tradition and convention juxtaposed with wild and wonderful exotica, or out-argued by deeper, more archaic, traditions; and with the role of outsiders – often women – in the margins of traditions and societies. He proclaims an archaic pastoral, the rotting fertility of which leaves the urban in a weak tea-coloured light. His poetry, overflowing with images of natural demise and decay, is dismissive of despair, glows with a kind of rank local merriment, and enjoys a similarly merry paralleling of archaic with contemporary: “They are all here/ but you remain/ a silent absence/ a fleeting memory/ a line from another poem.”

He loves a good local drama; much of his poetry takes a dramatic monologue or ballad form, which allows an objective perspective on a speaker, at the same time preserving the intimacy of a one-on-one exchange. Here the self is always a story, and it is a story that saves a lost self and, against the odds, becomes what survives of us.

His poems are laden with nature’s unforgiveness and its mercy, with speakers who go down to the root, or the grave, and speak, full of life, from what should be a place of the dead. As a poet, he sets resonating, simultaneously, a selfless faith in nature’s long view and a very human fear of the brevity of things. His rich and spare melancholia, calmly meditative, is both lyrical and practical, and always frank, like a mode of thinking, a philosophical practice of self-effacement. Some of Malik’s poems seem to have been written in moments of rapture. Here we have short narratives of lucent leaves, small roots tethered to clay bowls, poems that breathe life into the fiction of our lives, poems of light that uplift the soul: “A vase full of pine trees/ a jug full of clouds…”

Malik’s vision of love is often mechanistic, even rather threatening: “colours prance in a delinquent haze/ setting her naughty hair ablaze/ close by, a young man explodes/ picking his head with a cigarette.”

There’s been an increasing flintiness in Malik’s tone. It suggests a tight-lipped rage at how we let our illusory ‘real world’ worsen. There’s no political view evident, though. The work is the work of consciousness. The poems go very close to reporting, without ever losing the presence of personality or a deft turn of phrase. His tone is brisk and witty. This intrinsic and instinctive kind of discipline in a poet is certainly a gift. In restricting himself to the simplicity of reporting the actualities of the moment they ring clear for themselves un-obscured by the poet’s presence, as in Pakistan Today (A Tale of Woes).

Wajahat Malik can come up with some evocative lines and often manages to do so with a minimum of fuss: “As I think of you/ the world falls around me silently/ unrelenting passion chokes/ the song of a heaving heart”. He pushes the poem along on its short lines and rounds it off with a touch of irony: “another day dawns without your presence/ it grips/ the rustle of an opening book/ distracts me to sleep…”

Elsewhere, though, the technique doesn’t always work and the reader is left with an unsatisfied feeling. Some of the poems sound more like notebook jottings than fully-realised pieces, and some dangerously approach writing exercises. You have the impression that the poet is striving for effect, as in New Money: “they opened scores of CNG stations/ with religious signs/ ugly shopping plazas in Greek designs/ investing in greedy profit schemes”.

But when Malik is happy with his basic material he is effective, as in this verse: “Clouds are the smoke of time/ colours the rainbows of our mind.”

Charsi Nama and Other Poems

Author: Wajahat Malik

Publisher: Sang-e-Meel, 2021

Pages: 88

Price: 525

The reviewer is an art critic based in Islamabad

Vagabond thoughts and itinerant dreams