One day during the last week of May, I watched in horror as a creature from the depths of my already eccentric computer swallowed everything, sucking them into an abyss I could never dredge. A sick feeling rose up from my stomach. I’d almost finished my review of Saima Afreen’s debut poetry collection Sin of Semantics and was about to hit the send button.
The days rolled by as I struggled with the pain of loss (of all recent work, including the review), and grappled with the twin feelings of guilt at having let everyone down, myself included, and a horrifying and strange blankness about my own writing life. I returned to the book. It took effort. And then, some lines, fragments from the eponymous poem in the book seemed to clear the way ahead:
“Inherited by a sentence
What is it that weeps
Inside the frontier
The rivers and mirrors?
And I-f a l l
That stems from you
Chopped words don’t always
Die in a gutter
Thoughts winds feathers
As an unripe harvest of commas
Loop, lament and laugh
Labyrinths always have
Doors in the c-o-r-n-e-r-s
Or perhaps visions will still
The poem, “Sin of Semantics,” taken in its entirety, is an altogether different journey. It is at once a lament and a paean for what is gone, and a testimony from the muse that whatever is remembered remains forever redeemable, even as seepages from footnotes. But in my state of mental freeze, the fragments seemed to speak personally to me. My predicament seemed to lighten somewhat, turning into a hurdle any traveller should be willing to accept and overcome. It was oddly comforting.
This is the beauty of a fine poem. It can speak from many angles, and, like a labyrinth, opens up spaces not encountered in previous readings. I decided to read the poems sequentially. Only this time, I would read back to front. So, Afreen’s last port of call became my first, as if I was retracing the journey, having come so far with her.
A narrative and a journey
Sin of Semantics is Afreen’s debut collection. There is a magic carpet quality about the book, taking the reader from one setting to another, with an involved and emphatic guide in the narrative of the poems, urging the reader to take her place, to exchange skins with her, in order to experience it all first-hand.
Lines from different poems loop and intertwine. Moods are placed, replaced and displaced. The journey is haphazard, a zigzag flight, which at times feels disconcerting, like being uprooted at the moment of sinking into a particular poem. But once the whirligig settles down, the strongest poems rise like columns in the mist, while the quieter ones send up coils of restless steam.
“Hindustan”, the very last poem in this collection, carries in its strong currents the ire of the river Sindhu. This anger, like the ancient civilisations she has nurtured on her banks, “cannot be wrapped even if the earth / is paper herself.” The Sindhu is so mighty that “the sun a pale lamp floats on her waters…”
Raging with the river, the poet asks her readers, “Can you bury the Taj Mahal inside their graves? / or send Lal Qila with them if they are thrown / into the Indian ocean?” And, “…what do they know if their genes were intertwined / on the sea floors / of Gulf of Persia and Island City of Dvarka? / which carbon dating can separate / god[s] embedded in the heart’s veins…”
Afreen harks back to the Sindhu in the final two stanzas of this powerful poem. The torment in the poem roars as if the river itself is in spate, but as Afreen reminds us, “She was silent even five thousand years ago…” If patriotic poetry can be a genre in itself, “Hindustan” certainly belongs to it. Even a bystander watching the subcontinent roiled by history will be moved by the intensity of the love and pain expressed in “Hindustan”. I would add that this is poem deserves to be included in our school curricula.
Another poem, “There is No Lamp in the World Tonight,” has a similar trajectory, but weaves in a bit of Afreen’s family history: “a milk jug my grandfather brought home….” Afreen takes the motif of the milk jug to pour out the anguish of living with the betrayals of citizenship, where even “Darkness is a refugee,” into a poem which asks for the “carcass of the moon to be set on fire for light”!
As I read and re-read the poem, it seemed to sum up all the atrocities I read every day in newspapers against minorities. It is important to note here though that Afreen is not attempting to be political. There is genuine pain in the backbone of the poem, which comes through clearly.
From New Delhi, the course of the river Sindhu, the Jhelum, Gaya, Kolkata, Goa, the river Krishna river – rivers have a significant presence in the collection – and onwards to Europe, to Finland – Helsinki and Sysma, where December “remembers snow, not the dead underneath it”: a poetic travelogue. And it comes back to me now how I had set out on that muggy May afternoon, with the city’s soot lending a stickiness to the customary dry heat of Hyderabad. I had entered the cool precincts of the British Council, where Afreen’s book launch was to take place.
The long reading room murmured softly. People huddled over tables. The newly inaugurated metro rail made its presence felt with an occasional rumble through the walls. A little later, as Afreen began to read, I realised I was still moving. My newly purchased copy of Sin of Semantics on my lap, I found myself following her voice, her journeys, on its pages.
The movement has not stopped, much in the same way that the body continues to experience a sense of motion even after getting out of a vehicle.
Afreen’s painter’s eye creates intimate details. The poems either float up or hunker down as she sits her readers on her carpet, making stops with seemingly no particular route map at hand. The verses ask questions subtly. For example, “Summer Solstice in the Town of Gaya”, with its presentation of history like a little girl documenting people’s hearts, where “Lord Budha still grows…in…bo trees” and “Yellow windows from dark houses / flicker…”, ends on a disquieting note. It’s up to the reader to move beyond the poem and seek answers.
“Summer Solstice…” has a companion poem in “Winter Solstice and Nahoum’s”. This poem recreates the aura of Kolkata’s legendary Nahoum’s cakeshop, building it up to the stanza where “the glass, the old faces, the ancient night /…opens another darkness…” – and thereby poses a question without articulating. It is interesting to observe Afreen throwing the ball into the reader’s court in her poems: a poet who can provoke without being provocative. The poem “Is Pomegranate a Poem?” is another example. It begins innocuously enough, with lush verses about a luscious fruit, but once again it is the last stanza betrays its intent, leaving a question behind.
Speaking of lushness, though, some of the poems are too lush. They are syrupy with imagery. The reader may slip on this excess and end up losing the core of the poem. I would have glossed over this aspect in a lesser poet. But Afreen displays both poise and maturity in her work, which is why she must note that there is a point where an image that is too carefully wrought may lose the story.
Anguish before anger
Some poems have a sharp feminist lean to them. “Revenge” and “Nudity”, for example. However, feminist tropes are not Afreen’s concern. A larger political and historical canvas forms the backdrop to most of her poems. She is more concerned with where people are coming from and where they are headed, but not necessarily in a physical sense. At times the movement is biographical, its pivot being memory, as in the sorrowful and tender poem “Remembering Smell”.
Anguish is a recurring thread in Afreen’s poems – an anguish, more than pain, that carries the embers of outrage and anger within. “Peace Be Upon the Empty Axis” is one poem where anguish unfurls with the beauty of nature’s fury. Even her ekphrastic poem, “The Rickshaw Puller of Calcutta”, inspired by a painting by the artist Wasim Kapoor, reflects anguish: “His face was always a lantern for lonesome passengers. / They bury his story in a two-inch column / The dawn wakes up to the lost song / Of a brass bell in bony palms…”
It is not difficult to lose track of the task at hand when immersed in the Sin of Semantics. Days can overlap. I would have liked to open up each and every poem in the book, especially since I took the journey with them again and discovered new paths, like finding the distributaries of a wide river running off in directions I had not seen before. But that would be both unfair for the reader and tedious for the review.
Afreen has much to say. And her poetry deserves exploration. As the last line of the poem “Song for a Dastango I Met Last Winter” says, “…there are epics waiting to be released.” I certainly hope so.
Sin of Semantics, Saima Afreen, Copper Coin.