For the last decade, much news out of Pakistan has concerned the country’s struggles with chaos and terror. Belles-lettres may be the last thought that comes to mind about the region, but in fact Pakistan has a centuries-old literary and artistic heritage, and much of that heritage has been devoted to combatting chaos and terror. Pakistan’s rich literary history includes multiple languages, with some writers well known to Western audiences. Among Pakistan’s many languages, Urdu poetry and poets of the subcontinent enjoy a distinctive place. Even President Barack Obama has claimed familiarity with this genre, as described by the Huffington Post article “Obama Digs Urdu Poetry.” As politic as that may be, the romantic or mystical verses often used to represent this region’s literature give little idea of what this complex tradition truly involves.
Your Essence, Martyr: Pakistani Elegies, a book of English translations from the Urdu, is certainly enlightening, and for what the poems are about, quite moving and often heart-wrenching. It is a selection of poems written in the late 1970s by various poets—both men and women—following the hanging of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto by the military regime then in power. The original handwritten poems traveled from person to person and from one place to another; in this way, the texts were preserved, and they have now been brought together in this first-ever translation. The poems elegize Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, but also an era, ideals abandoned or disgraced, and a bygone culture of just and genuine values.
The translators’ careful work makes plain that the style and the tone vary from poem to poem. Hear the dirge in Saleem Shahid:
A strange boat passed by and put the desert to shame.
He passed but left a mirage behind.
K. N. (Kishwar Naheed) refuses the metaphoric consolation:
The brick, born of earth, was not the poet’s ruby.
The prisoner held at night was her respite.
Beyond sorrow and its solutions is the resolve of Faiz Ahmed Faiz:
We shall see,
Surely we shall see
The day that has been promised,
Written down in the book of beginning,
When unbearable mountains of tyranny
Will fly like cotton flakes;
(from “God’s Name Alone Will Abide”)
In this clear-sighted work, the poet’s conscience is alive in a compact with the poetic form. Throughout the anthology, many of the Urdu traditions, like the ghazal, qita, and nazam, have been employed to innovative use. There are echoes of the traditional Urdu marsiya (elegy), both in the treatment of the subject matter and the form. Yet, these poems sound a fresh note for a secular subject at a turning point of Pakistan’s history.
The book represents an editorial feat of international scholarly collaboration: seventy poems by twenty-six poets in translation by three translators and a poet-editor, all based in different continents. The occasional footnotes are helpful in explaining particular cultural nuances, but the book omits an index and biographies of poets, many of whom aren’t well known in the West, in an attempt to retain its original samizdat character by focusing attention on the individual poems. Still in evidence throughout is the leitmotif of courage against all odds, and of sacrifice and struggle for higher goals for self and society. According to the editor’s Preface, “Your Essence, Martyr is the heart’s cry, a book of poems that have become a part of our lives since these were written . . . and read out in small private gatherings in homes or whispered to one another in cafes . . . the work has survived and lives on as a soulful example of the deed against tyranny.” Indeed it does. When these forms of artistic social action were forbidden, poetry in Pakistan upheld democratic freedom and fought for its own rightful existence. Your Essence, Martyr is an object lesson in the responsibilities of art, a book of poems not to be missed.