if there is a river
more beautiful than this
bright as the blood
red edge of the moon if
there is a river
more faithful than this
returning each month
to the same delta if there
is a river
braver than this
coming and coming in a surge
of passion, of pain if there is
more ancient than this
daughter of eve
mother of cain and of abel if there is in
the universe such a river if
there is some where water
more powerful than this wild
pray that it flows also
beautiful and faithful and ancient
and female and brave
Madiha Sattar, a writer based in Karachi, in her recent comment on the Karachi violence complained about ‘the mythology of the city’s not-so-distant golden past’ that is evoked whenever the times are dark and roads bloody. Those of us not old enough to have worn hipster saris to nightclubs here in the 60s and 70s, are frequently subjected to misty-eyed reminiscing about a city that was once apparently safe, cosmopolitan and liberal, a magical place where one could drive around late without racing home to avoid a hold-up and people were far too polite and open-minded to be too fussed about each other’s religions, sects and ethnicities.
In my very personal and spotty survey of post-1947 literature on Karachi, it has always struck me that this poetic construction of Karachi’s alleged liberal past exists more in prose than in poetry. In fiction, one thinks of the charming passages in Muhammad Khalid Akhtar’s works where the author captures the din and bustle of the city in the ‘50s and ‘60s through his impish characters. Elphinstone Street, for instance, repeatedly surfaces in MKA’s works as the preferred destination for his flâneurs who seek delight in city lights and life. Then there is the wildly popular Ibn-e Safi’s Imran Series novels are set in an unnamed city, but it is widely believed that the place they draw on — marked most notably by an alluring night life complete with nightclubs, alcohol, and vixens on the hunt — is in the image of the Karachi of yore.
But for whatever reason, the poets never seemed to be enamoured of Karachi and its ways. The gentle poet from Lahore, Taufiq Rafat, whose work shows remarkable restraint and control, wrote two uncharacteristically tart poems on Karachi. The first one, Karachi, 1955, describes the city in strong grey images: The screaming wind transplants the soil/ particle by particle […/] All the forces of nature crowding man off his perch/ so that the land can return to its ways.// In this city of scarce sweet water and little rain/ each man protects his rood of greenery/ with panicked care. His other poem similarly entitled rather unimaginatively, Karachi, 1968, is even sourer. The second-last stanza reads:
There is no weather here as we northerners
understand weather. The season telescopes
a sort of summer into a sort of winter,
topped by a mini-monsoon. Each new morning
brings no hope of change. Generally the clouds
are sexless, mute, and above our affairs.
A splitting sky announces a jet not rain.
Even in Urdu poetry, one would be hard pressed to find a loving ode to the city. Zia Jalandhari, writing in his book of poems khwāb sarāb published in 1985, writes movingly about Karachi as a hard, wretched place.
karāchī kisī dev qad kekṛe kī tarah
samandar ke sāhil pe pa’ooṅ pisāre paṛā hai
naseṅ uskī faulād-o āhan
badan ret cement patthar
buseṅ, taxiyaṅ, careiṅ, rikshā, ragoṅ meiṅ lahū ke bajā’ye rawāṅ
jism par jā bajā dāgh daldal-numā
jahāṅ ʻankabūt apne tāroṅ se bunte haiṅ baṅkoṅ ke jāl
yeh woh shehr-e mutma’in hai
jo apne hī dil kī shaqāwat pe shīda rahā
Karachi’s story is usually told as that of a utopia that suddenly took an about turn during the Zia era and went horribly wrong. But there is enough poetry to warrant against such a narrow view of things. We desperately need narratives of Karachi that do justice to its complex past and help us grapple with its bewildering present.
Where are the historians?
Bilal Tanweer is a writer and translator. He teaches creative writing at LUMS.
Published in the Express Tribune, September 18, 2011
P.S. For all looking for a bout of nostalgia, here’s a video of Karachi in 1942 apparently shot by a visiting British soldier: Karachi at the End of the Raj. (I don’t attest the date/veracity of this film; but it’s nice. Do watch.)
Write this dirty poem out of me, like a magician
pulling a silk scarf from my throat. I need you like
the coiled spring of a trap needs an animal.
Heatseekers. The government records our
phonetap-sex. Historical revisionism means
suffragettes like me are terrorists. You lace me into
a corset to restrict the way I move through the
earth. I’m a sex tourist, you rib my cages.
This poem is so urgent I’m vomiting.
Bleed my thumbs to release the heat from my
throat. Autumn stings like a wooden ruler across
my bare calves. In chalk, draw the shape of the wild
animal noise at the edge of your mouth.
I hear it when you’re inside me.
The soft petals of my throat and your penis, grafted
to each other like two orchids. Make sure my
mouth is always busy. Fold in words like my darling.
I wait for a cold southerly wind to breathe through
everything I’ve loved and made temporary.
I discard seasons. Even the bitemark secrets I
leave on the inside of your thighs will fade. The
strength of the air is the weight of your body
pinning down my shoulders.
Please, please, push my knees apart.
Make it right. Bury yourself in
the cunt of the poem.
Everybody wants to go to bed
with everybody else, they’re
lined up for blocks, so I’ll
go to bed with you. They won’t
There are people who do not see a broken playground swing
as a symbol of ruined childhood
and there are people who don’t interpret the behavior
of a fly in a motel room as a mocking representation of their thought process.
There are people who don’t walk past an empty swimming pool
and think about past pleasures unrecoverable
and then stand there blocking the sidewalk for other pedestrians.
I have read about a town somewhere in California where human beings
do not send their sinuous feeder roots
deep into the potting soil of others’ emotional lives
as if they were greedy six-year-olds
sucking the last half-inch of milkshake up through a noisy straw;
and other persons in the Midwest who can kiss without
debating the imperialist baggage of heterosexuality.
Do you see that creamy, lemon-yellow moon?
There are some people, unlike me and you,
who do not yearn after fame or love or quantities of money as
unattainable as that moon;
thus, they do not later
have to waste more time
defaming the object of their former ardor.
Or consequently run and crucify themselves
in some solitary midnight Starbucks Golgotha.
I have news for you—
there are people who get up in the morning and cross a room
and open a window to let the sweet breeze in
and let it touch them all over their faces and bodies.
Made to buckle, soar, evolved: this body’s
compass points like needles in the brain.
I speak of
desire, tired of being
marshland, low tide. An ibis scissors towards horizon.
Salt in our hair, sun in our skin.
All week I have been apologizing
for the past & dreams I won’t speak of.
Salt in our lips, sand in our teeth.
The knots tighten between us; when did you last ask
Not since we ceased to speak
in metaphors, realizing my history
of symbols was not
your history of symbols
when, unable to make a fire,
I sputtered something violent
concerning Pynchon then curled
alone against the worst of what poetry can do.
This homesickness of mind
Like cuts made almost tenderly in flesh. The surfaces of things grown slow and
Beneath the desire to apprehend. September light I cannot hear your quiet.
So much elsewhere unsettling each surface, so much annul.
This is the shirt you wore
when someone you’d hurt wore sunglasses
in an airport at night
and told the woman at the counter
that everything was fine. Fine.
We are populated by each other
and this is a disease of animals.
Whose means include syllables. Jean Cocteau
would have loved this evening,
it’s 1930 in Paris somewhere—this is a disease
we airplanes have, chasing bells
hooked into the ribs of the wind-licked causeway.
This is the shirt you wore, right?
which burned in water
like a map soaped in gasoline
calling to matches. These are the sunglasses
upon which such scars of streetlights.
We are each alone. You play a fiddle or a violin,
you make the garrote wire bend resonant
and pretty over a box of shadow.
You get the hot fries from the vending machine
like it’s nothing. There is a mouth
on either side of you
but only one leopards your neck.
Take / your make-up / off.
We are in this together. Kind of.
This is a city where you lived.
A girl sits cross-legged with her guitar
beside the last window you will have to yourself,
all is well, all is well then the calm snaps.
A boulder sighs down the stairs.
None of the lights are right
but someone mercurial turns a grin out of the ruckus
and it is enough. Before before
you let your foot push hard against the floor,
the silver-slivered night shivering above you
so you nearly thought it would be beautiful enough
to be enough. This is not hell, the night
laced with neon, neon another version of blood,
this is not the same shirt.
If I started saying Sorry or I love you now
I would never stop.
Falling in love with a mustache
is like saying
you can fall in love with
the way a man polishes his shoes
is one of the things that turns on
my tuned-up engine
those trim buckled boots
(I feel like an advertisement
for men’s fashions
when I think of your ankles)
Yeats was hung up with a girl’s beautiful face
and I find myself
a bad moralist,
a failing aesthetician,
a sad poet,
wanting to touch your arms and feel the muscles
that make a man’s body have so much substance,
that makes a woman
lean and yearn in that direction
that makes her melt/ she is a rainy day
in your presence
the pool of wax under a burning candle
the foam from a waterfall
You are more beautiful than any Harley-Davidson
She is the rain,
waits in it for you,
finds blood spotting her legs
from the long ride.
I always assume that men who write fitness/lifehack/self-help/ blogs or anything that involves dot points or using lots of question marks to prompt the reader about their life - are really bad lovers.
I was wrapped in black
fur and white fur and
you undid me and then
you placed me in gold light
and then you crowned me,
while snow fell outside
the door in diagonal darts.
While a ten-inch snow
came down like stars
in small calcium fragments,
we were in our own bodies
(that room that will bury us)
and you were in my body
(that room that will outlive us)
and at first I rubbed your
feet dry with a towel
because I was your slave
and then you called me princess.
I stood up in my gold skin
and I beat down the psalms
and I beat down the clothes
and you undid the bridle
and you undid the reins
and I undid the buttons,
the bones, the confusions,
the New England postcards,
the January ten o’clock night,
and we rose up like wheat,
acre after acre of gold,
and we harvested,
Afterwards you had that drunk, drugged look
my daughter used to get, when she had let go
of my nipple, her mouth gone slack and her eyes
turned vague and filmy, as though behind them
the milk was rising up to fill her
whole head, that would loll on the small
white stalk of her neck so I would have to hold her
closer, amazed at the sheer power
of satiety, which was nothing like the needing
to be fed, the wild flailing and crying until she fastened
herself to me and made the seal tight
between us, and sucked, drawing the liquid down
and out of my body; no, this was the crowning
moment, this giving of herself, knowing
she could show me how helpless
she was—that’s what I saw, that night when you
pulled your mouth from mine and
leaned back against a chain-link fence,
in front of a burned-out church: a man
who was going to be that vulnerable,
that easy and impossible to hurt.
had no direction to go but up: and this, the shattery road
its surface graining, trickle in late thaw—is nothing amiss?
—this melt, the sign assures us, natural cycle
and whoosh, the water a dream of forgotten white
past aspens colored in sulfur, they trembled, would
—poor sinners in redemption song—shed their tainted leaves
I tell you what boy I was, writing lyrics to reflect my passions:
the smell of a bare neck in summer
a thin trail of hairs disappearing below the top button of cut-offs
the lean, arched back of a cyclist straining to ascend a hill
in the starlight I wandered: streets no better than fields
the cul-de-sacs of suburbia just as treacherous, just as empty
if wood doves sang in the branches of the acacias, I could not hear them
anyone lost in that same night was lost in another tract
the air pulsed and dandelion pollen blew from green stalks
—that was all
and yes, someone took me in his car. and another against the low fence
in the park at the end of our block. under the willow branches
where gnats made a furious cloud at dawn and chased us away
I knew how it felt to lie in a patch of marigolds: golden stains
the way morning swarmed a hidden rooftop, the catbirds singing
the feel of ruin upon lips rubbed raw throughout the night
granite peaks: here, the earth has asserted itself. and the ice asserted
and human intimacies conspired to keep us low and apart
for an ice age I knew you only as an idea of longing:
a voice in the next yard, whispering through the chink
a vagabond outlined against the sky, among the drying grass
we journey this day to darkness: the chasm walls lift us on their scaly backs
the glaciers relinquish their secrets: that sound is the ice bowing
and the sound underneath, the trickle: the past released, disappearing
you pinnacle of my life, stand with me on this brink
half-clouded basin caked in flat grays, the very demise of green
you have surmounted the craggy boundary between us.
you open a place for me in earth, receiving my song
—for Haines Eason
How is it that you hold such influence over me:
your practiced slouch, your porkpie hat at rakish angle,
commending the dumpling-shaped lump atop your pelvis—
as if we’ve one more thing to consider amidst
the striptease of all your stanzas and all your lines—
draws me down into the center of you: the prize peony,
so that I’m nothing more than an ant whose singular labor
is to gather the beading liquid inside you; bring it to light.
I have never written a true poem, it seems. Snatches
of my salacious dreams, sandwiched together all afternoon
at my desk, awaiting the dark visitation of The Word.
When you arrive, unfasten your notebook, and recite,
I am only a schoolboy with a schoolboy’s hard mind.
You are the headmaster. Now you must master me.
Dear Parole Board of the Perennial Now,
let me begin by saying it’s very likely
none of my ex-wives will vouch for me.
Let’s just say the parable
of the Negro who uses his dick for a cane
and the parable of the Negro who uses his cane
for a dick convey the same message to me.
I’m sorry. You mean before that?
Well, it’s as if some ghost the height
of my granddaddy was lighting a cigarette
the wrong way to symbolize my muddy path
through life. You ever seen the Mississippi?
You’ll learn all you need to know
if you look at the wall of my kinfolk’s pictures.
Belzora Knight Taylor. BuShie.
Janice. Eunice. Clyneese. Me
and my brothers fishing in high waters.
Whenever I see brown hills and red gullies,
I remember what the world was like
before I twisted spoons over flames.
I pissed from a bridge the day I left.
Yes Sir, I’ve changed, I’ve changed.
But I won’t be telling you the story
of the forlorn Negro or the Negro cutthroat
or the Negro Hero or the Negro Tom.
I won’t be telling you the story of the night
I died. I believe everything comes back
to music or money. Belly Song.
Song of the twelve fingered fix.
Song of The Gemini Women. I know I’m cursed.
I sang out to the Baptists I saw gathered
on the riverbank the day I left. I sang out
to the reeds straight as tongues and the salmon
in the waters of my people, and beyond that
to my barrel-backed shadow damming the stream.
Abrigette, evenings you are my head.
I think of you at night & then in sleep; bricks
of your house stacked neatly, your dogs & your cats,
& I wonder if you are one hundred now, but think,
Sometime, you must have walked out into it,
the bejackled sky, sky all dressed with lightning, out
into what was there. & did it sing your old husband’s name?
Or come to you in the voice of one of your brothers?
& did you answer back to it? Or did you
not even hear it at all, instead continue
to wash a kitchen window, white rag in hand,
as though trying to clean a great glass-eye
from which you hoped
to see more clearly, or, perhaps,
be seen more clearly? & was it the sky, in fact,
that mistook you for someone wanting relief-
that understood the signal wrong
& thought you to be ready, the rag in your hand to be
a small white flag waving? & so, out of obedience, came down
with all its ghosts & foxes, to take you
quick or slow. & did it wait there, on your front lawn,
as you had seen it do before with other neighbors?
Did it take a seat by the side house window? Or dance
on the tops of your cypresses? Did it spend days
up there? Or days touching its face to flowers on their plots,
learning their names? Or did it come quickly
& take you by your hand? & is it true? Like I have dreamed?
Did you walk out into it, the night, the way one walks
into the cold, cold ocean? Slowly first, then plunging-
head under, everything under.
The poem’s deviation
Or its peace
Everything that is not said
Translated by Ayesha Sandanha
They jumped from the burning floors—
one, two, a few more,
The photograph halted them in life,
and now keeps them
above the earth toward the earth.
Each is still complete,
with a particular face
and blood well-hidden.
There’s enough time
for hair to come loose,
for keys and coins
to fall from pockets.
They’re still within the air’s reach,
within the compass of places
that have just now opened.
I can do only two things for them—
describe this flight
and not add a last line.
(Translated by Clare Cavanagh)
“That awkward moment when…”
“nom nom nom”
etc. etc. etc.
Why haven’t we popularised any new language, words, phrases, that are beautiful? Repeat over and over the same clumsy memes on soapy tongues. I die a little inside. I would wash these all out of your mouths. You are the death of poetry. More people participate in hashtag games on Twitter replacing words (and aren’t even funny), than read novels or poetry. likeanaddict said it best recently, “That awkward moment when you realize that prefacing tweets with “that awkward moment” is no longer funny or useful & you should just stop.”
For beautiful new words, I will always recommend The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.
lightwaves, the vibration of
all my atoms dancing
and the sweep of my skirt
wiping the blush off your cheeks
You in another
I remember that
coming down on
my arm. Love was
milky white and
The young composer, working that summer at an artist’s colony, had watched her for a week. She was Japanese, a painter, almost sixty, and he thought he was in love with her. He loved her work, and her work was like the way she moved her body, used her hands, looked at him directly when she made amused and considered answers to his questions. One night, walking back from a concert, they came to her door and she turned to him and said, “I think you would like to have me. I would like that too, but I must tell you that I have had a double mastectomy,” and when he didn’t understand, “I’ve lost both my breasts.” The radiance that he had carried around in his belly and chest cavity — like music — withered very quickly, and he made himself look at her when he said, “I’m sorry. I don’t think I could.” He walked back to his own cabin through the pines, and in the morning he found a small blue bowl on the porch outside his door. It looked to be full of rose petals, but he found when he picked it up that the rose petals were on top; the rest of the bowl — she must have swept them from the corners of her studio — was full of dead bees.
He bound my wrists with blue ribbon to mimic the veins under the translucent parts of my skin. Above me, hands shaped in the triangle roof of a church yearning for heaven. White bow legged and collapsing under the weight of prayers on his tongue.
There is no once bitten. There is only the juicy peach of my throat until you find yourself stoned at the centre of me, a pit, a reason to leave.