In a fantastic 25-point review, Nicolle Elizabeth writes that Pakistani poet Zeeshan Sahil’s compact, uncomfortable lyrics operate in a fairly straightforward way: “It was a sunny day and now here is gore.” And it’s true that Sahil frequently juxtaposes the mundane and atrocious, the lighthearted and heartbreaking. Over the course of his unfortunately short life, Sahil witnessed multiple military coups marked by continuous, often violent political unrest. But the titular “heavy” and “light” refer as much to his home country’s constant state of conflict as to his own embattled body: in 2008, Sahil died of complications related to a congenital deformity that had confined him to a wheelchair and caused health problems for most of his life. Yet in the twenty tumultuous years since his first book, Sahil penned an impressive seven more collections, from which editor Christopher Kennedy arranged Light and Heavy Things, the first of Sahil’s works to be published in English.
For the project, Kennedy, author most recently of Ennui Prophet, assembled a team of translators, including his wife, the poet and fiction writer Mi Ditmar, and Karachi-born writer Faisal Siddiqui. The team adopted a collaborative, two-part process of translation: Siddiqui did literal translations of Sahil’s poems from Urdu to English, and Kennedy worked the literal language into poetic expression, with Ditmar polishing syntax and tone. The result is a slim selection clocking in at 56 pages, and that’s counting Title Page, Inscription, Table of Contents, Foreword, Acknowledgements, Bios for all four writers involved, and a list of the Lannan Translations Selection Series’ available titles, leaving 32 poems in 35 pages. A narrow selection, indeed.
The poems themselves take up themes both heavy (with titles like “Taliban,” “Time Bomb,” and “Gestapo”) and seemingly light (“Birds,” “Black Bird,” “The Second Sky”). Nearly a fifth include the word “poet,” “poetry,” or “poem.” Still others speak to ostensibly innocuous objects (“An Olive Tree,” “A Child’s Bicycle,” “My Uncle’s House”). And yet, Sahil has a way of turning expectations for the otherwise quotidian or abstract into chilling accounts of life in 20th century Pakistan. Take “People,” for example, a hideous list of facts about folks who happened to have been killed: while running away, while walking, minding their business, asleep on the rooftops, so on. Personified death comes as no surprise by the poem’s penultimate stanza, but then:
Death roamed every street
and every wall
was stained with its handprints.
The people who wet their rags
to clean the walls–
those were the last to die. (40)
Sahil’s speaker creates a window for an exceptional few to escape the fate of doomed city dwellers, but that killer last line (forgive the pun) delivers the horrifying fact of chronology that bystanding survivors turn always into eventual victims. Not every poem deals so directly with issues of existence and fate; the book’s filled with unforgettable imagery: gold seams in dark mines, yellow herbs and paper pythons, white flowers and orange skies. Even poems that deal with seriously loaded topics don’t adopt overtly political or didactic routes. In “Taliban,” Sahil’s speaker plays with concealment and revelation:
Women will stay inside their homes
and girls will hide themselves;
flowers will blossom and wilt
on their branches.
A fog will obscure
the moon, the sun and the stars.
Birds in flight
will forget their songs (21)
All this ominous activity in the natural world builds to an odd move at the end, where attention shifts back to the house, to the home: “people will switch on their radios, / and the Taliban / will creep in through the window.” This unexpected entrance undercuts the preventative measures any upstanding citizens could have taken, since the turning of a radio’s dial is pictured here as an almost voluntary act of invitation. And this is not the only time Sahil blends volucrine emblems and electronic mass media. “I Will Send a Bird” ends in a similar way:
The bird will laugh and laugh
when it sees you talking to the stars.
But you won’t hear the laughter.
The bird will be tired, having traveled
so far a distance.
But you won’t see.
The TV in your room will drone
while you fall asleep in front of it on the couch. (25)
This skepticism toward broadcast media strikes at least one reader who’s woefully unread on the nuances of South Asian foreign policy as fascinating, since a reliance on talking heads and censored reporting seems to bridge cultural divides that may have existed at the time of Sahil’s writing and that, arguably, continue to thrive. Interestingly, Sahil has expressed elsewhere his appreciation for products of Western pop culture. In an interview with Dawn, an English-language newspaper published in Pakistan, Sahil confessed his love for American music: “I used to love the group called Police. Now I listen to their singer Sting. I love Cheryl Crow, Phil Collins,” he said. “I like the new concept of music videos combining songs with action. Madonna’s Bedlam and Sting’s Gabriel’s Message.” Sahil’s interest in music videos fits perfectly his fondness for juxtaposing images and emblems with startling jumps and surprising shifts in tone. But Sahil doesn’t obsess or idolize the singers themselves nor their lyrics nor lifestyles. In fact, the collection’s only untitled poem ends with a haunting critique of consumer culture:
In the lull between wars,
we bought shoes for our children
and lanterns for our homes. (35)
Sahil frames an explicit challenge for readers of his work in English translation: what are we to do in “the lull between wars”? One wonders. Many readers of poetry have not been alive long enough to know a world when the U.S. was not at war with some thing, idea, or nation(s). And yet, the same applies to Pakistan, if we substitute intertribal fighting for wars on “Drugs” and “Terror.” And perhaps these wars are not so unrelated after all. Perhaps there’s far more to be discovered in common between a writer who lived just long enough to see his country invaded by robot drones, and the very readers who sent them there.
I submit Light and Heavy Things, as an important starting point, a thematically coherent, well-composed–albeit brief–collection that places Sahil right up there with the best of contemporary Pakistani poets, alongside folks like Hasina Gul, Daniyal Mueenuddin, and Yasmeen Hameed. A timely, challenging, much-needed translation, for which Kennedy and crew should be commended.