The body is a vessel for the Self as well as its interface with reality. It determines the way we move in and are perceived in the world, and, in this respect, we are at its mercy. In other ways, however, it is at ours; in the poems I discuss here, the body often becomes a map for the speaker’s ideals or simply an object to sacrifice in their honor. Other times, the preservation of the body signals the preservation of the ideal, and its destruction, likewise, signals the end of the ideal. In Roberto Bolaño’s poem “My Life in the Tubes of Survival,” the speaker imagines he is trapped in a flying saucer. In this saucer, he is wholly inside his own mind, but hovers above his physical reality — which is both his body as well as the struggles of his country. In the same vein, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee turns the body into a microcosm for the nation. Here, the body’s organs — eyes, mouth, flesh, and blood — represent the components of identity, but also serve as recipients of and witnesses to the violence of a nation — a body — being torn apart. Agha Shahid Ali’s poem “From Another Desert” also portrays the body as primarily a political entity: the Beloved’s body is Revolution’s embodiment, and the lover’s body exists only to efface itself for the cause. The flesh becomes, for the lover, a canvas where he can express his passion and bear physical pain to mirror his mental anguish. We see this in Majnoon, who wanders the bazaar and desert with his hair overgrown, wounded by stones, his body witness to his madness and rapture. In classical Urdu poetry as well as in N. M. Rashid’s, there is also the idea that in the beloved’s physical being the lover sees a manifestation of God — whereas the Qur’anic God is often inaccessible in that He cannot be seen or touched, the beloved becomes an idol upon whom the lover can shower his devotions. In this way, she is both a representation of God and surpasses God. Perhaps this is among the reasons we as poets revere the physical — its simulacrum for the Self, a transcendence to a greater, intangible reality.
Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha begins Dictee with a quote from Sappho:
May I write words more naked than flesh,
stronger than bone, more resilient than
sinew, sensitive than nerve.
In Dictee, Cha approaches words as a means to transcend the body, to provide a sustenance and substance that the body itself cannot give. She separates the body into its part and function, each of which, aside from physical property, holds meaning in metaphors: the tongue is the bearer of identity, of language; the mouth is the producer of speech but also its silencer; blood the marker of lineage, of kinship, but also its proof of cruelty; the eye is the witness to oppression; skin is the border between the self and the outside world. In this latter metaphor, the body also serves as the container of conflict, pain, and grief. In Dictee, however, one’s body is not an independent entity, but a microcosm of the larger body that is the nation. To tear the nation apart, then, is to tear a body apart, to break away the self. In the end, the body is flawed for its inability to keep itself together.
The Unknown University by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Laura Healy
In this volume of Bolaño’s collected works, I chose to focus on the poem “My Life in the Tubes of Survival.” The poem begins by citing the speaker’s physical appearance — small, yellow, with “pleasant features” — as among the reasons he escapes torture and winds up instead in a flying saucer. It is a vehicle he is trapped inside, ironically, so that he might “flee from [his] disability, from [his] particular skeleton.” In this way, it is both his salvation and his cage. Throughout the poem, the saucer becomes a metaphor for the speaker’s mind, and we get a sense of what it is like to be removed from one’s body, one’s physical reality. Flying above his country, he is far from social ills, violence, and destruction, but also morals, ethics, happiness, and love. He develops an indifference to what is going on below him, and the world’s phenomena become to him “scarcely a gesture.” At one point, he asks himself, “Was I seeing the approach / Of my suicide?” The poem then turns toward the speaker’s dream, and in it, a return to his body. The speaker’s body is a different kind of vessel, a place where he is able to feel again. He dreams he will experience a sensation he calls “glorified poetry”:
My falling tears would linger on the saucer’s
Surface for days, evidence not of my pain, but of
A kind of glorified poetry that more and more often
Clenched my chest, my temples and hips.
In his next dream, the flying saucer is crashing in a desert. The final reality of the speaker’s body is the spectacle of his corpse which rises up, “almost without a scratch” to “be seen by old highlanders and historians,” the fact of his isolation continuing even after his physical escape. In the end, we cannot know whether this mind-body dualism is his damnation or his deliverance:
That brought me no peace, for after my flesh had rotted
I still went on dreaming.
The Golden Tradition: An Anthology of Urdu Poetry
Selected, translated, and with an introduction by Ahmed Ali
A large number of the ghazals translated by Ahmed Ali in The Golden Tradition fall in the classical Urdu poetic tradition. Ghazals of this tradition are generally composed from the point of view of the lover, whose only object is to win the attentions of the cruel, unattainable beloved. The lover’s passion is all-consuming and transformative, turning the ghazal universe into something of an alternate universe. In these verses the body is first and foremost a vessel for emotion, and takes on a more dramatic and fantastical quality. The most intricate gestures on the beloved’s part are enough to ruin the lover: the beloved’s eyebrows become the bows to the arrows of her coquetry, and her glances become daggers. Her locks, long and curling, keep him fettered like chains. Her beauty is literally deadly, and with her every grace she pierces him; with her every rebuff, overwhelms him with grief so that his very tears turn to blood. Whereas the beloved’s body is constantly praised and its movements exalted, there is little importance placed on the lover’s body, except in its potential for self-destruction. The true lover prides himself in his capacity for physical pain, embraces every opportunity to bear wounds, captivity, and even death on the path of love. The goal, then, becomes to love another to the extent of transforming one’s physical reality. To efface oneself.
Modern Poetry of Pakistan edited by Iftikhar Arif, translations edited by Waqas Khwaja
I have chosen in this volume to focus on Noon Meem Rashid’s four-part poem, “Hassan Kuzagar,” or “Hassan the Potter.” Rashid’s poetry is rooted at least partly in the ghazal tradition, which is obvious by the speaker’s — or lover’s — feverish rapture, his humiliation, his eventual self-effacement. Like the verse of the 18th-century poet Ghalib, “Hassan Kuzagar” is full of both breathtaking language and intellectual feats. The difference is that whereas ghazal poets gesture toward worlds of thought in two-line shi’rs, Rashid’s poetry fleshes them out in free verse. Rashid’s tropes build on the ones established by the ghazal world; like Ghalib and Mir’s speakers, Hassan, too, is chained by the coils of his beloved’s tresses. However, rather than seek to “conquer” her curls in the way of Ghalib, he instead acknowledges her complexity, her unattainability, and his utter defeat. At the same time, he cannot help but long for her eyes that are a sea which stills time and mirrors himself and his creations. And perhaps a mirror is all he has been seeking: “[W]ho from love has found anything beyond self?” Rashid writes. To truly understand Hassan, we must see him as a god who creates pots from dust and water — the same stuff that the Qur’anic God has used to create the human body. His own body, thus, is projected onto the bodies of the pots, and they, in turn, reflect his own image. He seeks a mirror, a witness, a devotee — but there is more to his desire than conceit. In such a lover, he knows, is the secret of life: someone who will add moisture to his dust, turn it to clay, and revive him. Instead, much in the way the ghazal’s aashiq, or lover, meets his destruction, we see Hassan’s body, too, wasting away in desire, his pots shattering to pieces.
A Nostalgist’s Map of America by Agha Shahid Ali
With Agha Shahid Ali, our discussion of Urdu poetry comes, to some degree, full-circle. In the epigraph of his poem, “From Another Desert,” he translates a verse by Ghalib, gesturing toward the violence the lover inevitably meets in his passion for the beloved.
Footprints of blood in the path I traveled
lit up the desert, a track of crimson pearls.
The poem begins with a devastating separation and a portrait of ruin. This theme runs through the poem; it is the fate of the legendary lover Majnoon, and all true lovers that have followed him. Here too, the body serves primarily as a spectacle of destruction, and in its ruin is the avowal of the greatest passion. “I’m waiting / for a greater madness,” Majnoon says, “to declare / myself / the Hangman.” To love, to truly strive toward an ideal, is to abandon oneself, to see the body as purely material and thus irrelevant to one’s ideals. In this way, Majnoon is the epitome of the ghazal lover, and perhaps, as well, a model for N. M. Rashid’s Hassan Kuzagar. Throughout Ali’s poem, his blood — which lights up the desert, a blazing fire — is written as ink upon the page, in the end an expression of his love. The desert provides a space for the passion to manifest itself, a canvas for the lover to express his desire, and an infinity he is able to pierce with cries, but also a void where he remains unheard by anyone, least of all his beloved Laila. Yet on the cosmic scale, and throughout the course of history, Majnoon’s struggle — and his body itself — serve as microcosms. In Ali’s eyes, as in Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s, the lover is also the revolutionary, and the Beloved a beautiful woman, Revolution, or God Himself —
his back broken by a giant teardrop
inside it the ruins of Jerusalem or Beirut
or another rival to the garden of Paradise
where his heart broke and broke centuries ago
Majnoon laments that there are not enough true lovers, and that when there is no one to mirror or worship them, the gods, too, wither away. The gods’ inner demise is reflected in their own “broken flesh.” This, perhaps, is the appeal of the stone idols — the fact that they are corporeal, which endows them with a vulnerability, a capacity for collapse. God, unseen, untouchable, rules humans without providing us with a physical reality toward whom we can direct our devotions, claims a perfection that is beyond our comprehension. Sometimes, it is difficult to know if He is listening. Legend has it that Majnoon worshipped Laila because in her, he saw God’s physical manifestation. And once he saw Him, he set out on the path to slay his own ego, destroy his own Self.
travels the length of age, then receives
a faint reply:
You have conquered a curl, at last.
how long I’ve traveled your tresses,
their black thick as night
forest of tangled twisting thoughts:
hip to waist,
along the length of the back
to the neck —made of softest light —
but before I could reach your temple's summit,
my breath collapsed.
I fell, clutching just a lock of your hair.
Adeeba Shahid Talukder is a Pakistani American poet and translator. She translates Urdu and Persian poetry, and cannot help but bring elements from these worlds to her own work in English. Her chapbook What Is Not Beautiful is forthcoming through Glass Poetry Press and her book Shahr-e-jaanaan: The City of the Beloved is a winner of the Kundiman Prize and is forthcoming through Tupelo Press.