Monday, February 15, 2016

A Book of Migrations: Thoughts on 'Peripheries' by Sophia Ali Pandeya

A Book of Migrations: Thoughts on Peripheries by Sophia Ali Pandeya, Cyberhex Press, 2015

“Why is the measure of love loss?” (Jeanette Winterson, Written On the Body)

“Beyond memory and time lost. I am not even speaking of an ultimate unveiling, but of what will have remained alien, for all time, to the veiled figure, to the very figure of the veil. This desire and promise let all my specters loose. ” (Jacques Derrida, Monolingualism of the Other)

Viyogi hoga pahla kavi,
 Aah se upaja hoga gaan,
 Nikalkar aankhon se chupchaap
 Bahi hogi kavita anjaan
[The world’s first poet must have been some lover separated from his beloved, his sigh must have given rise to the lyric, and poetry, unknown until then, must have flowed through his eyes.]
(Sumitra Nandan Pant)

 Many of us who reflect on the tortuous tangle of discourses which characterize postmodernity have a tendency, I think sometimes, to forget the sheer affective power of critical concepts which once opened up to us, and still hold open for us, ways of seeing, reading and understanding without which we would be incapable of making even a little sense of our lived experience. Some literary theorists might raise an eyebrow at that last sentence, but for me, as a poet, it is important to actually align the usually minor, felt dramas of my dailiness, my experiential lifeworld, with the conceptual activities which rend the veil to make such dramas visible and lisible in their embodied actuality; as a prelude, perhaps, to being writable. And for me, one of the most active of those concepts is hybridity.
 It is a concept with which Postcolonial theory is so thoroughly imbued that it’s quite easy to let its seeming jargonistic flatness overshadow the sheer rightness of its descriptive and analytical power. While on one level the notion of hybrid, drawn from biology, can be seen as a straightforward metaphor for any kind of cultural mixing, in Homi Bhabha’s original use of the term he identified hybridity as a subversive tool by which colonized peoples might challenge various forms of colonial oppression.  “It becomes crucial,” he writes

to distinguish between the semblance and similitude of the symbols across diverse cultural experiences – literature, art, music, ritual, life, death – and the social specificity of each of these productions of meaning as they circulate as signs within specific contextual locations and social systems of value. The transnational dimension of cultural transformation – migration, diaspora, displacement, relocation – makes the process of cultural translation a complex form of signification. The natural(ized), unifying discourse of nation, peoples, or authentic folk tradition, those embedded myths of cultures particularity, cannot be readily referenced. The great, though unsettling, advantage of this position is that it makes you increasingly aware of the construction of culture and the invention of tradition.[i]

  To read Sophia Pandeya’s poetry is have a singular experience of hybridity in all of its affective, subversive energy. In Peripheries, amazingly her first collection of poetry, she embraces the poetics of her own “mongrel flair”(p.58) to give us poems whose linguistic lushness is as challenging as it is enticing. The challenge comes from three rich sources: etymology, the traditions of Urdu poetry, and a poetic practice which time and again unsettles the reader with its imaginative leaps across place, time, and languages, and its burrowings into the warp and weft of how meanings are woven and rewoven. These poems are constantly asking us to consider our own hybridity, what history and geography have grafted onto whatever we think of as our roots, what we have gained, what we have lost, what we can reach back and retrieve, what is irretrievable. What Sophia Pandeya has invented, then, is a way of writing where migration is both theme and practice, a migratory poetry which lays bare the currents and eddies of the waters on which it sails. At once deeply personal and exemplary in their cultural questionings, these poems invite us to think and live wildly at the only place where wild living, playing and thinking are possible—the periphery, which the political and linguistic center is always trying to repress, trying to purify, trying to unthink.
 Sometimes poets’ commentaries on their own work can be superfluous or even misleading, but Pandeya begins this book with a short Introduction which seems both necessary and illuminating. The reality of writing for a largely anglophone audience with no knowledge of Urdu, Hindi, and Farsi, of India and Pakistan and their literary traditions and history, is that a few basic signposts can direct a reader to what is at stake in the specific hybrid efflorescence of the poems. And so, by being given the lineaments of the poet’s migratory life, being told of the literal and metaphorical borders she skirts and crosses, including her claiming and reclaiming of an elemental female power, and by highlighting the fraught politics of linguistic identities, she prepares us to enter the labyrinth of the writing to come.
 But, actually, nothing can prepare us for this writing. For Pandeya, using a huge array of the technical resources of contemporary American poetry, gives us poems that sound, feel, and tease us into and out of thought like those of no one else whose work I’m aware of. I must stress that this is not because of some “exotic” “fusion” of poetic practices but rather comes from the invention and exploration of a sensibility committed to a dynamic interplay of all that has marked (even scarred) her living, breathing, singing, dancing lifeworld. Nothing is ever really lost in the worlds of Pandeya’s poetry; but reclaiming the past through language is not, for her, like finding artifacts in an archaeological dig. Rather, the past comes back through a poetic language which, while carrying with it the jewels and detritus of contested histories, is alive, responsive, and psychologically and spiritually active in the now. It is, in short, a language that is wildly performative in the sense that Bhabha stresses: “Terms of cultural engagement, whether antagonistic or affiliative, are produced performatively. The representation of difference must not be hastily read as the reflection of pre-given ethnic or cultural traits set in the fixed tablet of tradition.”[ii] In Pandeya’s poems it is Urdu often which leaps out of the English matrix to both acknowledge and contest what passes for Tradition, converting that noun into something multiple, polyglot, and polyphonic. In a way, Urdu itself in this book is a metaphor for the vagaries of what gets handed down in traditions. Etymologically derived from the Persian phrase zabān-e-urdū “language of the camp”, it developed, after the start of the 7th century CE Muslim invasions of the northwestern parts of the Indian subcontinent, as a lingua franca among the occupying armies and the Hindustani-speaking population of the region around Delhi. Thus, strictly speaking, Urdū simply means “camp”; and so pulsing under the surface of the name of the language is a sense of the temporary, the unsettled, and the contingent: tents, huts, caravans, for soldiers, refugees, and migrants.
 The short poem ‘Soz
’(p.45) is in many ways exemplary of how Pandeya goes about performing her acts of self-creation and self-understanding through her own poetic language:

She dwells in iris, of urdu
nargisi necropolis, mirror
of history’s orb webs
time she telescopes by tilsim
plumes a mane of dust to dirge
alaap of alif’s spindling syllable
glossolalia leaps a gap, gulps
an ossuary fire, soz of wish-bone.

  Before glossing the Urdu words, it is worth the non-Urdu-speaking reader allowing them to persist as sound, as alien[iii] signifiers yearning for signifieds, as placeholders for an as yet unveiled meaning, as invitations to travel beyond the comforts of English and in the process finding English itself alien and strange in its own materiality. It worth pointing out too that the syntax and enjambments of this poem will not let the reader simply flit through it; from the start the reader gets entangled in its syntactical web, turning and returning to each phrase and line as meanings multiply and ramify. And the rich English diction, wearing its Greek etymologies on its sleeve, amplifies this sense of almost endless meanings striking sparks from their clashing encounters with each other.
 The Urdu itself participates here, as in many of this book’s poems, in a function similar to what Agha Shahid Ali, following Edward Saïd, called a “contrapuntal rhetoric”.Talking about his poetic sequence ‘In Search of Evanescence’, Ali says read something with several things happening simultaneously. It’s not just
the death of a friend, a simple elegy, but the death of tribes, the death of landscapes and the death of a language. All these things happen simultaneously to create a density...[iv]

  Dare I say it, though, Pandeya’s poems take this a step further than Ali often does by not allowing her passion for a lost homeland, landscape, literary culture, language, mythology and music to fall into an evocation of an idealized past world to set against an uncertain and tumultuous present. Rather, her poetic practice is an act of rescuing from various traditions what can be used to contest the most destructive narratives of the present. Urdu language and culture don’t simply appear in these poems as an unproblematic, lost “good”; rather, Pandeya’s Urdu words flash into the present as residual sparks of all those past struggles which might sustain us in thinking ourselves through to a better future.[v]
 In “Soz” (“Burning Passion”), for example, the Urdu enters into energetic etymological play with English near-homonyms or even words with straightforward alliterative links. In the first line the word “iris” (from the Greek meaning “rainbow”) is syntactically aligned with “urdu” to suggest a vision of unity in diversity, while the second line’s “nargisi” (meaning “narcissistic”, and coming into Urdu as a borrowing from Greek and English, and related to narké, “sleep, numbness” ) qualifies the Greek/English “necropolis” to suggest the deadly self-obsession of monumental memorials; meanwhile the syntactic structure of  the entire couplet warns against a simple self-glorification of Urdu literary culture itself. It is by the tilism (“enchantment”) of writing (with a pun on “plumes”), of writing poetry that the saving parts of the past can be seen from the distance of the present, can become authentic lamentation for the lost. All this, the poem suggests, is an opening dialogue (alaap means both “conversation” and the “preparatory tuning” before a poetic performance; while alif is the letter “a”, the beginning) with history. In a  leap of inspired speech the poem sets fire to the bones of the dead to light the way to a deeply desired future burning inside the very bones of the living.
 While “Soz” conceals a wildness inside its seemingly neat couplets, it is in a poem like “Neelum” (“Sapphire”) (p.37) where Pandeya sets off on a marvellously wild journey fueled by her fearlessness in forging connections across languages, places, times, cultures and subcultures. Even the title itself has a delicious density, denoting the blue of sapphire, which will figure throughout the poem, but also evoking the neelum-pari, part of the race of  winged, superhuman, fairylike female beings so prevalent in Urdu romances where they often come into the human world to set human beings on quests. In fact, as Pandeya tells us in her introduction, the title of the entire collection, ‘Peripheries’, plays with the name of the magical Pari in its “Peri” element; and in this particular poem the second element of “pheries” is what energizes the wandering narrative through etymological links to notions of roaming, the far shore, otherness and pariah.
 One of the remarkable things about “Neelum” is how it enacts liminality and interpenetration, exile and hybridity on so many levels. From its opening question it begins an almost breathless rush onward, deliberately evoking hysteria, the “wandering womb”[vi], and reclaiming it poetically from masculinist pathologizing to set it as a vital response to, a striking back at the violence of imposed order and mythical purity. Summoning up Arachne, the poem weaves together, a host of mythologies, countries, cities, and people to recover and “celebrate/ that which is broken/ midstream” (p.38), but also to lament the forces that do the breaking; and lament might be the dominant tone. The desire for a cultural inclusiveness that will not smother the rich particularity of any source is nowhere better put than in these lines, so rich in their linguistic inventiveness (the true source of their hopes) but full of weeping:

                                    Hikmet weeps oceans
            of verse but all his pigeon grey tears
            are bayoneted leaflets you try to fashion
            into lifeboats but still they flock about you, capsized
            as only small print could be
            Every drowning is a dove
            of yesterday’s newspaper she folds
            the dead up like origami and sleeps
            in their sheet. There, you have your lapel
            a flower pinned neatly down. She is a specimen. You are a Phd
            crossing the throat of the Bosphorus
            ever so calmly
            While she is Googoosh, ghost that rewinds
            like all nightingales mirabilis
            in little plastic attics, inhales
            relic as corsage of static’s kiss
            and evening’s industrial duckling melts
            wafts of night waxing in the wings
            flight of memory’s plane is Icarus
            ululating yellow taxi, land-
            locked lip to plumb
            mouths of gaps

 From poet Nazim Hikmet, exiled and stripped of his Turkish citizenship, to popular singer Googoosh, staying in Iran after the 1979 revolution but retreating for years to the interior exile of silence—in the politics of purity there is no distinction between “high” and “low” culture; there is only the static hiss of an anxious, forced unanimity drowning out all kinds of otherness. A deathly planetary monolingualism.
 Clearly this poem in its complex language and syntax is striving to undo the spiritual ruin it is describing. And that ambition on behalf of poetry, the real sense that this is what poetry ought to be doing is constant in ‘Peripheries’. The poems in this book plant themselves on the side of a hard-won love of the world in all of its fleeting graces, and that love is won in and through poetry itself. In the poem “Scheherazade”(p.33) the speaker “At twenty, tiring/ of made up stories...”  tells us of the conflicting etymologies she teases out of the name; “Sheher-azade: She-who-set-the-city-free” and “Sheher-zade:”. And she goes on:

Well, I tell you now
I have swallowed both meanings,
that minaret sword, that fruited sun,
an inverted dome, a weeping onion
shedding all my skins,
one by silent one...

 As story-making beings we are always bound and unbound at the same time; our inherited cultural narratives always shape and make a claim on our personal narratives, and it is no easy thing to forge an identity which acknowledges the claims of countries, religions, histories and families while striving for individuation. Pandeya knows this, and in poem after poem she takes the difficult path of not accepting the inevitability of some self-justifying historical narrative and accepts the cost. Referencing Lot’s wife in the poem “Ado” (p.14-15), the speaker wants

To mourn, to pour
a mouthful of swallows
rebel syllable of Bangla, glissando
from your tongue’s hidden corridor
heirloom of childhood’s
last encore, to pour
to open this door,
with much ado, like her
who did not listen
& looked back once more.

 It is not a question of going “home”. Rather it is a question of being at home in the fact of one’s nomadic existence, of scattering and gathering, collecting and recollecting the innumerable others out of which one makes a self. Perhaps, to adopt a pun which Pandeya might like, it is to be a “Sevillian”. In a stunning group of poems, ‘Seville Sequences’ (p.27), full of Lorcaesque gorgeousness, one poem stands out for me as maybe an emblem for this book and what it tries to achieve. “Melisma” (p.31) references the voice modulation often used in flamenco song where a series of notes are sung on a single syllable, that syllable being the still heart-axis about which turns the yearning world:

on certain uncertain bone
chipped plastic tables  lies a lone
blood red paper shell
crushed, consummated empty as a siesta
Senor Tabac mourns his warning: la muerte lente
y dolorosa
… O, to die

in the arms of such a language

  In ‘Peripheries’, Sophia Pandeya might just have created poems in such a language.

(c) Ger Killeen, 2016

[i] Bhabha, Homi, ‘The Location of Culture’, Routledge 1994, p.247
[ii] Bhabha, Homi, ibid., p. 3
[iii] I’m using “alien” here almost in the way Bakhtin uses the phrase “alien word” throughout his later work.
[iv] quoted in Chambers, Claire, and Caroline Herbert ‘Imagining Muslims in South Asia and the Diaspora: Secularism, Religion, Representations’ (Routledge, 2014), n.p.
[v] I’m perfectly aware of the Benjaminian tone of this sentence.
[vi] kokh in line 4 means “womb or belly”.