Recommending Sarmad Sehbai’s last collection of poems, Pal Bhar Ka Bahisht, Mohammed Hanif said, “Sarmad’s poetry should be read at every Friday sermon. We as a nation will feel much better.”
While the causal connection between national psychic health and poetry is not exactly obvious it might be well worth something to ask: What healing power do Sehbai’s poems command that can cure our sickness? And what might be this disease anyway that afflicts us to a point of ignorance?
Unlike other poets, whose works can be mapped onto a trajectory of development,Sehbai’s astonishing poetry shows a consistency of voice and quality. His output is small but consistently of a high standard from which he hardly ever falters. The volume under review, his third collection of poems, Mäh-e ‘Uryãñ, is an occasion to celebrate his work.
Sehbai’s poetic project lies in the exploration of the self and the world through the vitality of human touch – ätish-i lams së gul hai varnã l khäk së naqsh ubhartë kaisë? This is the beating heart of his originality. Reading his newest collection of verse, one feels coming into contact with an exuberance that is markedly absent from our daily discourse, and even literature.
There is an ecstatic celebration of the body, intense attention toward subjects that are commonly shunned, and unfailing awareness of the frivolousness of existence itself.The body a wilting presence in Urdu poetry’s blistering landscape of masculine abstractions: nation, nationalism, great men, even a select group of birds and animals (see:Shaheen, sher, bulbul, etc) – finds its élan in Sehbai’s work.
In an essay on Miraji’s work, he assailed this domineering tendency of the cerebral in Urdu poetry: “Iqbal, in his dazzling flights of consciousness, was pursuing an ideal man who soared above the waist, while the Progressives romanced the masses to idealise the universal Proletariat… The new Adam of Iqbal and the universal Proletariat were not of flesh and blood but disembodied haloes of cerebral inventions. In their utopian heights, man was not discovered on earth but in heaven, and their paradisiacal bliss was an escape from the original sin of the body. With the loss of the instinctual being … essence had become prior to existence. Such was the schizophrenia of the early 20th century.”
Sehbai rebels against this schizophrenia. He doesn’t instrumentalise poetry to make claims for nation, class or the rights of the marginalised. He doesn’t seek to speak on behalf of anyone. His poetry is precisely the opposite of an instrument. For him, the intellect is a source of tyranny: it is a colonising tool which seeks to control and discipline human subjects. The body, on the other hand, is life-giving; its mystery is beyond the intellect’s power to subjugate. It subverts the iron-clad schemes of the intellect to enslave it.
His language, consequently, is rooted in the warm loams of the human touch; it shuns the abstraction of symbols and embraces the caress and texture of the tangible.Not surprising then to think that ‘transgression’ is the most oft-quoted term in critical commentary on Sehbai’s work.
His poetry is an embodied force: restless, probing, searching, breaking out of shapes imposed upon it by contraptions of thought, and splitting its own way through these narrow detention units of being. It scoffs at our ridiculous concerns for societal norms and propriety, storms the safe houses of our puny hearts and lifts us to a place that is impersonal, unfamiliar, and yes, unnerving.
His poems – smeared with his fingerprints, the bloody agony and delights of the flesh are earthy, soiled with grime and the muck of life, and suggest other ways of inhabiting the world. Poem after poem, one is left with no doubt that this is one of our great poets at the height of his powers.The aspect of Sehbai’s work that has yet to receive its due consideration is his haunting portrayal of the urban environment.
His poetry fulfils Neruda’s ideal of impure poetry where “one sees the confused impurity of the human condition, the massing of things, the use and disuse of substance, footprints and fingerprints,the abiding presence of the human engulfing all artefacts, inside and out […] Let that be the poetry we search for: worn with the hand’s obligations, as by acids, steeped in sweat and in smoke, smelling of the lilies and urine, spattered diversely by the trades that we live by, inside the law or beyond it.” Sehbai’s focus on the body leads him to a bleak vision of our urban life where possibilities of renewal, joy and physical intimacy are actively thwarted and people are left imprisoned in the crushing ennui of their routines.
The cityscapes in his work are littered with frustrated male desire, the fading intimacy between lovers, and unforgettable portraits of people we’d do everything to look away from. Two poems, both entitled ‘Portrait’, in his last two collections one, about a beggar woman who wanders outside Queen Mary School with a ghost child in her arms; and another, about a beggar woman seen outside Pak Tea House are small master pieces.To be sure, his poetry is about pleasure deep, unreserved pleasure but it would be an injustice to the refinement of his sensibility to regard his work as individualistic. It is not hedonistic pleasure that he seeks. The commentaries on his work often overlook that bodily contact in his poetry is a way to inhabit a disenchanted world. The intimacy that he surrenders himself to makes him grasp ordinary life in a rapturous embrace, opens new grounds of experiencing a wretchedly dismal reality and quite of ten also leads to suffering. But this mode of existence allows for an openness that is more expansive, more accommodating of difference than ideas propagated by the prophets of religion, peace and tolerance in our day. It also allows him to reach out to the Other, which is constructed by the exclusionary abstractions of nation, race, class, gender, and sexuality, and break open a different space for communion.
It leads him to discover original subjects which are rendered legible and communicative with his touch. A poem that I have revisited over the years is ‘God’, in Pal bhar ka bahisht which inhabits the flowering body of a pregnant woman. It is easily one of the finest poems in contemporary Urdu.
Sehbai’s triumph in a small oeuvre of three published volumes of poetry is that he has found language and imagery so original, so sensual that it has a curative power for us who are choking blood in the acidic stink of cerebral abstractions. Against the rigidities of thought, he celebrates everything that lies outside the clutches of rational abstractions. Yes, his work ought to be read aloud not only as Friday sermons but also as our new national anthems, to which we could sing, dance, and live. Dawn Books
By Sarmad Sehbai
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