Mansoora Ahmed’s poems : a critique
Dr Satyapal Anand
The article was written back in 1999. A part of it was published in Urdu Alive. Late Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi and Mansoora Ahmed were on a trip to USA and after a few days‘ stay in Chicago at Iftikhar Nasim (Ifti)’s place, came over to stay with me at my humble abode in Herndon, a suburb of Washington D.C. During their stay I translated some of Mansoora’s poems into English and also promised to write a critique. I could do so long after Qasmi Sahib’s demise. Mansoora had, by then, fallen on bad fortune. Her newly started magazine had not flourished and her office in her sister’s house in Lahore had been ransacked. I did what I could … and on her appeal sent her some money a few times from here, but….how long could one live on friends ‘charity? Like all romantic poets, she was destined to die young. I could condole her demise with no one else but with Gulzar, her favorite poet and personal friend … and no one else. (S.P.A.)
One usually begins to write with an idea or a feeling, or an experience in one’s daily life, says the classroom teacher in his introductory discourse to a group of young hopefuls in a Creative Writing Course. However, more often than not, out classroom prophet of poetry fails to elaborate on that. The most common urge to write a poem comes not from an abstract idea per se, but from feeling, an amorphous emotional state which the poet is compelled to cope with by rendering it into imaginative language. Thus the poem itself is therapeutic; it fulfills the emotional need of the poet. Even at the cost of being dubbed as an old foggy, I would still maintain that when a poet feels uncontrollably happy or melancholy, writing a poem may seem a means of bringing him back from chaos into some kind of cosmos – a cosmos of coherent relationship with the world. Catharsis is thus a double-edged weapon … تلوار دھاری دو ایک , the front edge is meant for the poet himself, not for the reader. The reader comes later.
Mansoora Ahmed’s poetry is an exquisite example of this truth. Let’s take one of the recurring subjects in her poems –that she has never had the childhood every other child enjoys, thus having been robbed of her age of innocence ere it started. Now when this blue mood strikes, she has two ways of giving it a poetic ventilation – either to bemoan the fact in a straight statement-like announcement or to employ a bunch of images, flower-like in their bouquet arrangement and present it as much to the readers as to herself. One might say that in doing so she finds a certain pleasure in the exquisite torture of her feelings, but she yearns for an end, even a violent and painful end – to her intolerable melancholy. And she writes.
All my debts have been discharged
And yet I have a misgiving
Even after having robbed me of all my tender shoots
The soil of life is still seer and dry!
It’s said everyone has a childhood
Who, indeed, is the one
That demands from me
My broken dolls
My toys and my balloons?
It s said
Life begins with childhood
When would my life begin.
“ I never played with dolls. “
‘Tender shoots’’, in the context of the metaphor of plant growth, and dolls, toys, balloons in the content of simple childhood objective correlatives show a predilection to romanticizing a subject. Indeed, nostalgia is romantic, particularly when it relates to a confessional or autobiographical detail.
Such unrelieved romanticism might be out of favour with today’s critic, and stanzas like this might seem too self-indulgently sentimental, but the use of what Eliot calls objective correlative, that is, by seeking equivalent of a clinical state of mind with something outside it, particularly in ‘nature ‘(tender shoots) makes it transcend the level of feeling to become a shared experience with the reader. It no longer remains merely romantic, merely nostalgic, a mere indulgence in the luxury of grief, but becomes a shared commodity.
Like many of her senior poets, Mansoora also had her training in the earlier romantic or romanticized school of ‘Progressive ‘ poets that had come out of the forest of wild growth of poetry right up to the sixties of the last century. Then came the period dominated by low-key protest poetry during Ziaul Haq’s dictatorship. I have return a few times earlier also that something happened to women poets of Pakistan in and around this period. It is an established fact of literary history that after 1947, while women poets in India, by and large remained much less concerned with projecting their feminist zeal, their counterpart in Pakistan gave a new tone and tenor to their utterances. The cause is not far to see.
The army ruler, in order to get the political support of the right-wing ulema to perpetuate his rule, imposed new laws that curbed the rising expectations of educated women to come into their own. Zohra Nigah, Kishwar Naheed and some others were in the mainstream, three decades ago, but Fehmida Riaz in Pakistan and Canada/USA based women poets like Nasim Syed and Humaira Rahman – and some others – did not lag behind in raising their voice of protest against the law-givers in giving the Aadhi Gawahi status to women. (Äadhi Gawahi “is Nasim Syed’s celebrated poem ). In Pakistan, this trend took the Urdu poetry by storm. As a movement it continues till today, though in a low key, but it did leave indelible impression on the current scene.
Mansoora Ahmed, I dare say, was not only a part of this movement but one of the better exponents of it.
The girl who sleeps wrapped up in dust
Has but taken her first breath of life
It’s today that she has broken
Her feet free of the Hades
Shackled by bonds and kinship.
“The Epitaph “
But, O Babaul of mine
The dry ground under my feet is thirsty
And the tears in my eyes have run dry
Paths are running ahead and away from me
And feet are getting weary
Come — give, if you would
A kiss to these fallow eyes of mine
And let them go to sleep –!
“I am Guilty “
And then it so transpired
When the torn stripes-woven night grew longer than life itself
I was ordered – “Poetise your dreams
Poetise your silken dreams with works of nights ‘s torn stripes.
How can I express my inability
Two write an account of strange lands
Because my eternally wide-awake eyes
Have never known green wreaths of dreams
I have lain awake from the first day of creation
Eyes wide open with splinters
Wide awake eyes never can have dreams
No flowers ever can bloom on trees of ice.
“Wide Awake Nights “
One might say that this is not the tone or tenor of a rebel, a woman poet out to declare her rebellion with a drum-beat. Indeed, yes. Mansoora is not a rebel in the accepted sense of the word. She uses the tone of irony and satire, but in doing so, romantic as she is, she draws from the repertory of love imagery … Love of a daughter for a father, a beloved for her lover, a woman for a man. The loftiness and dignity with which she undercuts her images gives them a life of their own.. there is no statement-like diatribe. Nonetheless, Mansoora’s feminism is different from her contemporary women poets of Pakistan in as much as she has an aversion to didacticism of plain slogan mongering. A good poem does not preach values so much as it demonstrates them. Mansoora’s poems are well-written, but their import remains unstated as pure undercurrent, a ghostly presence, like the spirit in the body, unseen yet dominating.
Once, one of my Hispanic students in the Major in Literature course wrote in one of her assignments. Ä poet should have sense of self for the inside, a sense of fact for the outside. “ I told her she was much nearer the truth than many a great critic of poetry. Here is a poem by Mansoora that typifies this truth.
Those whose laughter makes the earth
Blossom forth in flowers
Who have such a gift of singing
That even birds chirp on their tunes
To them it doesn’t behoove to be silent.
The whole earth is wrapped up in silence
Come, do naught else
But laugh at least once
Life would start flowing
In the frozen breath of the earth!