Between grief and optimism

Harris Khalique’s latest collection of English poetry chronicles our times like none other, Farman Ali writes

Between grief and optimism
Distinguished English and Urdu poet Harris Khalique had his latest collection of verse in English hit the stands amidst raving reviews. The collection No Fortunes to Tell signifies the evolution of his craft with an interplay of intimate personal feelings and reflections on the larger human condition — from Waziristan to Balochistan to Aleppo and Yemen to Kashmir and Sehwan Sharif.

“This slim volume brings together a decade of poetic responses to our lives and our societies torn by massive oppression and senseless violence,” the poet said in a conversation with llona Yusuf, a noted editor and poet in her own right, during the Islamabad launch of the book recently. For Khalique, poetry remains his prime concern, although he has produced columns and essays which are published in leading newspapers and magazines nationally and internationally.

Title: No Fortunes to Tell
Publishers: Folio Books, Lahore
Pages: 88
Price: PKR 595/-

Omar Perez, leading Spanish poet and scholar and the son of revolutionary icon Ernesto Che Guevara, writes that Harris Khalique has this self-contained mastery and almost magical crudity of poetical observation that highlights the contrasts between the official and the untold story of humanity.

Creative writing and indulging in different forms of art is a family tradition handed down to Khalique by his illustrious parents – his father being the eminent writer and pioneering filmmaker the late Khalique Ibrahim Khalique (to whom he has dedicated a poem in eight parts) and his mother the writer and translator Hamra Khalique.

His English poetry – anthologized internationally – is more inspired by what he learned through English rather than the poetry written in English. For instance, there are visible influences of modern Polish, Spanish, African, Arabic and Persian poetry. “It may be a commonality in social and political experience that influenced his liking for these literatures,” according to Ilona Yusuf. But it can also be observed that Khalique’s sensibility is firmly rooted in the South Asian experience of writing verse and his lyrical prowess in English is enriched by his study and writing of verse in our local languages.

Many of his poems are like stories. When Yusuf asked the poet about the source of his inspiration, he was frank in pointing out that while aesthetics matter to him, it is real political events and the suffering humanity endures as a consequence of these events that have most deeply influenced his work – particularly in this collection. He said that his poetry is one humble attempt to remind the Powers That Be across the world that art has the capacity to bear witness to and chronicle this suffering and consequently subvert power.

Khalique responded to a question about the nature of resistance in his work – new to Pakistani English poetry in this particular idiom and at this scale – that he doesn’t think that his work is politically motivated, but rather that it has political content.
After the massacre
night has fallen –
moonless and dry

let us collect
the scattered body parts
it’s easier, less painful
under the dark sky
an arm cannot be made from a leg
fingers from toes
a child’s torso
from a big man’s thigh

but what about the head?
a head is a head
whether living or dead

“My motivations are purely creative and aesthetic and the collection covers a range of topics including purely personal or love poems. But certainly, this collection is dominated by what one describes as war poems and resistance poetry. Because how can any creative writer keep his or her eyes closed and ears plugged?”

A work of art has to be a work of art first and foremost and a poem has to be a poem first and last. If it is not pleasing to your senses, it should touch you in some other way or shock you or make you feel differently. It is incidental whatever theme or style you choose, he further explained.

About making the choice to write in English in Pakistan, he says that it is natural for him to write in more than one language and there is neither anything contradictory nor exotic about it. He thinks content is more important. “Owing to our multilingual heritage some of us are still capable of simultaneously thinking in more than one language and create different worlds in parallel. It expands your horizons”, he believes.

Navid Shahzad confirms in her introduction to the book that translating interiority into a language other than his mother tongue, Harris Khalique turns bravely from a first culture to a second without in any way sacrificing the first. There is this distinct wildness in his voice as he challenges the reader with intricate, unforced poetry which is both intellectually demanding and emotively nostalgic, she says. Shahzad finds Khalique’s voice both a lament and a celebration of life.
Omar Perez, leading Spanish poet and scholar and the son of revolutionary icon Ernesto Che Guevara, writes that Harris Khalique has this self-contained mastery and almost magical crudity of poetical observation that highlights the contrasts between the official and the untold story of humanity

Khalique has published several collections of verse previously and two books of non-fiction. He has written in English and Urdu while occasionally composing poetry in Punjabi. One of his books in Urdu received the UBL Literary Excellence Award and the collection of essays Crimson Papers: Reflections on Struggle, Suffering, and Creativity in Pakistan became one of the bestsellers from amongst the Oxford University Press publications dedicated to the 70 years of Pakistan’s independence.

But, to me, the present collection has a different feeling about it with such powerful and vivid imagery and a deep compassion for the victims of violence and those belonging to the working class. While there is a much broader range of subjects in Urdu and other Pakistani languages available to us, it is rare to find such work in our tradition of English poetry. His rather longish poems in multiple parts, ‘Sehwan Sharif’ and ‘Six Emirs’, provide us with a cinematic view of Pakistan’s people and their suffering and our politics and its machinations.

Dr Tariq Rahman recently wrote that he considers Harris Khalique a major Pakistani English language poet and his latest book to be more than a milestone in our literary journey. He recommends his work to all readers and hopes that our educational institutions start teaching the works of Pakistani English-language poets to students who might know what the notes say about the poets of World War I such as Siegfried Sassoon but nothing about the Sasoons of their own land.