Interrogating a Poet

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

6a017ee9ca5f10970d01a3fcdf1181970bYou write of your country as if from a great distance.

Distance is journey’s squinting twin; it courts vision. My country, you will understand, came from vision’s egg. It came from a dreamer of journeys—a poet who entertained nightly the spirits of distant poets: Plato, Ghazali, Rumi, Hafiz, Goethe— sojourners all. What distilled from their vapor was the map of my country.

You can find black and white reels of the millions who made the journey into this dreamer’s land—on trains, oxcarts, on foot. Jour is day, and journey, the work wheel with dreams for spokes we turn daily.

The souring of his dream may also be seen best on a journey; myopic distance fusing radii surreptitiously, organically— vision brought into clear focus: New hay turning into gold— new sweat.

We learn to avoid shadows. We walk in the light cast by our own missteps.

Why must you always talk about the past?

Time is an unattached door. It opens unexpectedly and remains open only for those who know to sing to the pastpresentfuture and work their own destiny.

Note that we make the journey in retrograde motion, like planets, or better, like Khwaja Nasruddin, the real father of the fabliau, who preferred to travel facing the opposite way, and traveled by donkey— a beast that served as his alter ego: humble, comical, industrious, stubborn and forgiving of the burden it carried. Khwaja was anything but backward in thinking. His grip on perspective was firm, wrestler-like. He lived in a time similar to our own: too slick, too beautiful, too cunning and cruel. Even the Sufis were bending their wisdom to suit desires, poisoning watchdogs so as to steal past the sleeping soul. Khwaja the buffoon made whole villages roar with laughter at his antics until they cried. They understood soon and they understood well that they were crying and laughing at themselves. Khawja was a saint, a sufi of the future—his way of entering the future was to survey the scenes he passed, to grin at tradition and poke the prides of the day. By stoking the past, he lit up the future. The poet looks for just that kind of transformation, in slow time, “civilizational” time. New time is a mirage, a blind dash. In the words of an American sage, the poet Roethke: “Art is the means we have of undoing the damage of haste. It's what everything else isn't.”

But a country in crisis, such as yours, has no use for poetry.

When in distress, we turn to words that vivify us. This energy is ours and ours alone. We put it to work.

Poetry turns a stampede into a dance. It rings the only bell we can all hear.