Tuesday, February 21, 2006


Tadeusz Rozewicz

Tadeusz Rozewicz (1921 -- ) is one of the most important and most influential Polish poets since World War II. University educated in art history, he fought in the Resistance against the Nazis; the horrors of that struggle marked him deeply and shaped his attitudes and beliefs. His bleak view of life revealed itself in his earliest poetry, work that dealt with the experiences of the war, as in the poem "The Survivor":

I am twenty-four
led to slaughter
I survived.

The following are empty synonyms:
man and beast
love and hate
friend and foe
darkness and light.

The way of killing men and beasts is the same
I've seen it:
truckfuls of chopped-up men
who will not be saved.

Ideas are mere words:
virtue and crime
truth and lies
beauty and ugliness
courage and cowardice.

Virtue and crime weigh the same
I've seen it:
in a man who was both
criminal and virtuous.

I seek a teacher and a master
may he restore my sight hearing and speech
may he again name objects and ideas
may he separate darkness from light.

I am twenty-four
led to slaughter
I survived.

(Translated by Adam Czerniawski)

He cultivated a plain, unadorned style which was intended to communicate as directly and uncompromisingly as possible the stark realities of human existence:

"In The Middle Of Life"

After the end of the world
after my death
I found myself in the middle of life
I created myself
constructed life
people animals landscapes

this is a table I was saying
this is a table
on the table are lying bread a knife
the knife serves to cut the bread
people nourish themselves with bread

one should love man
I was learning by night and day
what one should love
I answered man

this is a window I was saying
this is a window
beyond the window is a garden
in the garden I see an apple tree
the apple tree blossoms
the blossoms fall off
the fruits take form
they ripen my father is picking up an apple
that man who is picking up an apple
is my father
I was sitting on the threshold of the house

that old woman who
is pulling a goat on a rope
is more necessary
and more precious
than the seven wonders of the world
whoever thinks and feels
that she is not necessary
he is guilty of genocide

this is a man
this is a tree this is bread

people nourish themselves in order to live
I was repeating to myself
human life is important
human life has great importance
the value of life
surpasses the value of all the objects
which man has made
man is a great treasure
I was repeating stubbornly

this water I was saying
I was stroking the waves with my hand
and conversing with the river
water I said
good water
this is I

the man talked to the water
talked to the moon
to the flowers to the rain
he talked to the earth
to the birds
to the sky
the sky was silent
the earth was silent
if he heard a voice
which flowed
from the earth from the water from the sky
it was the voice of another man

(Translated by Czeslaw Milosz)

Nor can one turn to the various beliefs of the past for help in confronting the darkness:

"Homework Assignment on the Subject of angels"


flakes of soot
cabbage leaves stuffed
with black rice
they also resemble hail
painted red
blue fire
with a tongue of gold

fallen angels
moons that press
beneath the green nails of the dead

angels in paradise
resemble the inside of the thigh
of an adolescent girl

they are like stars
they shine in shameful places
they are pure like triangles and circles
they have in the middle

fallen angels
are like the open windows of a mortuary
like the eyes of cows
like the skeletons of birds
like falling airplanes
like flies on the lungs of fallen soldiers
like strings of autumn rain
that tie lips with a flight of birds

a million angels
over a woman's palm

they lack a navel
on sewing machines they type
long poems in the shape
of a white sail

their bodies can be grafted
on the stump of an olive tree

they sleep on ceilings
they fall drop by drop

(Translated by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire)

Love, too, is viewed darkly:

"Draft of a Modern Love Poem"

And yet white
is best described by gray
bird by stone
in December

love poems of old
were descriptions of the flesh
described this and that
for instance eyelashes

and yet red
should be described
by gray the sun by rain
poppies in November
lips by night

the most tangible
description of bread
is a description of hunger
in it is
the damp porous core
the warm interior
sunflowers at night
the breasts belly thighs of Cybele

a spring-clear
transparent description
of water
is a description of thirst
it produces a mirage
clouds and trees move into
the mirror

Lack hunger
of flesh
is a description of love
is a modern love poem

(Translated by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire)

Love, relationships -- these always culminate in separation, loss, absence:

"A Visit"

I couldn't recognize her
when I came in here
just as well it's possible
to take so long arranging these flowers
in this clumsy vase

'Don't look at me like that'
she said
I stroke the cropped hair
with my rough hand
'they cut my hair' she says
'look what they've done to me'
now again that sky-blue spring
begins to pulsate beneath the transparent
skin of her neck as always
when she swallows tears

why does she stare like that
I think I must go
I say a little too loudly

and I leave her,
a lump in my throat

(Translated by Adam Czerniawski)

Only rarely does life and the world offer us safety, protection, comfort:


My little son enters
the room and says
'you are a vulture
I am a mouse'

I put away my book
wings and claws
grow out of me

their ominous shadows
race on the walls
I am a vulture
he is a mouse

'you are a wolf
I am a goat'
I walked around the table
and am a wolf
windowpanes gleam
like fangs
in the dark

while he runs to his mother
his head hidden in the warmth of her dress

(Translated by Czeslaw Milosz)

Occasionally, the darkness of his view is lightened briefly by flashes of self-directed irony:

"Among Many Tasks"

Among many tasks
very urgent
I've forgotten that
it's also necessary
to be dying

I have neglected this obligation
or have been fulfilling it

beginning tomorrow
everything will change
I will start dying assiduously
wisely optimistically
without wasting time

(Translated by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire)

But ultimately man and his desires are defeated:


four drab women
Want Hardship Worry Guilt
wait somewhere far away

a person is born
starts a family
builds a home

the four ghouls
hidden in the foundations

they build for the person
a second home
a labyrinth
in a blind alley

the person lives loves
prays and works
fills the home with hope
tears laughter
and care

the four drab women
play hide-and-seek with him
they lurk in chests
wardrobes bookcases

they feed on gloves dust
kerosene mud
they eat books
fade drab and quiet
by icy moonlight
they sit on paper flowers
the children clap
trying to kill a moth
but the moths turn into silence
the silence into music

the four drab women wait

the person invites
other people
to christenings funerals
weddings and wakes
silver and gold anniversaries
the four drab women
enter the home uninvited
through the keyhole

first to appear is Guilt
behind her looms Worry
slowly there grows Want
baring her teeth comes Hardship

the home becomes a cobweb

in it are heard voices groans
gnashing of teeth

the awakened gods
drive off
importunate humans
and yawn

(Translated by Bill Johnston)

Friday, February 17, 2006


Christopher Okigbo

Christopher Okigbo (1932 - 1967) became the leading poet of Nigeria in the years prior to his death. His education at the University of Ibadan in classics provided him a solid background in European literature while his personal studies in African culture gave him a deep knowledge of indigenous literature, and his great gift was the ability to create a dynamic fusion of such disparate materials. He was raised as Catholic, but he was taught that he was in fact the reincarnation of his grandfather, a priest of the river goddess Idoto; almost certainly this awareness contributed to the form of his poetry, which is visionary, incantatory, at times almost ecstatic, in nature. In poems such as "Elegy of the Wind," he evokes reconciliation between past and present, between man and nature:

White light, receive me your sojourner; O milky way, let me clasp your waist;
And may my muted tones of twilight
Break your iron gate, the burden of centuries, into twin tremulous cotyledons . . .

Man of iron throat -- for I will make broadcast with eunuch-horn of seven valves --
I follow the wind to the clearing,
And with muffled steps seemingly out of breath break the silence the myth of her gate.

For I have lived the sapling sprung from the bed of the old vegetation;
Have shouldered my way through a mass of ancient nights to chlorophyll;

Or leaned upon a withered branch,
A blind beggar leaning on a porch.

I have lived the oracle dry on the cradle of a new generation . . .
The autocycle leans on a porch, the branch dissolves into embers,

The ashes resolve their moments
Of twin-drops of dew on a leaf:
And like motion into stillness is my divine rejoicing --
The man embodies the child
The child embodies the man; the man remembers
The song of the innocent,
Of the uncircumcised at the sight of the flaming razor --

The chief priest of the sanctuary has uttered the enchanted words;
The bleeding phallus,
Dripping fresh from the carnage cries out for the medicinal leaf . . .

O wind, swell my sails; and may my banner run the course of wide waters:

The child in me trembles before the high shelf on the wall,
The man in me shrinks before the narrow neck of a calabash;

And the chant, already all wings, follows
In its ivory circuit behind the thunder clouds.
The slick route of the feathered serpent . . .

He was particularly influenced in some of his work by T. S. Eliot, especially the Four Quartets:

"On the New Year"

Now it is over, the midnight funeral that parts
The old year from the new;
And now beneath each pew
The warden dives to find forgotten missals
Scraps of resolutions and medals;
And over lost souls in the graves
Amid the tangled leaves
The Wagtail is singing:
Cheep cheep cheep the new year is coming;
Christ will come again, the churchbell is tinging
Christ will come again after the argument in heaven
Christ . . . Nicodemus . . . Magdalen . . .
Dung dong ding . . .

And the age rolls on like a wind glassed flood,
And the pilgrimage to the cross is the void . . .

And into the time time slips with a lazy pace
And time into time
And need we wait while time and the hour
Roll, waiting for power?


To wait is to linger
With the hope that the flood will flow dry;
To hope is to point an expectant finger
At fate, fate that has long left us to lie
Marooned on the sands
Left with dry glands
To suckle as die.

Wait indeed, wait with grief laden
Hearts that throb like a diesel engine.
Throbbing with hopes:
Those hope of me those hopes that are nowhere,
Those nebulous hopes, sand castles in the air --

Wait and hope?
The way is weary and long and time is
Fast on our heels;
Or forces life to a headlong conclusion
Nor yet like crafty Heracles
Devolve on someone else
The bulk of the globe?


Where then are the roots, where the solution
To life's equation?

The roots are nowhere
There are no roots here
Probe if you may
From now until doomsday.

We have to think of ourselves as forever
Soaring and sinking like dead leaves blown by a gust
Floating choicelessly to the place where
Old desires and new born hopes like bubbles burst
Into nothing -- blown to the place of fear
To the cross in the void;
Or else forever playing this zero-sum game
With fate as mate, and forever
Slaying and mating as one by one
Our tombstones rise in the void.

He began writing and publishing poetry in 1958 and quickly became recognized as the leading poetic voice of Nigeria. In the years immediately following Nigeria's independence in 1960, as the political situation within Nigeria became increasingly chaotic, his interests extended to include political concerns, as one of his last poems shows:

"Elegy for Alto"
(With Drum Accompaniment)

the horn may now paw the air howling goodbye . . .

For the Eagles arfe now in sight:
Shadows in the horizon --

The ROBBERS are here in black sudden steps of showers, of caterpillars --

The EAGLES have come again,
The eagles rain down on us --

POLITICIANS are back in giant hidden steps of howitzers, of detonators --

The EAGLES descend on us,
Bayonets and cannons --

The ROBBERS descend on us to strip us of our laughter, of our thunder --

The EAGLES have chosen their game,
Taken our concubines --

POLITICIANS are here in this iron dance of mortars, of generators --

The EAGLES are suddenly there,
New stars of iron dawn;

So let the horn paw the air howling goodbye . . .

O mother mother Earth, unbind me, let this be my last testament; let this be
The ram's hidden wish to the sword the sword's secret prayer to the scabbard --

The ROBBERS are back in black hidden steps of detonators --

For BEYOND the blare of sirened afternoons, beyond the motorcades;
Beyond the voices and days, the echoing highways; beyond the latescence
Of our dissonant airs; through our curtained eyeballs, through our shuttered sleep,
Onto our forgotten selves, onto our broken images; beyond the barricades
Commandments and edicts, beyond the iron tables, beyond the elephant's
Legendary patience, beyond his inviolable bronze bust; beyond our crumbling towers --

BEYOND the iron path careering along the same beaten track --

The GLIMPSE of a dream lies smouldering in a cave, together with the mortally wounded birds.
Earth, unbind me; let me be the prodigal; let this be the ram's ultimate prayer to the tether . . .

An OLD STAR departs, leaves us here on the shore
Gazing heavenward for a new star approaching;
The new star appears, foreshadows its going
Before a going and coming that goes on forever . . .

When Biafra seceded from Nigeria in 1966 to form a nation largely of the Igbo people and the Nigerian government set out on a policy to starve Biafra into submission, Okigbo who was Igbo joined the Biafran army and requested a posting to the field rather than a secure position behind the lines; he was killed in August of 1967 during the defense of the university town of Nsukka.

There is an excellent biographical/historical/critical essay on Christopher Okigbo to be forund here.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


Carlos Drummond de Andrade

Carlos Drummond de Andrade (1902 - 1987) was the leading 20th century poet of Brazil. He earned a degree in pharmacology but went to work for the Ministry of Education where he remained until his retirement. Early in his career as a poet, he was part of a group, the Semana de Arte Moderna, who wanted to modernize Brazilian poetry through such techniqes as avant-gardism and surrealism but also through a focus on the real, the immediate, the tangible. One of his best-known works, "Seven-Sided Poem," illustrates his approach:

When I was born, one of the crooked
angels who live in shadow, said:
Carlos, go on! Be gauche in life.

The houses watch the men,
men who run after women.
If the afternoon had been blue,
there might have been less desire.

The trolleyt goes by full of legs:
white legs, black legs, yellow legs.
My God, why all the legs?
my heart asks. But my eyes
ask nothing at all.

The man behind the mustache
is serious, simple, and strong.
He hardly ever speaks.
He has a few, choice friends,
the man behind the spectacles and the mustache.

My God, why hast Thou forsaken me
if Thou kinew'st I was not God,
if Thou knew'st that I was weak?

Universe, vast universe,
if I had been named Eugene
that would not be what I mean
but it would go into verse
Universe, vast universe,
my heart is vaster.

I oughtn't to tell you,
but this moon
and this brandy
play the devil with one's emotions.

(Translated by Elizabeth Bishop)

Most often, his work concerns itself with loss, of love, family, history:

"Don't Kill Yourself"

Carlos, keep calm, love
is what you're seeing now:
today a kiss, tomorrow no kiss,
day after tomorrow's Sunday
and nobody knows what will happen

It's useless to resist
or to commit suicide.
Don't kill yourself. Don't kill yourself!
Keep all of yourself for the nuptials
coming nobody knows when,
that is, if they ever come.

Love, Carlos, tellurian, spent the night with you,
and now your insides are raising an ineffable racket,
saints crossing themselves,
ads for a better soap,
a racket of which nobody
knows the why or wherefore.

In the meantime you go on your way
vertical, melancholy.
You're the palm tree, you're the cry
nobody heard in the theatre
and all the lights went out.
Love in the dark, no, love
in the daylight, is always sad.,
sad, Carlos, my boy,
but tell it to nobody,
nobody knows nor shall know.

(Translated by Elizabeth Bishop)

Because of the loss of what passes through time, there is also nostalgia for what has been lost:


My father got on his horse and went to the field.
My mother stayed sitting and sewing.
My little brother slept.
A small boy alone under the mango trees,
I read the story of Robinson Crusoe,
the long story that never comes to an end.

At noon, white with light, a voice that had learned
lullabies long ago in the slave-quarters -- and never forg ot --
called us for coffee.
Coffee blacker than the balck old woman
delicious coffee
good coffee.

My mother stayed sitting and sewing
watching me:
Shh -- don't wake the boy.
She stopped the cradle when a mosquito had lit
and gave a sigh . . . how deep!
Away off there my father went riding
through the farm's endless wastes.

And I didn't know that my story
was prettier than that of Robinson Crusoe.

(Translated by Elizabeth Bishop)

"Souvenir of the Ancient World"

Clara strolled in the garden with the children.
The sky was green over the grass,
the water was golden under the bridges,
other elements were blue and rose and orange,
a policeman smiled, bicycles passed,
a girl stepped onto the lawn to catch a bird,
the whole world -- Germany, China --
-- all was quiet around Clara.

The children looked at the sky: it was not forbidden.
Mouth, nose, eyes were open. There was no danger.
What Clara feared were the flu, the heat, the insects.
Clara feared missing the eleven p'clock trolley:
She waited fro letters slow to arrive,
She couldn't always wear a new dress. But she strolled in the garden in the morning!
They had gardens, they had mornings in those days!

(Translated by Mark Strand)

There is also the need ultimately for acceptance of life's losses:

"Your Shoulders Hold Up the World"

A time come when you can no longer say:
-- my God.
A time of total cleaning up.
A time when you no longer can say: my love.
Because love proved useless.
And the eyes don't cry. And the hand do only rough work.
And the heart is dry.
Women knock at your door in vain, you won't open.
You remain alone, the light turned off,
and your enormous eyes shine in the dark.
It is obvious you no longer know how to suffer.
And you want nothing from your friends.

Who cares if old age comes, what is old age?
Your shoulders are holding up the world
and it's lighter than a child's hand.
Wars, famine, family fights inside buildings
prove only that life goes on
and not everybody has freed himself yet.
Some (the delicate ones) judging the spectale cruel
will prefer to die.
A time comes when death doesn't help
A time comes when life is an order.
Just life, without any escapes.

(Translated by Mark Strand)

But there is also a philosophical strain, especially in the later work, that focuses on what isn't lost, with both humor and gentle irony



From everything a little remained.
From my fear. From your disgust.
From stifled cries. From the rose
a little remained.

A little remained of light
caught inside the hat.
In the eyes of the pimp
a little remained of tenderness,
very little.

A little remained of the dust
that covered your white shoes.
Of your clothes a little remained,
a few velvet rags, very
very few.

From everything a little remained.
From the bombed-out bridge,
from the two blades of grass,
fromk the empty pack
of cigarettes a little remained.

So from everything a little remains.
A little remains of your chin
in the chin of your daughter.

A little remained of your
blunt silence, a little
in the angry wall,
in the mute rising leaves.

A little remained from everything
in porcelain saucers,
in the broken dragon, in the white flowers,
in the creases of your brow,
in the portrait.

Since from everything a little remains,
whon't a little
of me remain? In the train
traveling north, in the ship,
in newspaper ads,
why not a little of me in London,
a little of me somewhere?
In a consonant?
In a well?

Alittle remains dangling
in the mouths of rivers,
just a little, and the fish
don't avoid it, which is very unusual.

From everything a little remains.
Not much: this absurd drop
dripping from the faucet,
half salt and half alcohol,
this frog leg jumping,
this watch crystal
broken into a thousand wishes,
this swan's neck,
this childhood secret . . .
From everything a little remained:
from me; from you; from Abelard.
Hair on my sleeve,
from everything a little remained;
wind in my ears,
burbling, rumbling
from an upset stomach,
and small artifacts:
bell jar, honeycomb, revolver
cartridge, awpirin tablet.
From everything a little remained.

And from everything a little remains.
Oh, open the bottles of lotion
and smother
the cruel, unbearable odor of memory.

Still, horribly, from everything a little remains,
under the rhythmic waves
under the clouds and the wind
under the bridges and under the tunnels
under the flames and under the sarcasm
under the phlegm and under the vomit
under the cry from the dungeon, the guy they forgot
under the spectacles and under the scarlet death
under the libraries, asylums, victorious churches
under yourself and under your feet already hard
under the ties of family, the ties of class,
from everything a little always remains.
Sometimes a button. Sometimes a rat.

(Translated by Mark Strand)

It is particularly within the family that what isn't lost can be perhaps best seen and understood:

"Family Portrait"

Yes, this family portrait
is a little dusty.
The father's face doesn't show
how much money he earned.

The undles' hands dont reveal
the voyages both of them made.
The grandmother's smoothed and yellowed;
she's forgotten the monarchy.

The children, how they've changed.
Peter's face is tranquil,
that wore the best dreams.
And John's no longer a liar.

The garden's become fantastic.
The flowers are gray badges.
And the sand, beneath dead feet,
is an ocean of fog.

In the semicircle of armchairs
a certain movement is noticed.
The children are changing places,
but noiselessly! it's a picture.

Twenty years is a long time.
It can form any image.
If one face starts to wither,
another presents itself, smiling.

All these seated strangers,
my relations? I don't believe it.
They're guests amusing themselves
ina rarely-opened parlor.

Family features remain
lost in the play of bodies.
But there's enough to suggest
that a body is fullof surprises.

The frame of this family portrait
holds its personages in vain.
They're there voluntarily,
they'd know how -- if need be -- to fly.

They could confine themselves
in the room's chiaroscuro,
live inside the furniture
or the pockets of old waistcoats.

The house has many drawers,
papers, long staircases.
When matter becomes annoyed,
who knows the malice of things?

the portraint does not reply,
it stares; in my dusty eyes
it contemplates itself.
The living and dead relations

multiply in the glass.
I don't distinguish those
that went away jfrom those
that stay. I only perceive
the strange idea of family

traveling through the flesh.

(Translated by Elizabeth Bishop)

Finally, there is the view of man from a different kind of perspective:

"An Ox Looks at Man"

They are more delicate even than shrubs and they run
and run from one side to the other, always forgetting
something. Surely they lack I don't know what
basic ingredient, though they present themselves
as noble or serious, at times. Oh, terribly serious,
even tragic. Poor things, one would say that they hear
neither the song of air nor the secrets of hay;
likewise they seem not to see what is visible
and common to each of us, in space. And they are sad,
and in the wake of sadness they come to cruelty.
All their expression lives in their eyes -- and loses itself
to a simple lowering of lids, to a shoadow.
And since there is little of the mountain about them --
nothing in the hair or in the terribly fragile limbs
but coldness and secrecy -- it is impossible for them
to settle themselves into forms that are calm, lasting,
and necessary. They have, perhaps, a kind
of melancholy grace (one minute) and with this they allow
themselves to forget the problems and translucent
inner emptiness that make them so poor and so lacking
when it comes to unttering silly and painful sounds:
-- desire, love jealousy
(what do we know?) -- sounds that scatter and fall in the filed
like troubled stones and burn the herbs and the water,
and after this it is hard to keep chewing away at our truth.

(Translated by Mark Strand)

Tuesday, February 07, 2006


Faiz Ahmed Faiz

(Thanks to Harry R. for recovering the text of this post.)

Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911 - 1984) was the most important poet of Pakistan and of the Urdu language in the twentieth century and widely admired through the Islamic world. Born to a wealthy family in the Punjab, he received an excellent education in both English and Arabic literature. During the 1930's, he became involved in the Socialist movement and acquired the political views which were to be of fundamental importance throughout the rest of his life. After serving in the British army during the Second World War, he moved with his family to Pakistan after the Partition in 1947 and become editor of a leftist newspaper, The Pakistan Times. He was arrested and imprisoned in 1951 after being accused of participating in a left-wing plot to overthrow the government; he spent four years, mostly in solitary confinement under the threat of execution. Freed and returned to his position at The Pakistan Times in 1955, he was again removed and reimprisoned in 1958, then freed again and named Pakistan's most important poet by the very government which had imprisoned him. After winning the Soviet Lenin Peace Prize in 1962, he enjoyed wide-spread recognition. He was named chairman of the National Council of Arts but exiled when that Pakistani government fell, living in exile in Beirut for a number of years where he become especially beloved by the Palestinians who saw their struggles as much as Pakistan's in his poetry. He was finally able to return to Pakistan in the 1980's, where he died in 1984.

From the very beginning, Faiz's poetry drew on the tradtion of Urdu love poetry, as a poem like "Last Night" makes clear:

At night my lost memory of you returned

and I was like the empty field where springtime,
without being noticed, is bringing flowers;

I was like the desert over which
the breeze moves gently, with great care;

I was like the dying patient
who, for no reason, smiles.

(Translated by Agha Shahid Ali)

"The Day Death Comes" illustrates the complex relationship that can exist between the lover and the beloved:

How will it be, the day death comes?
Perhaps like the gift at the beginning of night,
the first kiss on the lips given unasked,
the kiss that opens the way to brilliant worlds
while, in the distance, an April of nameless flowers
agitates the moon's heart.

Perhaps in this way: when the morning,
green with unopened buds, begins to shimmer
in the bedroom of the beloved,
and the tinkle of stars as they rush to depart
can be heard on the silent windows.

What will it be like, the day death comes?
Perhaps like a vein screaming
with the premonition of pain
under the edge of a knife, while a shadow,
the assassin holding the knife,
spreads out with a wingspan
from one end of the world to the other.

No matter when death comes, or how,
even though in the guise of the disdainful beloved
who is always cold,
there will be the same words of farewell to the heart:
"thank God it is finished, the night of the broken-hearted.
Praise be to the meeting of lips,
the honeyed lips I have known."

(Translated by Naomi Lazard)

But early on Faiz felt the need of extending his poetry to deal with more than the traditional subjects of love:

"Don't Ask Me for That Love Again"

That which then was ours, my love,
don't ask me for that love again.
The world was then gold, burnished with light --
and only because of you. That what I had believed.
How could one weep for sorrows other than yours?
How could one have any sorrow but the one you gave?
So what were these protests, these rumors of injustice?
A glimpse of your face was evidence of springtime.
The sky, wherever I looked, was nothing but your eyes.
If you'd fall in my arms, Fate would be helpless.

All this I'd thought, all this I'd believed.
But there were other sorrows, comforts other than love.
The rich had cast their spell on history:
dark centuries had been embroidered on brocades and silks
Bitter threads began to unravel before me
as I went into alleys and in open markets
saw bodies plastered with ash, bathed in blood.
I saw them sold and bought, again and again.
This too deserves attention. I can't help but look back
when I return from those alleys -- what should one do?
There are other sorrows in this world,
comforts other than love.
Don't ask me, my love, for that love again.

(Translated by Agha Shahid Ali)

But his resolution to this conflict -- whether to choose the traditional subject of the beloved or the subject of political and social activism -- is not the expected one "Don't Ask Me for That Love Again" seems to suggest; rather than abandoning the traditions of romantic poetry, Faiz transforms them so that the "Beloved" becomes not just a woman but Pakistan itself, represented by the "city of lights" in the poem of that name:

"City of Lights"

On each patch of green, from one shade to the next,
the noon is erasing itself by wiping out all color,
becoming pale, desolation everywhere,
the poison of exile painted on the walls.
In the distance,
there are terrible sorrows, like tides:
they draw back, swell, become full, subside.
They've turned the horizon to mist.
And behind that mist is the city of lights,
my city of many lights.

How will I return to you, my city,
where is the road to your lights? My hopes
are in retreat, exhausted by these unlit, broken walls,
and my heart, their leader, is in terrible doubt.

But let all be well, my city, if under
cover of darkness, in a final attack,
my heart leads its reserves of longings
and storms you tonight. Just tell all your lovers
to turn the wicks of their lamps high
so that I may find you, Oh, city,
my city of many lights.

(Translated by Agha Shahid Ali)

This is Faiz's great innovation and contribution to the long tradition of Urdu poetry -- to extend its subject matter to include the political and social within the context of the romantic poetry of the beloved.

Faiz also wrote powerfully of his experiences in prison in a number of his finest poems, such as "A Prison Evening":

Each star a rung,
night comes down the spiral
staircase of the evening.
The breeze passes by so very close
as if someone had just happened to speak of love.
In the courtyard,
the trees are absorbed refugees
embroidering maps of return on the sky.
On the roof,
the moon -- lovingly, generously --
is turning the stars
into a dust of sheen.
From every corner, dark-green shadows,
in ripples, come towards me.
At any moment they may break over me,
like the waves of pain each time I remember
this separation from my lover.

This thought keeps consoling me:
though tyrants may command that lamps be smashed
in rooms where lovers are destined to meet,
they cannot snuff out the moon, so today,
nor tomorrow, no tyranny will succeed,
no poison of torture make me bitter,
if just one evening in prison
can be so strangely sweet,
if just one moment anywhere on this earth.

(Translated by Agha Shahid Ali)

Nor does he ever lose hope that things will become better for his beloved, his country, and that he and his suffering will have a part in making a better world come about:

"August 1952"

It's still distant, but there are hints of springtime:
some flowers, aching to bloom, have torn open their collars.

In this era of autumn, almost winter, leaves can still be heard:
their dry orchestras play, hidden in corners of the garden.

Night is still where it was, but colors at times take flight,
leaving red feathers of dawn on the sky.

Don't regret our breath's use as air, our blood's as oil --
some lamps at last are burning in the night.

Tilt your cup, don't hesitate! Having given up all,
we don't need wine. We've freed ourselves, made Time irrelevant.

When imprisoned man opens his eyes, cages will dissolve: air, fire,
water, earth -- all have pledged such dawns, such gardens to him.

Your feet bleed, Faiz, something surely will bloom
as you water the desert simply by walking through it.

(Translated by Agha Shahid Ali)

What must never be forgotten, however, is the suffering of the nameless:

"In Search of Vanished Blood"

There's no sign of blood, not anywhere.
I've searched everywhere.
The executioner's hands are clean, his nails transparent.
The sleeves of each assassin are spotless.
No sign of blood: no trace of red,
not on the edge of the knife, none on the point of the sword.
The ground is without stains, the ceiling white.

The blood which has disappeared without leaving a trace
isn't part of written history: who will guide me to it?
It wasn't spilled in service of emperors --
-- it earned no honor, had no wish granted.
It wasn't offered in rituals of sacrifice --
-- no cup of absolution holds it in a temple.
It wasn't shed in any battle --
-- no one calligraphed it on banners of victory.

But, unheard, it still kept crying out to be heard.
No one had the time to listen, no one the desire.
It kept crying out, this orphan blood,
but there was no witness. No case was filed.
From the beginning this blood was nourished only by dust.
Then it turned to ashes, left no trace, became food for dust.

(Translated by Agha Shahid Ali)

Finally, Faiz seems to recognize that there is no overwhelming once-for-all victory in the struggle, nor is there any one individual who can lead the way and solve all the problems; instead, there is an ongoing process and a succession of individuals who contribute what they can, a process which never ends:

"You Tell Us What To Do"

When we launched life
on the river of grief,
how vital were our arms, how ruby our blood.
With a few strokes, it seemed,
we would cross all pain,
we would soon disembark.
That didn't happen.
In the stillness of each wave we found invisible currents.
The boatmen, too, were unskilled,
their oars untested.
Investigate the matter as you will,
blame whomever, as much as you want,
but the river hasn't changed,
the raft is still the same.
Now you suggest what's to be done,
you tell us how to come ashore.

When we saw the wounds of our country
appear on our skins,
we believed each word of the healers.
Besides, we remembered so many cures,
it seemed at any moment
all troubles would end, each wound would heal completely.
That didn't happen: our ailments
were so many, so deep within us
that all diagnoses proved false, each remedy useless.
Now do whatever, follow each clue,
accuse whomever, as much as you will,
our bodies are still the same,
our wounds still open.
Now tell us what we should do,
you tell us how to heal these wounds.

(Translated by Agha Shahid Ali)

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