Sin of Semantics by Saima Afreen
Copper Coin Books, New Delhi
Price: Rs. 299
One of the first lessons one learns in an introductory class on language and literature is that language works on two levels: syntax and semantics. While the former decides which word combinations and word order are permissible, the latter operates on the level of meanings. Saima Afreen’s collection of poems ‘Sin- of Semantics’ (Copper Coin Publishing) deftly disturbs this relationship in order to lay bare the residue of loss occasioned by representation. This single undercurrent – exploring and explaining the anxiety and tension between experience and expression, truth and testimony lend the collection a compelling unease that unsettles and rivets in equal measure.
That the very first poem of the book is titled ‘Shab-e-Qadr’ illustrates this unease perfectly. The title is a non-English word, borrowed from Persian and Urdu. Since it has been left untranslated, it implies that its English – the night of honour/prestige/exaltation or a more generic holy night, is a poor substitute. In order to speak about the event of the night, the poem must, therefore, abandon its chosen language of expression – English, and rely on another language to ‘mean’. This borrowing underlines the tensions that drive the book – the tension between expression and language, as well as memory and testimony.
Relying on nostalgia, the poem draws on deeply personal experience to sketch out the observance of a religious ritual. Interesting to note, that while believers are meant to stay awake the whole night, most of the action in the poem revolves around sleep. The inhabitants of memory “slept in their warm beds”, the muezzin “too slept”, “sweet scents move within sleeping bodies”, and “the clay cools/their feet as they sleep”. How does one read this paradox?
One way of explaining it is that it actually mirrors the paradox of communication. While there is a free play of meanings in a text, especially a literary text, the reader must necessarily arrest this free play to make the text ‘mean’ by fixing on a specific meaning. This is the semantic sin, which needs to be committed in perpetuity. To derive meaning, some meanings must be occluded, and some foregrounded. If experience is expressed, as it must be in order for it to be shared, it stares at the inevitable risk of loss:
He too slept
under the net of stars that were clear prophecies
till he destroyed it with speech.
Yet, this loss ensures that space and time captured in recollection is insured against loss. If poetry testifies to the recollection of powerful emotions, it follows that this testimony is determined by the same paradox of loss. In effect, then the whole premise of a poetic truth opens itself to contestation and contradiction. The poem then becomes a fluid space where meanings “lie clinging to each other, tightly infinitely…. Within the velvet of letters…. where metaphors rain, mingling with the green waters” of ink” (The Ocean Never Returns Our Names). This expansion of poetic space is a recurring theme in the collection, which returns repeatedly to the question of origins and the impossibility of this return:
We glisten under stars that lurk above waters, waiting
forever for Laila to return Majnun his original name
As a consequence, the lyric is imbued with hysteric anarchy that borders almost on disjointedness. In turn, this disjointed lyric mirrors the violence of a linguistic artifice especially poetry, where the multiple disparate selves – the affected self and the detached self that observes must necessarily be violently fused together in metaphor (which itself doesn’t mean, but relies on deciphering an implied comparison). ‘Are you the One Who Sobbed in Shahid’s Arms’, is a perfect example of this disjointed lyric that traces the evolution of self as moves across the varied I’s, ‘You’ and her – all three manifestations of the same lyric-self. The title references Agha Shahid Ali’s couplet from ‘A Ghazal’ in ‘The Country Without a Post Office’:
And I, Shahid, only am escaped to tell thee—
God sobs in my arms. Call me Ishmael tonight.
The couplet itself references two allegories – Henry Melville’s Moby Dick – the tale of a maimed and obsessed Captain Ahab (of a whaler) out to seek revenge and the Abrahamic legend of Abraham offering his son as a sacrifice to God. Both are concerned with the allegorical self – Ahab represents hubris, and destructive obsession, while Ishmael represents submission, exemplary humility and sacrifice. Shahid’s invokes the allegorical self to create a literary allegory of dissent, queerness, exclusion, taboo and loss in the context of Kashmir in the throes of armed insurgency. The title, therefore, presumes the reader to be familiar with this fusion, in order for it to make sense. Implicit in this presumption is the expectation that the reader will read the poem in the vein of allegory.
The poem, however, defeats this expectation, even as it apparently does seek to outline an allegory of a gendered self by tracing the contours of female desire, censoring of desire by phallocentric religion and objectification of the female body
Her body was a clay lamp
She lit it up, wanted to burn……
They didn’t tell her about war brothels
maps pulsating with bombs
the terror of black and white
However, the allegory sits uneasily with the vagrant soul of the poem that wanders from originary Eden to scriptural geographies of Jeddah and Lanka:
With each sunset, my slavery renews….
adding layers to my shadow
A silhouette that was thrown from Eden
to Lanka to Jeddah
still wandering in its skin
Jeddah (Airport) being the first point of entry for the Haj Pilgrim derives from scripture (The Quran) and scripture sanctioned authority of two pilgrim sites of Mecca and Medina to derive historical legitimacy. Lanka – the scriptural country ruled by reviled (arch-villain)/ revered (warrior and king) Ravana too derives from written legend – the variants of Ramayana. The excursion to these geographies, leads not to any continuity or linearity, rather a damning, and wary acceptance of the perpetual exile wrought by trusting the self to language:
She pastes herself in spaces
between beheaded crowns
The title poem ‘Sin of Semantics’ brings this vagrant indeterminacy into full play. It puts one in the mind of the Urdu poet – Noon Meem Rashed, who claimed: harf aur ma’anay kay rishta hai-e-aahan say aadmi hai wabasta (Man is concerned with the relation between word and meaning). The poem draws attention to the varied processes of meaning-making, noting that the interpretative gaze of a reader binds the varied tissue of meaning into a single whole. The opening stanza questions this practice of seeking a unity, and seeks to foreground not meaning, but the irony of making meaning:
Inherited by a sentence
What is it that weeps
Inside the frontier
The Rivers and mirrors?
Which is this frontier between the rivers that flow and mirrors that deceive that is the inheritance of weeping sentences? This question yields no answer since the question itself juxtaposes two elements that belie the possibility of comparison. For comparison to exist, the objects must exist together in some frame of commonality, some shared utility or nature. Evidently, nothing exists in common between rivers and mirrors, except in the symbolic sphere, where both rivers and mirrors reflect and distort, and house in themselves the world of shadows. The semantic sin is the sin of inhabiting these shadows, of seeking refuge in metaphor, away from the plainness of the world, of building nests from the air on the frisky palms of the dispossessed, who wait and hope for too long. In a sense, then the poem is an elegy for the demise of meanings, which has become more visible, and sharper in times as these, where identities are highly fragmented and highly polarized. The collective history has come back to haunt the world, and the inheritance of ‘weeping sentences’ is here to stay and entrench itself further. No wonder, the book claims:
Pain is the rising sun in another sky, not mine, not yours.
Yet we belong. (A Small White Balcony in Banjara Hills)
As the Pakistani poet, Habeeb Jalib reminded his reader the inheritance of doomed sorrow is an ancestral inheritance, and to call it freshly minted is like calling darkness light. It can’t be. Pain may be the rising sun in other skies, in the skies of our times, and the lives we lead, it has been a constant presence. The collection deserves to be read precisely for this reminder of our fallibility and inability in creating a sinless language, and be reminded of our helpless complicity in perpetuating this world order where:
When the sky turns red, you might find an address:
you might find fire. (Are You the Wolf Who Stood at the Edge of a Fairy Tale?)
The only addresses left now are the addresses marked by fires that char everything and leave only bitterness in its wake. Sins of Semantics places these fires firmly before the reader and leaves it staring at the sky that “spat darkness, spat you/while the grass outside unlearns its grammar”. Perhaps it is time we discovered a new grammar of making meanings too.
Huzaifa Pandit graduated with a PhD on Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Agha Shahid Ali and Mahmoud Darwish: Poetics of Resistance’ from the University of Kashmir. He is also the author of the recently published ‘‘Green is the Colour of Memory’ (Hawakal Publishers) which won the first edition of Rhythm Divine Poets Chapbook Contest 2017. His poems, translations, interviews, essays and papers have been published in various journals like Post-Colonial Studies, Indian Literature, PaperCuts, Life and Legends, Jaggery Lit, JLA India, Punch and Noble/Gas qtrly.