Setting linguistic conventions on fire

By setting fire to linguistic conventions in verse, burning down border lines of identity geographies, Saima Afreen pushes light into the dark spaces of a language that falls short for her to illuminate the complexity of thought and human interrelationship, writes Mrinalini Harchandrai.

When approaching Saima Afreen’s Sin of Semantics, the title is hard to ignore. Where semantics are the meaning of words, their implications and references, and the relationships between them – basically all the scaffolding upon which poetry shoots up to touch the skies and which allow for the satisfaction of grey matter kneads – the poet throws in the idea of sin, a misdemeanor, a transgression related to the very DNA of poetry. 

Sin of Semantics by Saima Afreen, Copper Coin, 2019.

The title poem, bearing the weight of this book’s intention, is a whimsical foray into language as a metaphor, treading the peaks and valleys within the terrain of the author’s themes of light and letters –

Oil lamps glimmer / On the birth of wet letters / Cold, dark / Planets / Floating on killed papyrus… / Chopped words don’t always / Die in a gutter’. 

Peel a little more and the ‘sin’ is not just of language, but includes cultural, political, mythological and sociological terms. The poet has bountiful references to Islamic culture in the book’s opening poem ‘Shab-e-Qadr’, which itself means the long night of prayer for Muslims in the month of Ramzan – 

the minaret on the velvet mat glows / where foreheads kissed the earth / in a rank above angels’ 

and 

… the lakes within their souls offer / Surah Nisa, Surah Yasin’ 

referring to chapters in the Quran. Here is a mysticism that has its roots in its text, which for the poet is not just a religious scripture but contextual offerings for a deeper meaning of life questions. She is almost wrestling with the layers within its religiosity and de-shells the holy book to unveil the glint of a living, breathing spirituality – ‘one universe, / one verse’. 

Islam is not local for the poet, and through her poems there is a covenant with other (mid-)eastern countries like Palestine, Kashmir and Afghanistan – all places where the warp of politics is deeply knotted with the weft of religion. However, she definitely brings it home and makes it personal. For example, ‘For A Child of Kashmir’ is overtly written to a child, but serves as a paean to innocence lost – 

Child, / Look / A little paper boat sways / On the violet waters / Of butchered lullabies and more overtly Child, / Do not long for the moon. / Tonight / It will be cremated / By wolves in khaki: / Guards of ‘Peace’!’ 

Arguably she betrays her passport, referring to the Indian army as the wolves dogging the peace in the valley. At the risk of bearing a placard of anti-national sentiment, gunning for a human truth here has the misfortune of wearing the cloak of national infidelity. 

On a side note, the poet makes use of wanton one-word enjambment, a sly but effective technique that won’t fall short to a discerning reader, to stake her ‘misdeed’ to the ground. Speaking of anti-national, the book ends with the poem ‘Hindustan’, where the very borders of the country are questioned, as she takes a walk along the riverbed of etymology – 

River Sindhu … / she will be silent, again when she changes / and chooses her geography … she’s tired of carrying / on her back bricks of a broken civilization’.

When you wander into the poem ‘Printing Press’, it obfuscates with a question in the first line itself – 

Prism night? Tahrir Square is where all these grey / dandelions are vexed dusted golden confused where to / shoot their feathery seeds!’ 

Then the second line sticks its tongue out at grammar, absenting commas between adjectives. Further along are references to hells on earth – ‘The mole on my neck is what Lucifer left behind’ and ‘To Syria will you go?’. 

And the poem rounds off appropriately in the last stanza with some top notes of blasphemy – ‘Burqa is the new nudity. Hide in it sins and / stones.’ And yet, somehow, these ‘sins’ are a reward of original expression.

Afreen employs language like a skilled artisan as she creates an Oriental architecture with filigreed wordplay – 

The orange sun / Polishes / Pain / And hangs the crushed wind on it’ – lapis lazuli accents – ‘Simoom turns deserts into glass / Jewels mirror the blue’ – and embossed with depth vision – ‘Minarets in molten gold / Eye the dispersed caravan of your song’. 

Befittingly girdering her intentions to show the reader that wandering lostly is not fruitless – ‘Labyrinths always have / Doors in the c-o-r-n-e-r-s’. The poet offers us an ungodly sensuousness in death, as in ‘Survival’ – 

Flowers in transparent glass / turn into perfume—the last act of survival / the sky collapses in the drops / an ally in exile, it opens its mouth / and sucks the fable of each petal’. 

This same theme of the ephemerality of existence is delicately etched in ‘The Ocean Never Returns Our Names’, where ‘waves bow, / holding the letters on foreheads, sail back / rise, add our names to the treasure that history forgets’.

Before the reader is too comfortable bookending her poems in the mystic east, Afreen arcs into the west without losing her style that shimmers with sacred etherealness. She touches upon European painting in the poem ‘A Small Wish’ –

When the moon / drowns herself in the water lilies of Monet / pin a few broken / couplets…’ 

– where she merges the impressionism of painting with Urdu poetry – and in ‘Nudity’, she references ‘Rembrandt’s Roman Daughter’ where breasts are at once shameful as well as life-giving. She heads to Russia in ‘A Song for the Twisted Feet of A Russian Ballerina’, a simple tribute to the gnarled base upon which beauty stands; and with ‘Mahgrib’, where ‘A smudged sky / cries for Kandinsky’ the Russian painter and pioneer of abstract art, an apt reference that parallels the abstract nature of Afreen’s poetry. 

And the poem ‘Sauna’, where the muse is a forest within the senses, was written when the poet spent time at the Villa Sarkia Writing Residency in Finland. Here the poet discovers that she shares the first name of Finnish poet Saima Harmaja, and celebrates the fact within the poem ‘Valediction’, where Scandinavia plays muse to Afreen. 

Interestingly, the word ‘sin’ rears its head throughout these poems. Like deliberate ruminations to draw out its connotations and facets – a testament to Afreen’s exploits in double and triple entendre. In the poem ‘Bread’, 

…the sin still sits on the tongue / that prophets once pardoned’ where its reading here could be construed as one of the ‘deadly sins’ — a lie — since it ‘sits on the tongue’.

However reconsider it in terms of the title of the poem and the following lines — ‘children sleep in their dreams / there is no green, only the sweet smell / of bread’. Where to dream of bread is an unworthy act. And/or the author requests us to consider the broader social damnation and unrighteousness of poverty, and the torts it can imply, like stealing bread, that can sit unevenly on the scales of justice. Whereas in the poem ‘Are You The One Who Sobbed in Shahid’s Arms?’ she writes, 

I was born a prophesy, / An ultimatum of sins / In contours of an apple / And Eve’

Here, falling into the compartment of ‘original sin’ is too simple, and instead the poet pulls out a mirror to the implication of that old story starring the apple and Eve, and how it is so ingrained in modern society that it is entwined in the life narratives of her daughters, our women, even today. 

In the poem, ‘Art of Radiology’ – the cells in the body are described as ‘sculptures of sin’, and science takes a sinister turn as the devil Lucifer takes the form of evil corpuscles that flow in your veins, where a record of your life choices aren’t decided in hell but within your body itself. Then in a subversive twist, within ‘On the Bank of River Krishna’, the word takes on positive overtones where ‘the first sin’ is compared to the first rain – exciting, even as it washes away innocence. Layered upon that however, the poet fetes the meaning of being human, since mankind is a composite of light as well as dark forces. 

Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali, whom Afreen likes to reference in her poetry, known for his verses of protest says in his poem ‘Of Light’ – ‘Will Prometheus commit the mortal sin of light?’, referring to the irony that it was through the crime of stealing fire from the gods that mankind made progress. It can be argued that Afreen answers his question with this phosphorescent collection of poetry. 

By setting fire to linguistic conventions in verse, burning down border lines of identity geographies, she pushes light into the dark spaces of a language that falls short for her to illuminate the complexity of thought and human interrelationship. In ‘Is Pomegranate A Poem?’ she holds up a mirror to the titan-like task she set for herself – 

Her language / turns ruby red, jewel-bright, fountain fresh / its red is unlit calligraphy around the mouth.’ 

The reader is advised therefore to come for the blood, but stay for the incandescent beauty.  

Mrinalini Harchandrai is the author of ‘A Bombay in My Beat’, a collection of poetry. Her poem won first prize in The Barre (2017), she was a finalist for the Stephen A. DiBiase Poetry Prize 2019 and is shortlisted for the Wordweavers Poetry Contest 2019. Her unpublished novel manuscript was selected as Notable Entry for the Disquiet International Literary Prize 2019. Her short stories have been longlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2018 and selected as a Top Pick (2018) with Juggernaut Books, India. Her work has been anthologized in The Brave New World of Goan Writing 2018 and RLFPA Editions’ Best Indian Poetry 2018, and her writing features on several literary platforms.

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