'Imtiaz Dharker's cultural experience spans three countries: Pakistan, the country of her birth, and Britain and India, her countries of adoption. It is from this life of transitions that the themes of her poetry are drawn: childhood, exile, journeying, home and religious strife, the body as a territory.
'In 'Purdah' she memorialises the betweenness of a traveller between cultures, exploring the dilemmas of negotiation among countries, lovers, children. 'Postcards from god' meditates upon disquietudes in the poet's chosen society: its sudden acts of violence, its feuds and insanities, forcing her into a permanent wakefulness that fits her eyes with glass lids. If the poems collected in 'Purdah' are windows shuttered upon a private world, those gathered into 'Postcards from god' are doorways leading out into the lanes and shanties where strangers huddle, bereft of the tender grace of attention.
'The line is Imtiaz Dharker's sole weapon in a zone of assault which stretches over the Indian subcontinent's bloody history, the shifting dynamics of personal relationships…'
'Beautiful ambivalence…realistic details take on a surrealistic menace in another context…these poems deal very powerfully with social, religious, racial and above all sexual entrapment'
'Hers is a strong, concerned, economical poetry, in which political activity, homesickness, urban violence, religious anomalies, are raised in an unobtrusive domestic setting, all the more effectively for their coolness of treatment'.
With I speak for the devil, the poetry journeys further. The landscapes of the self, the metro and the country expand to embrace the world. If the starting point of Purdah was life behind the veil, the starting-point of the new book is the strip-tease, where the claims of nationality, religion and gender are cast off, to allow an exploration of new territories, the spaces between countries, cultures and religions.
So Glasgow meets Lahore and Mumbai meets Birmingham in this book with an ease that is casual, playful and unapologetic. The fevered search for sanctuary of Purdah ("Tell me/ how can I come home?") is replaced by a realisation that anchor is sometimes to be found in the journey rather than the destination. "High on the rush of daily displacement", the poet's voice locates home between countries, "between borders", proudly flaunting her allegiance to "another country", one that refuses to be circumscribed by race, nationality or gender.
No longer does the city come and collide with her (as it did in Postcards from god). Instead, she opens her front door and goes out to meet the world on her own terms, "speeding to a different time zone/ heading into altered weather,/ landing as another person". Here is no glib internationalism or modish multiculturalism. If you trust this voice, it's because its 'bigness' is never grandiose; it is arrived at through a process of concerted exfoliation. Displacement here no longer spells exile; it means an exhilarating sense of life at the interstices. There is an exultant celebration of a self that strips off layers of superfluous identity with grace and abandon, only to discover that it has not diminished, but grown larger, generous, more inclusive.
In this somewhat unprecedented publication of poetry by someone famous and alive, not famous and dead, Penguin has set the hopeful wings attached to young poetic hearts aflutter. I speak for the devil, first published by Bloodaxe Books (UK) three years ago, is a dedication to the poet's fundamental task of giving voice. In this case, accompanied with sketches contributed by Dharker, the voice is unmistakably defiant, aiming to take us to the centre of things; the cores, the dark seats of our innards where devils sometimes set up homes, and always speak.
Imtiaz Dharker's poems are essentially an offering of hope in the face of violence; not just the violence of men, who, she says, have a "rare genius for revenge", but also from our societies, and ourselves. Her prescription for empowerment, however, may be a little out of keeping from the customary variety. Her images are powerful and sexual, demand a simultaneous acceptance and rejection of the body, and a compulsory paring down to bare bones. "Let's see," she says, "What I am in here/ when I squeeze past/ the easy cage of bone," inviting us to make similar skeletal explorations of our own. She moves us in real geographic spheres, always plagued by indecision, always addicted to the "rush of daily displacement". So we are dragged around the world from Sialkot to Chicago, Birmingham to Vadodara, Mirpur to Beverly Hills: not to forget, but to search for this visceral stuff in the most unlikely places. A woman standing under a crippled umbrella in Chowpatty staring out to sea could be holding it, or the stranger running down the Spanish steps or at the kabootarkhana at Camden Market, or the dead Parsi neighbours in the Towers of Silence waiting to be stripped clean by the patient vultures. This peeling away, coming undone, making and unmaking, putting together again, is the essence of Dharker's search. Always, there's the effort to get at what's underneath; tear away the cloaks, the veils, the skin, the parts that can be stitched on, ripped off, traded, worshipped.
The whole book is set up on a system of constraints, transformations, and exchange. On one hand there is the thrill of submission, the raw need of giving in, of allowed invasion; and on the other, is becoming what one has submitted to, being able to give voice to it – tongue, freedom, speech. The tongue rules supreme in Dharker's hierarchy, while the body – mere sack, mere house, mere country – can be replaced like a different pair of glasses to give alternative views, "one close, clear, sharp as nails,/ one at a distance, set askew." The body is something we want to both claim and escape, just as the devil is someone we want to invite and expel. It's the same struggle of being an alien in familiar territory, an anomaly in a future world, skin abandoning itself to foreign encasings. It's a question of vulnerability.
Worse than leaving a country /Is walking out of a door /That will stand open /Because you have told all /Your secrets, and there is nothing /Left to steal.
But you have to start somewhere, as Arshad's uncle says, after switching off the TV one day in front of the children's faces, taking it out in the street, and smashing it to pieces. This is how men play their part – stick figure boys grown into men who struggle past paunches to tie their shoes, men of angled bodies on trains, rapt in papers that save them from a sunset or sunrise, estranged fathers and lovers, kind dentists, uncles. Ayub Khan-Din drinking wine, telling stories to a woman who shows all of her legs.And what of the woman slicing sunlight with bony legs? She must find her voice too, search in mirrors, smash them in order to begin. Because children and furniture can grow in homes of their own accord. Because departures are always necessary. Because pieces are never unified. "There is always the threat/ of that delicate, dangerous dawn,/ light-slashed/ wing-torn."
For Dharker, there is no Faustian struggle with the devil. He walks in and takes up residence: squats. "The devil is a territory/that lets you believe you belong./ Happy when you worship/ At its mirrors." Everything can perhaps be crystallised, condensed to a single dot; knees correspond to beds, sofas to bottoms, chairs to laps:
Words are doors /And dreams are floors, /And the walls we built /To hold the world /Are only made /Of light and shade, /A spinning space/Where everything can change... .
In the many hemispheres of Dharker's world, the hope of god is something to be looked for between collarbones, on the undersides of eyelids, on the lifted cheekbone. It is to enter into oneself, the deep earth, and scrape the questions away. To set adrift on loneliness rather than togetherness. To dance crazily on the rooftops of Mumbai cutting the blindfolds off words. "Keeping secrets is the devil's work," she says, "But who shall I tell my secrets to?
'The terrorist at my table' asks questions about how we live now – working, travelling, eating, listening to the news, preparing for attack. What do any of us know about the person who shares this street, this house, this table, this body? When life is in the hands of a fellow-traveller, a neighbour, a lover, son or daughter, how does the world shift and reform itself around our doubt, our belief?
Imtiaz Dharker's poems and pictures hurtle through a world that changes even as we pass. This is life seen through distorting screens - a windscreen, a television screen, newsprint, mirror, water, breath, heat haze, smokescreen.
Her book grows, layer by layer, through three sequences: 'The terrorist at my table', 'The habit of departure' and 'World Rickshaw Ride'. Each cuts a different slice through the terrain of what we think of as normal. But through all the uncertainties and concealments, her poems unveil the delicate skin of love, trust and sudden recognition.
FROM ‘POETRY REVIEW’
Imtiaz Dharker’s ‘The terrorist at my table’…pans deftly across East and West. Chopping onion rings… Dharker sees Gaza “like a spreading watermark” under a fine tablecloth. Elsewhere she says,
We float without time.
The whole of London is our present,
sent to us in battered envelopes
postmarked Srinagar, Ramallah, Grozny.
Uncertainty threads the whole book with cool ambiguous tension. Entering history, the poetic voice is vivid, recreating ‘Lascar Johnny’, the Indian merchant seamen who became pedlars in the Scottish Highlands. In ‘Remember Andalus’ the verse rises to the architectural poetry of the Alhambra with almost effortless sensuousness, utterly unsentimental.
These things will not be trapped
in marble, the moon in water
has never been the same before or since.
Then we are back in today’s world, especially Mumbai and its streets, noisy, irresistibly alive. The last sequence, ‘Worldwide Rickshaw Ride’, solves Dharker’s existential doubts by kidnapping her on a Mumbai rickshaw.The “mad Mogul rickshaw driver” is no Virgil, but his splendid unstoppability brings Dharker’s journeying to a satisfactory “halfway”.Behind giant advertising screens, which rear like the stone faces of a frightening myth, she discovers only
“my neighbour, my sister/ The grace of the familiar/
the blessed, /the everyday”.
In the final poem, ‘Halfway’ she enters an epiphany of singing crowds. “Men stumble from the sea/with giant flags, wind-whipped./Children climb over a stone head. Whose?” And so
We navigate this fractured time
consulting ancient maps,
overtaking on the autoroutes
the unicorn, the poet king.
Halfway home or halfway gone,
we have grown accustomed now
to travelling on the faultline
of daily miracles.