“All the parrots of India will turn to sugar crunching
From this Persian candy that goes [as far as] Bengal.” -Hafez
By ena ganguly
Since time immemorial, poetry has been used as a device to criticize unfair regimes, advocate for justice and make apparent what is undoing us and what continues to hold us up. The power of poetry is derived from not only the writer who pens it but the audience who receives and reacts to it. Both reader and writer are part of how and why poetry remains, to this day, an impactful creative outlet for communities around the world.
To celebrate National Poetry Month, I wanted to remind us of some important works of art that ought to keep us writing this month and continue to fuel our fire as we work to dismantle those systems that oppress us and our siblings while creating new and loving ways to rest, express ourselves and celebrate one another.
1. Hum Dekhenge (We Will See) by Faiz Ahmad Faiz
In the late 70s, Pakistan underwent a major political shift which led to the rise in power of General Zia Ul-Huq who created a politically conservative environment to the point of repressing the people’s rights to express their beliefs.
Enter Faiz Ahmad Faiz, a poet and political activist, who penned ‘Hum Dekhenge’, a nazm (a form of descriptive, rythmic poem), as a means to critique the dictatorial power trip of Ul-Huq’s administration while still remaining loyal to his own truths as a Muslim.
Lazim hai ke hum bhi dekhenge
Wo din ke jis ka wada hai
Jo lauh-e-azl mein likha hai…
Jab arz-e-Khuda ke kaabe se
Sab but uthwae jaenge…
Bas naam rahega Allah ka
Jo ghayab bhi hai hazir bhi
Jo manzar bhi hai nazir bhi
Utthega an-al-haq ka nara
Jo mai bhi hoon tum bhi ho
Aur raaj karegi Khalq-e-Khuda
Jo mai bhi hoon aur tum bhi ho”
“We shall Witness
It is certain that we too, shall witness
the day that has been promised
of which has been written on the slate of eternity…
From the abode of God (ka’aba)
When icons of falsehood will be taken out…
Only The name (Allah) will survive
Who cannot be seen but is also present
Who is the spectacle and the beholder, both
I am the Truth! – the cry will rise,
Which is I, as well as you
And then God’s creation will rule
Which is I, as well as you”
In 1985, Iqbal Bano, a well known singer in Pakistan, donned a black sari (a garment that was banned at the time), as a symbol of protest, to sing this poem in front of 50,000 people in Karachi Stadium. Later, it’s reported, she was banned from singing anywhere in Pakistan.
Such a subversive act was so vital to make it known to the regime that the Pakistani masses did not support the imperialist regime of Zia Ul-Huq. Though Faiz had passed on by 1985, his words, his poetry, and his critiques for a better world continues to live on in our memories, music and hearts. Inquilab Zindabad (Long Live the Revolution)!
Here is Iqbal Bano singing the poem written by Faiz Ahmed Faiz.
Here is Coke Studios Pakistan remaking the song with features of artists from around the country, including two trans artists, Lucky & Sanghma. Press the ‘CC’ button on the bottom right to include english subtitles.
2. To Sing A Song of Palestine by June Jordan
Born to two Jamaican immigrant parents and raised in Brooklyn, New York, June Jordan speaks to the heart. Her poetry touches upon a range of emotions and experiences, including her own childhood as well as her thought provoking, almost visceral, descriptions of what was happening around the world.
The first poem I read by her was ‘To Sing A Song of Palestine’ on the carpeted floor of my living room when I was in the third year of my college education. Though I wasn’t able to find the full poem, here is a small but powerful excerpt:
“I was born a Black woman
I am become a Palestinian
against the relentless laughter of evil
there is less and less living room
and where are my loved ones?
It is time to make our way home.”
From what I remember, the poem goes on to talk about, and describe in unflinching detail, the atrocities Palestinian people were made to go through. Jordan does so through placing herself in the place of a Palestinian while, at the same time, still engaging with the fact of her identity as an African American woman who negotiates, daily, with her own experiences under misogynoir.
Jordan writes about a myriad of global happenings, including the apartheid of Africa, the wars in Jordan and other places in the Middle East, the LGBT movements, and more. If you ever get the chance, please pick up any poetry book by her. It will change your life and influence your writings beyond what you can imagine.
3. A Litany for Survival by Audre Lorde
The first time I read Lorde’s work, I felt that everything I ever knew, everything I ever was, was speaking right back to me. I think I was in my third college year then as well. Her book, Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name, validated me so deeply that I have no words to really describe it.
Also a child of Caribbean parents, Lorde grew up in Harlem, New York. Her writing holds multiple stories, as her work contributes to the topics of sexuality, race, gender, class and so much more. As a cancer survivor, as a mother of Black children, as a poet and an academic, Lorde did so much through her writings. She gave a form to the experiences that humanized many communities and continues to do so.
If you’re ever having a bad day, whenever you feel like you can’t go on, read Lorde’s A Litany for Survival. I hope it renews you.
‘For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
crucial and alone
for those of us who cannot indulge
the passing dreams of choice
who love in doorways coming and going
in the hours between dawns
looking inward and outward
at once before and after
seeking a now that can breed
like bread in our children’s mouths
so their dreams will not reflect
the death of ours:
For those of us
who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk
for by this weapon
this illusion of some safety to be found
the heavy-footed hoped to silence us
For all of us
this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive.
And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
but when we are silent
we are still afraid
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive.”
4. Untitled Poem by Rumi
Rumi. He was one of those poets who just came to me through a deep wish to find guidance. I was wandering the aisles of books in my hometown’s library, thinking about the importance of having a mentor. I felt very sad at the time, because I didn’t really have such a figure. Someone who would guide me, advise me, show me the things that I can achieve and how to get there. Really, I wanted someone to support me in my career and through my spiritual endeavors as well.
I happened to land my finger on the spine of a book titled, “Rumi: The Big Red Book” translated by Coleman Barks. Having known that Rumi was a very popular poet amongst white liberals, I felt oddly disconnected and apathetic towards his writing, but once I opened that book, I couldn’t look back. I spent a good hour reading through each page, gently washing my eyes over every one of his words and all the meanings behind each one of his poems. And I cried my eyes out.
Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi was born in present-day Afghanistan to Farsi speaking parents but had to move to Turkey at an early age because of the threat of war in his homeland. He comes from a lineage of mystics and scholars, but never met his match until he met Shams Tabriz, a mystic and a dervish. Their friendship enabled them to cross many physical and spiritual planes as they transcended into different realms together to create an understanding of the universe beyond themselves, their egoes and their limitations. One day, Shams dissappeared, no one knows if he just left (dervishes were known to migrate often) or if he was killed by some of Rumi’s own jealous disciples, including his own son.
Whatever the case was, Rumi spent a long time in search for his dear friend, until he realized that Shams lived on in him. And through this realization, and through the sorrow and love for his friend, Rumi wrote countless poems about love, spirituality, God, the afterlife, our own self-imposed limitations and about what he observed in nature and throughout his life.
Here is one of his many poetic forms:
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.
From Essential Rumi
by Coleman Barks