You who know, give me proof
Describe me to myself.
A bitter river rages in my veins.
And my heart, still longing for you,
flows on its poisonous waves.
Wait a little: perhaps from some other world
the hand of a prophet, carved in lightning,
is bringing me pearls for my lost eyes.
Wait till the river is stilled
And my submerged heart, annulled like a Sufi’s,
is washed up, cleansed, on a welcoming shore.
I will then begin a new translation of hope.
I will complete the texts of love.
-from Black Out
Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-1984): if he is known at all in the West he is known through the translations of the late Agha Shaid Ali.
Faiz is a difficult poet. Difficult for his emotional intensity.
He is a poet who must be endured, for he writes poems about very unpleasant things. He is a poet writing with full awareness of the violence done within the human family. He is the poet banished from the city for his message, welcomed back, and then condemned again.
Each footstep meant death
and even the promise of life
for I have returned from the lane
where the executioner lives
Faiz’s poetry is confrontational, always emotional, and piercing regardless of the translator whether it is Ali, Adrienne Rich, W.S. Merwin, or Naomi Lazard. He writes about ‘redeeming’ knives hidden in sleeves, the hangman’s noose, political torture, welcoming and waiting for death. His ‘love poems’ are the desecrated temples and broken statues. His celebratory poems include wine, the sound of ankle jewelry, and the breeze through the window, or the lit candle of promise:
after gazing and gazing
at the street
for any sign of you,
and on the blue horizon of this city
the evening burned itself completely to ash.
Faiz’s poems are honest: life is painful and there is a price for everything; and although death is certain there is dignity in doing the right thing and the greatest crime is to ignore the suffering of others. Despite the violence in his poetry, recitations of his poetry are another matter: intimate and incantatory and often set to music (another poetic tradition). Here is Faiz reciting one of his poem at a poetry slam.
Faiz is, first and foremost, a political poet who was imprisoned for his beliefs, at one time steps away from execution, often in solitary confinement and several times exiled. The contradictory thread throughout all of his poetry is that his violent imagery articulates anger, compassion, hope, and despair that there is despair. His lines vibrate with anger against all forms of Tyranny and he entreats all his readers to remember what binds us and not what divides us. For Faiz, injustice of any kind was anathema.
A chain rasps, then shrieks.
A knife opens a lock’s heart, far off,
and a window begins to break its head,
like a madman, against the wind.
To remind readers of what we share in common, poets may speak in broad terms, drawing from stock metaphors, to address love, loss, reconciliation, and redemption. While Faiz does use common tropes from the Urdu tradition and, from Ghalib in particular, one can see that Faiz replaces the moon, the rose, and wine with that universal symbol of all humanity and violence: blood.
He writes of blood in the eyes and on shirts; the moon, sky and night weeping blood; and blood as oil; blood as poverty; hatred as poisoned blood with cobra venom. Faiz’s poetry has more blood than Lady Macbeth could ever wash off her hands. Her’s was a mere spot; his is a river that runs through the Asian subcontinent and yet he endeavors to encourage hope.
Name a poet who can write the following:
Your feet bleed, Faiz, something surely will bloom
as you water the desert simply by walking through it.
Much can be said about the ghazal form that he used, but it seems to defy translation into English. The ghazal is a very structured poem with recurring repetitions that dilate upon the poet’s intent and demonstrates his homage and skill within a centuries-old tradition. Faiz redefined the Beloved by altering his themes of person and society, ideal and injustice, without ever sounding abstract or didactic. In spite of the blood-soaked lines, Faiz believes in love and has faith in humanity.
I walk out and roam free,
filled with relentless joy —
how freely I roam
in wide, lit up spaces
where no word is found for sorrow and pain,
no word for prison.
Faith is not religion, a leap into the irrational unknown; it is “an alibi for the blood.”