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Home / Books / Review: Sin of Semantics by Saima Afreen

Review: Sin of Semantics by Saima Afreen

A debut collection of poetry that is unequivocally modern

books Updated: Jul 09, 2020 19:40 IST
Manohar Shetty
Manohar Shetty
Hindustan Times
The Milky Way: ‘The stars have always outnumbered the dead’.
The Milky Way: ‘The stars have always outnumbered the dead’.(Shutterstock)

Poems that don’t yield themselves after a few readings most likely don’t warrant further study. Such poems are usually obscure, private figments of a poet’s imagination, perhaps comprehensible only to the poet — and his or her little clique. There is now an unspoken trend that suggests that the more difficult a poem is the wiser and ‘deeper’ it is. This is, to put it mildly, debatable. Poets are not the sentinels of arcane secrets, revealing tantalizing clues after every word, line break, comma or semicolon. While it may be a secretive art needing nothing more than paper and pencil, it must have some semblance of public appeal, no matter how sparse the audience. It is not the art of wilful mystification and neither is it a pop song revelling in repeated encores. It is a private art seeking out the public heart. With wilfully obscure poems, a message is sent out that with poetry anything goes and if the reader has no clue to any inherent ‘meaning ‘ in the poem, it is the readers’ loss. There can be no blame attached to the poet looking down at lesser mortals from his or her lofty pedestal. Clarity has become a casualty in contemporary poetry. Curiously enough, when it comes to compiling anthologies, editors usually include the most accessible poems. But by and large, especially in American literary journals, befuddlement is the order of the day with ‘poetic license’ the universal answer to all those bewildering lines. Saima Aifreen’s book is a case in point. Several of the poems refuse to yield themselves even after repeated readings. Here are some lines picked randomly, these from a poem called The Wood Girl at Ateneum Art Museum:

‘I stumble on your kingdom of heartwood—
an argument to the whole of baroque
the jungle clay. I find myself in an arranged disarray—
the sap dried, smiled and disappeared
burnt without ash
and behind at the back
The East…’

Apart from that awkward line ‘and behind at the back’, this is head-scratching stuff. This befuddlement is compounded in another poem called Paper Lanterns with disparate lines like

‘He tries to say something/But his voice cannot be heard/Its dew glows
in another sky/ He plucks a lantern…’

One wonders whether the ‘dew glows’ is connected to ‘his voice’ and what that means. Does it mean a dew-like voice? Here is the closing line:

‘They found a man with the face of a wick’.

That last metaphor is odd. Even more mystifying is this from a poem called You Who Flicker at the Edge of Dawn:

‘My heart/is a violet fossil/in the aeon of moon’.

These are unwieldy lines, especially the phrase ‘the aeon of moon’. Recondite verse, scattering in too many directions, can be hard to pin down or sail harmoniously with. Its underlying essence tends to get dissipated along with the glut of word and image.

Rs 299; Copper Coin
Rs 299; Copper Coin

It has been remarked that a poem must be ‘mined’ thoroughly and deeply so that it ultimately yields its streak of gold. But what if, in the end, one only finds a dark, airless pit? To be fair to Afreen, some good poems do light the way, poems like Survival, Remembering a Smell, Ceramic Vases of Chunar, and the long poem For a Child of Kashmir which ends with the poignant lines:

‘Child,/Tell me,/Will the world ever come to know/What it means/To breathe/Inside a dead womb?’

There are some fine opening lines as in the poem Winter is a Tea-Steeped Memory: ‘Today the sun is not brighter/than the tangerine/in the basket’ and in the poem Valediction these arresting lines: ‘The wooden houses drink the sky/above. The stars have always outnumbered the dead’. Stars outnumbering the dead has a memorable little echo. Some more arresting, concluding lines can be found in a poem called Revenge: ‘She is the dark blood/She is the Felony/ She is what Eve couldn’t be’.

READ MORE: Unlock Diaries: Isolation Word by Manohar Shetty

On the whole, this is an uneven book, rooted partly in Kashmir and with a few poems set in Finland where the poet spent time at the Villa Sarkia Writers’ Residency. The title Sin of Semantics is unconsciously revealing in itself, as poetry is not merely an exercise in semantics but involves genuine feeling, empathy, and the tension generated by adherence to the formality of the craft itself. Towards this end, the book is only a partial success though there is an element of irony in the title. It must, however, be remembered that this is a debut collection and its flaws need to be overlooked up to a point. The book is a little overambitious in its subject matter, taking on more than the poet can handle. Perhaps a more fulfilling second book is round the corner.

Poetry — or what passes off as poetry — today has reached deafening proportions in avenues like Facebook, Instagram and other social media outlets, besides the sheer numbers that enter various poetry competitions. These avenues have diluted and flattened out intrinsic quality. Given these indiscriminate outlets, it can be safely assumed that more people write poetry than actually read it. And since such fervent poets don’t read modern, contemporary verse, most such poetry is old-fashioned and obsolete. Afreen is not guilty of this particular ‘sin’. She is unequivocally modern.

Poet Saima Afreen
Poet Saima Afreen ( Courtesy Copper Coin )

At a time when mainstream publishers only patronise poetry with a title or two every year, small presses like Copper Coin deserve some applause. They remain the lifeblood for the survival of poetry in English in India. Copper Coin was founded by the bilingual poet and translator Sarabjeet Garcha in early 2014. This small press has, so far, published more than 50 titles in English, Marathi, Punjabi and Hindi, including one bilingual (Sindhi-English) and one trilingual (Spanish-English-Hindi) book. Besides publishing well-known authors like John Berger, Copper Coin has introduced new voices in poetry, gaining a reputation for its editorial standards and tasteful production. One of its recent books Hoshiarpur Aur Anya Kavitayein (Hoshiarpur and Other Poems) by Vinod Bhardwaj won the 2016 Publishing Next Industry Award in the Best Printed Book of the Year (Indian Languages) category. It has an interesting upcoming list which includes names like Adil Jussawalla, Mangalesh Dabral and Srinivas Rayaprol. And it must be remembered that there are no benevolent arts councils or cash rich arts foundations funding such publishing projects in India.

Manohar Shetty has published several books of poems including ‘Full Disclosure: New and Collected Poems (1981-2017)’. He lives in Goa.

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