Shadab Zeest Hashmi – An Artist’s Impression by Peter O’Neill

Profile Shadab Zeest Hashmi LE Mag October 2018

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Shadab Zeest Hashmi, ‘With Half the Heart of a Trader’, an artist’s impression by Peter O’Neill

Shadab Zeest Hashmi is the author of poetry collections Kohl and Chalk and Baker of Tarifa. Her latest work, Ghazal Cosmopolitan has been praised by poet Marilyn Hacker as “a marvelous interweaving of poetry, scholarship, literary criticism and memoir.” Winner of the San Diego Book Award for poetry, the Nazim Hikmet Prize and multiple Pushcart nominations, Zeest Hashmi’s poetry has been translated into Spanish and Urdu, and has appeared in anthologies and journals worldwide, most recently in Prairie Schooner, World Literature Today, Mudlark, Vallum, POEM, The Adirondack Review, Spillway, Wasafiri, Asymptote and McSweeney’s latest anthology In the Shape of a Human Body I am Visiting the Earth. She has taught in the MFA program at San Diego State University as a writer-in-residence and her work has been included in the Language Arts curriculum for grades 7-12 (Asian American and Pacific Islander women poets) as well as college courses in Creative Writing and the Humanities. Hashmi’s website is a good link for info on where to purchase the book: This link is good as an analysis of the ghazal form– it appears in an online publication with a wide readership:

Shadab Zeest Hashmi booksIt was only some weeks ago that the American poet and Editor Richard Krawiec got in touch with me, asking me if I would like to meet up with the Pakistani-American poet Shadab Zeest Hashmi. Being free, and a little intrigued, I immediately agreed. Shadab was interested in doing a public reading, it was to be her first time in Ireland. Notice was quite short, and the events I suggested to her where on nights when she was not able to attend, so I decided to invite her out to The Gladstone Inn in my home town of Skerries where I have held many public readings with other writers, usually the second Wednesday of each month. Shadab, to my surprise, immediately agreed. She would be out to see me that very night. I must confess, I had no idea what to expect. So, I went to the internet and typed in her name. The first book of hers which caught my eye was her debut collection Baker of Tarifa (Poetic Matrix Press, 2010).

The Baker of Tarifa is a collection set in Moorish Spain (711-1492), so a period of almost 800 years. The poems are richly atmospheric and as culturally diverse as you would expect, considering the history Hashmi wishes to inhabit. And inhabit she does. The first poem I should like to treat from this collection is a poem that I actually partly read with her and one of her sons, in The Gladstone Inn that fateful night. The poem is called The Confectioner’s District in Sevilla: Bakers Chant.

One of the things that immediately struck me about the reading, with Shadab’s family, was the amount of pleasure and fun the whole exercise was. Despite a healthy respect shown for the ‘linguistic game’, as Wittgenstein might refer to it, there was no brooding solemnity going. No reverential silence, as is so often the way at ‘Irish’ readings. And, one reason why I stay the hell away from so many!

The next thing I discovered was the incredible use of language, the natural sophistication of the choice of Hashmi’s lexicon, which of course was determined by the historic and so cultural context of the times. When I asked Shadab about the content of the poem, she went on to inform me that back in medieval Spain they shared communal ovens which the citizens of Sevilla would then go to, upon making their own dough, and while they waited for their bread to rise, they sang! Imagine Jews, Christians and Muslims all congregating together in the town squares, chanting songs together at dawn, while waiting for their bread to bake! This was before the Spanish inquisition, and all of the subsequent religious war and repression, which Shadab also treats in this wonderful book. But, while we sat there in my local pub, I remember looking at Shadab and her young family and thinking what an extraordinarily rich cultural heritage she brings with her, such a tonic for the often bleak, and often intolerant 21st century.

I teach English as a Foreign Language to students from all over the world, and have been doing so for more than ten years, and I brought the above poem by Shadab into the school where I currently teach; I teach Upper Intermediate + students in both the morning and the afternoon. Most of the students that I teach come from South American countries, so there first language is either Spanish or Portuguese, both Romance language with their roots in Latin. Some of the students, particularly the Brazilian, have very pronounced accents which sometimes impede comprehension. I am always looking for new ways to help them with their pronunciation. I knew that the students, who are very conscientious, playful and very hard-working, would enjoy Shadab’s wonderfully instructive yet playful poetry. And so, I gave them hand- outs of the poem, organised the students into groups of threes and got them to each take a column and read it aloud. Because of the playful way in which the poem is structured, the students had great fun trying to keep their attention focused as they read while the apparent shift in syntax allowed the most beautiful and apparently random associations to flow into one another. This caused a lot of good humour in the class, and as a teacher, but also a poet, I felt rather good, that for once here was a classroom of students that were working with poetry yet in a subtle and playfully instructive way. I of course wrote a lot of the difficult lexical items up on the board, writing all the vowels in red marker, to highlight them, putting black strokes over each syllable count, to help them follow the rhythm. A note on this particular aspect, Latin languages have a fundamentally different rhythm to Anglo- Saxon English, which is basically a Germanic language. I often emphasise this with the students, as they tend to forget. A poem like The Confectioners’ District in Sevilla: Bakers Chant is both a teacher’s and student’s dream of a poem to work with in the classroom, so if you are a teacher reading this, go ahead and try it!

One of the other things that I am trying to get the students to work on is their vocabulary, getting them to memorise elevated collocations, in specific working contexts, so that they may themselves, in time, be able to employ a diverse range of elevated lexis, honing lexicons in core academic topic areas (such as crime, technology and the environment, typically), for exam purposes, but also just for their own personal development as English speakers. So, the next poem Window Overlooking the Furn is, once again, a fine example of Shadab Zeest Hashmi’s incredible ear for word pairings, which are not just symphonised notes for the ear, but are also grounded in the reality of the World in which we find ourselves in, in all its political and social complexity.

It is the summer
Of barley white flour spiced honey lavender sourdough
From the houses of Jewish leather merchants
Christian boatmen singers
Muslim botanists

Held by a mother
with Kohl-lined eyes

for apricot-skinned children

In her latest book, Ghazal Cosmopolitan (Jacar Press, 2017), a wonderful mixture of academic style presentation, poetry and personal recollection, Shadab presents her origins in an extraordinary passage.

The ancient Quissa Khawani Bazaar or “the Market of
the Storytellers,”  is the first fragment of the lengthy
history of the Silk Roads I learn about- Peshawar, a
gateway to India, an outpost of the famous trading
route, remains the small city of my childhood with half
the heart of a trader, the other half split into storyteller
and warrior – due, perhaps to its geography and imp-
erial past, a fierce restlessness in its air. My last home,
a few miles away from the Khyber Pass, overlooks the
Hindukush mountains through which Alexander the
Great entered India.

It is, without any doubt, the most remarkable note on a living writer’s origins that I have ever come across in my lifetime, and I have met a few!

But, it should come as no surprise. As I told her in The Gladstone, Hashmi is one of those truly rare writers who simply records the utter mystery and magic with the historical and cultural awareness of a being that is used, since birth, to incredible cultural and linguistic diversity. So not only her ear, but all her senses are attuned to the absolute plenitude of mystery and sensation which abound.

Mughal Summer Sherbet:

Melon seeds
Green cardamom
Rose petals
Black peppercorns

See-ing and Be-ing are intrinsically linked, and as a poet Shadab knows then that trafficking in words, as she does, she must sound out the extraordinary sights and tastes which she has experienced in her lifetime. I am sure that she is also a wonderful cook, as food is as essential to her poetry, coming from a major food nation as she does, as it is to her daily life. In truth, there should be more good cooks, like Shadab, who write poetry.

As the title of the book would suggest, Ghazal Cosmopolitan is a book primarily given over to the Ghazal, an Arabic-Persian poetic form which, like all poetic forms, crossed over into other cultures and so languages, such as Urdu in Pakistan, and became transformed. Shadab gives a brilliantly insightful exposé for the novice, like me, and introduces, in a highly readable and informative way, the reader to a range of diverse styles. The origin is elegiac, Ghazal coming from the gazelle, when it utters its death cry, evoking a sense of both mortality and desire. A courtly style, like the sonnet in renaissance Europe, the Ghazal has more ancient origins. Amir Khusrao (1253-1325), a Sufi poet, was among its greatest exponents, and apparent founder of Urdu, so rather like Dante, his contemporary, in Italy. Structurally a Ghazal is ‘A minimum of 5 couplets, with no enjambment between them.’(p.27). A spoken form, normally with participation from the audience, the focus is placed on the running theme, or topic, of the poem which is always signalled in the last word of every second line. Here is one of Shadab’s, which she read aloud in The Gladstone, much to the utter bewilderment of some of the locals, who were more interested in watching the match on the muted tele above our heads.

Fix your gaze on the swinging chandelier- every thing else is broken
A subtle perfume bursts from the debris as my silence propels – broken

This was war and all I had for armor was an heirloom quilt of verses
As it attacked my jugular, your huntsman’s axe cried: this gazelle’s broken

Look for the tapestries unravelling under the bed, the unspooled story
Sweet, covered with ants: our unlived life yet (in a nutshell) is broken

Ghalib strung verses for the sly beloved, crumbling estate, leaking roof
Keats sang to the elusive autumn of his life; a poet so baffles the broken

Economy: a dull house. Let’s burn tangerine candles at both ends
Let’s be enflamed moths- you know, everything this market sells, is broken

There is one other form that I should just like to touch on in this book, which is the Qasida which the Spanish poet Lorca made popular again in Spain in the last century, after almost a silence on Qasidas due to the inquisition, as it was Muslim in origin. Here is Shadab’s descriptor.

The classic Arabic qasida has fifty to a hundred lines with a fixed
rhyming pattern. It is divided into three main thematic components
and further divided into smaller units of certain fixed metaphors,
which find nuances in the hands of the particular poet using the form.
The primary metaphor that constitutes the qasida is that of being in
sojourn, lost in the desert, in the pursuit of the loved one whose caravan
always eludes the speaker. The journey, a figurative and literal subject
of the qasida, may stand for desire. (p.81)

Here is my favourite qasida by Shadab Zeest Hashmi, at least from this particular collection. What I love about it is that it is set in modern day New York, and the subject matter concerns mainly women’s fashion; an almost Sex and the City qasida. Listen up!

Qasida of the Stride in New York

Windows, their yawn, their early morning blush
Glances falling into lit trapdoors split
the here and now, split sweet New York striding
Eleven ginko hand fans, cigarette
butts, down of eleven dandelions
in every stride. Eleven, gossamer
hour; hour of boots, mink, military coats,
hour of holding hands across and beyond
ash, smashed crystal, the cold between windows.

In Wicked Cakes and Tea, Shadab Zeest Hashmi, and what will be her fourth and latest collection, confirms her reputation as a miracle worker in poems. A reputation which started with her debut collection Baker of Tarifa (2010), followed by Kohl & Chalk ( 2013) both published by Poetic Matrix Press, and followed by Ghazal Cosmopolitan published last year by Jacar Press.  What all books contain is Shadab’s culturally diversity, born in Pakistan before moving to the States, yet bringing her multi-faceted lineage with her, mercifully. So, she is a poet with a unique geographic worldview, easefully stepping from the US to Asia, but also temporally Shadab is extremely well versed in other worlds. All of which brings a metaphysical quality to everything that she does, as it should be with a poet, you would think. And yet, how rarely it is so.

In Wicked Cakes and Tea, Shadab treats us to a short ekphrastic poem cycle, of which the following verse is taken from one of the pieces.

A man, golden as goat,
beast of meadows, a climber who shears
Innocence to fabric innocence,
Goes on crowning himself, girdling his dream.

The title of this short poem is  Four Horns in the Afternoon with a Faun, and it concerns the ballet L’aprés midi d’un faune which Nijinsky made so famous through his dance, to music by Debussy, all inspired by the poem by Mallarmé. The piece just so happens to be one of my favourites, and here Shadab, in but a verse, encapsulates the bold content, getting to its essence. What one expects from a poem, and a poet, and yet so rarely sees.  In this, she is a visionary, and by this I do not mean in any esoteric sense, so let me be clear. I mean in the sense that her vision is unclouded by all artifice. Shadab says what she sees, as she did in Baker of Tarifa, so wondrously recreating life in Moorish Spain. Here, by merely recording with astute circumspection what she sees, demarcating the subject, whatsoever it might be, with the exact word. The gerund girdling, for example, corresponding to the faun’s dream. The lecherous satyr, rather. His innate narcissism and all-consuming needs, heedless to those of any other. From generation to generation, the mythic beast arises again and again, in the guise of the everyman. And this she plucks from the papered dream, the doom poppy in the hemlock. Girdling is le mot juste as it effeminises the satyr, being a moral judgement; chasteness being designated far more masculine a feature than proliferation. Such is Hashmi’s double- bladed sword; a keen ear for the right word, and the moral compass allied with it.

Shadab’s Qasida’s in Wicked Cakes and Tea are short ten- line meditations, on subjects as diverse as Plato, divans and black coats! And, they are delightful, every cup full. Here she is on Plato. I give the poem in its entirety, so that the reader may appreciate themselves a taste of the beauty which in store for them.

Qasida of the Bridge of Teacups

The soul cleaves into two somewhere along the birth canal,
didn’t you say, Plato? I send your echo back to Athens
from my rug of locked antlers in Peshawar
where I fill a teacup with the question of half my soul
(as I watercolor a whitewashed village I’ve yet to see). In
the torpor of the mango season, I am closer to the heady basil
that fishermen of the Black Sea put in their boats for luck, to Chinese
lemongrass—Will I know my soul by the musk of tannin ink, sugarcane
pulp, sweat of a calligrapher’s palm? The antlers are fading. From teacups
of clay, bison-bone, crystal, bamboo, I build a bridge to the other half.

The poet uses each poem as an opportunity to let speak each artefact, or phenomenon. And it is her skill, and desire, which allows us, the readers, to enter into each world, momentarily, becoming, or at least given privileged access to it. Such multiplicity is unusual in itself, and a welcome boon to the reader who feels each time refreshingly renewed with each passing item. But, what is wholly rejuvenating is the singularity of the voice behind each visitation itself. While in such plurality it remains strictly singular, so fidelity is shown; one could even say it is the single most register which animates this astonishingly proliferate poetic venture. Behind the multiplicity of worlds on offer, the overall singularity of the poet’s voice endures, and this has profoundly meaningful resonance. As it is involves “Be-ING”. And here we have the visionary, again.

For an Irish reader, also a tea and literary obsessed nation, there is much to ponder upon here. Having tea with Marcel Proust, sans Madeline!  I particularly enjoyed the Gun Powder Tea section; the book is divided up into a series of parts, each one denoted by tea varietals, rendering each section as diversely flavoured as the individual tea plants themselves, a delightful conceit.

The ship is now a salty ghost
as is the captain and the subaltern
They rise uncontrollably to the swell
under the empire’s ivory plectrum
Fistful of opium newsprint
Scalloped sugar spoon and syrup doused bayonet
The moment of docking has fortune’s flickers
Keeps arriving
Boxes of rolled tea leaves
still mistaken for ammunition

For in this section I also came upon the Mad Hatter, from Lewis Carroll. Shadab’s love of literature, irrespective of culture, for India, Pakistan, Persia and the Middle-East all vie with Europe, as well as the United States. Shadab Zeest Hashmi is truly a universal poet, with a keen eye observing each individual tea-filled world. This poem is taken from the Devils and Dervishes at the Tea Party section.

Tea Fetish

Fetish (from the Portuguese feitiço)
is “a human-made object that has power
over others.” Fold the faces of the dead
in newsprint: It’s half past three, everything
stops for tea. A homesick princess had a
sinking feeling once—it stopped all the
clocks from Bath to Bengal. Look how a woman
belongs to power, her fetish hangs everywhere:
wedding patios, walled asylums, office
deals, marbled parlors, memory-dribbling deathbeds.

The next time Shadab comes to Ireland, I must get her to have a pint with me. I’d love to read the results of how such an experience might leave a trace upon her world. For she is a poet of the ordinary world, taking the mixed ingredients of her poems, be they the many different breads of medieval Spain, or the teas of the world. Yet with them, as all true poets do, she renders them extra-ordinary again. So that we, the readers, are sent back, by her books, to the world anew, as if we have been given fresher eyes in which to eat, drink and in a word… to delight in life once again. I can give no higher praise than this. I raise my cup!

Peter O’Neill is the author of several books, most recently More Micks Than Dicks, a hybrid Beckettian novella in 3 genres currently out of print, and The Dublin Trilogy: Poems & Transversions 1992-2017, a singular engagement with a 19th century French Master; launched in Paris in November last year to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Baudelaire’s death. He recently presented je la dis comme elle vient– The Appearance of the Homeric Muse in Beckett’s Comment c’est/How It Is at the How It Is Symposium organised by Gare Saint Lazare Players Ireland at the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris. He teaches EFL and resides in Dublin. His writing (be it poetry, translation, critical reviews or academic presentation) has been published widely, being translated into French, Italian and German. O’Neill has also edited two anthologies of poetry; And Agamemnon Dead ( mgv2>publishing, 2015) and The Gladstone Readings ( Famous Seamus, 2017). He set up Donkey Shots, an avant -garde literary festival, in his hometown of Skerries, North County Dublin, and currently hosts The Gladstone Readings.

© Peter O’Neill

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