Sin of Semantics by Saima Afreen
Copper Coin (Delhi), 2019
Pages 122 / Amazon India
Saima Afreen is an award-winning poet and journalist who has received the Writer of the Year Award from Nassau Community College (New York, 2016), the Villa Sarkia Writers’ Residency (Finland, 2017) and the Charles Wallace India Trust Fellowship in Creative writing in the University of Kent (2019). Sin of Semantics is her debut collection of poems, where the title poem has the lines: “Wounds bloom like morning prayers / On the paisleys / Of my shawl–”. This is the sin of semantics – sin in the sense of a transgression against the divine and semantics in the sense of interpretations of the meaning of words. And nowhere this is more appropriate than in poetry, a high art that has divine associations since ancient times and something where meanings swim in metaphors.
Cleanth Brooks in his essay “The Language of Paradox” labels the verbal tension between opposing words in a poem as “paradox”, which maintains the dynamic balance of a poetic structure. Let us take the example of “Wounds bloom”, where a reader will not anticipate the appearance of the word “bloom” after “wound” and yet the poet puts that very word in that order to create a paradox and inflict the anticipation of the reader with a newness. Whatever was anticipated was as per tradition and what the poet has done through her individual talent is something that modifies the tradition. Tradition is something that has come down through the length of time and has almost become divine. Modifying such a monolith is the sin. And how is it done? It is done through words and their interpretations of meaning, which is the semantics. To take the full line “Wounds bloom like morning prayers”, it is evident that the comparison between wounds and morning prayers is incongruous. And yet at a metaphorical level it makes sense. The keyword is “paisleys”, the teardrop shaped motif that adorns the shawl and makes it look beautiful. If a teardrop can be beautiful then why can’t a wound be like a prayer? The semantics!
Saima Afreen’s poem “You Who Flicker at the Edge of Dawn” opens with an epigraph from Pablo Neruda: “And in your life my infinite dreams live.” And then comes Saima’s lines: “On your lips / a white universe dawns. / Pagan temples wake up in my waist.” It almost seems like a continuation of Neruda’s voice. Such is the syntactical power of Saima’s words that veers on the edge of classic. Saima is not a poet of plain narrative verse. Even when she starts a poem in a narrative mode like “A Couplet”: “My grandfather / is at the tea table / picking a sugar cube for his tea, / humming Faiz, flowers from the couplet / slip on the china saucer…” her words seamlessly slip into the surreal and the narrative becomes magic-realist. Saima is a poet on the edge of reality where possibilities abound and she cashes in on them. When she writes in the poem that “the sun is too bright to read/ the correct history in his wrinkles” and in the next stanza continues, “The couplet slows down like the train/ he alighted from at Nizamuddin”, it makes the history of the family allied with that of the nation so palpable that it excavates the pathos from the depths of truth. It is this mix of the real with the magical that gives Saima’s poems a special touch.
In the poem “The Charpoy My Grandma Left”, she writes about Partition and dislocation: “All that was left in her eyes / was the print of barbed wires”, “the chopped stories she heard/ from Balochi nomads”, “the sun / was exiled in hollow eyes”, “Faces grew like jungles, stuck / in my grandma’s braids”, “flags like hawks hovering/ against the blue of her eyes”. No plain narrative or statistical data can bring out the horror that history leaves behind. It is only writing from the edge that gives the sharpness of wedge that can penetrate one’s consciousness and leave a mark. The last poem of the volume is titled “Hindustan” and it starts with the words, “Sindhu River is silent.” The words are very significant. The poem depicts the history of the Nation and interrogates the logic behind killing human beings as a historical retribution because the past cannot be modified. She raises the question: “what do they know if their genes were intertwined/ on the sea floors / of Gulf of Persia and Island City of Dwarka?” And then the poet reveals the significance of the silence of Sindhu River:
She was silent even five thousand years ago
silent when she changed her course
she will be silent, again when she changes
and chooses her geography, her ocean
to pour her heart in, she’s tired of carrying
on her backs bricks of a broken civilization.
There is no magic realism in these words. But there is still the sin of semantics because she is asking an uncomfortable question for some and stating a truth that many would like to not acknowledge.
Just as Saima is a painter of the nation’s history and her family chronicles, she is also an artist of her native city, Calcutta. She writes of rain in in the city where we are “the memory/ of water”, of coming home from New Market carrying a bag with a portrait of a mysterious woman on it, of a bhishti who carries water in a goatskin sack in Bow Barracks, of the Rickshaw Puller who paddles through “the monsoon gurgles / Of Ripon Street”, of winter solstice and Nahoum’s” fairy lights”, “glace cherries” and “white cakes”. Places come alive in Saima’s poems be it Calcutta, Helsinki, Villa Sarkia, Banjara Hills, Vainguinim Beach, Delhi, Gaya, or all those places from history. Saima’s voice is a combination of permanence and fickleness but the interesting part is that there is no jarring effect when the transition takes place from one to the other.
She can take the readers into surreal territory and bring them back into hard reality through the tunnel of her poems. The noted poet Agha Shahid Ali in his poem, “A Lost Memory of Delhi”, writes about his newly-wed parents in Delhi while his father is still a young man; Saima too writes about her father after Agha Shahid Ali in the poem “Portrait of My Father as a Young Man.” She mentions him as a young man with pink knuckles wearing an HMT watch and a coat. She tries to bring his younger years closer to hers with images of a thumping steam engine, toys, and, cakes which are of puerile interest but help her navigate his life better when he was still unmarried and young almost like her. There she poignantly states: “Inside my throat is a tunnel”. And through the narrow passage readers get to meet her words and worlds. Saima Afreen’s poems takes us to different places in the linguistic geography of her poems. The readers encounter a multiplicity of experiences. There are many words, many meanings and so there are many worlds. This is the sin of semantics and the semantics of sin in poetry.
Amit Shankar Saha is a widely published award-winning poet, short story writer and reviewer. He has won the Poiesis Award,, Wordweavers Prize, Nissim International Runner-up Prize. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Griffin Poetry Prize. His works have appeared in Best Indian Poetry 2018. He is the co-founder of Rhythm Divine Poets, Assistant Secretary of Intercultural Poetry and Performance Library, Fiction Editor of Ethos Literary Journal and Chief Executive Editor of Virasat Art Publication. His two collections of poems are titled “Balconies of Time” and “Fugitive Words”. He has a PhD in English from Calcutta University and teaches in the English Department of Seacom Skills University.