Talonbooks, 2015, pp.81
Reviewed by Niharika Pandit
At the time of writing this review of the sublime poetry collection by Kashmiri-Canadian writer and poet Rahat Kurd, Kashmir Valley entered the eighteenth day of India’s August 5 military siege following the unilateral and unconstitutional revocation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. The Article, which many recognise as the thread linking princely Jammu and Kashmir’s accession to India in the aftermath of the Partition, ensured relative autonomy to the state. The method of its abrogation replicated violent colonial tactics where Kashmiri people were not consulted—they were barely aware—as tens of thousands of troops were rushed to an already densely militarised state in the run up. Political leaders were placed under house arrest with imposition of an indefinite curfew. People in the Valley and many other parts of the state remain under curfew with total communication blockade; there is no internet, no cellular or cable network. Their kin, in other parts of the world hope to receive perhaps just a single text message; a small glimmer of hope, of reassurance that they are ok. Whatever ‘ok’ may signify about life under military occupation. As a few news videos of deserted, curfewed streets of Srinagar have begun circulating on the web, these verses from Kurd’s title poem ‘Cosmophilia’ appear eerily familiar:
…It’s true I refused to hurry,
to let threats and flattery
jostle me from reverie,
force my stitches
along crude lines in fear.
No matter how devoutly
my patterns and fabrics
sing Kashmir, Kashmir,
still the army will tear up the forests
transform our cool riverine valley
into the long sludge of resignation. (p.7)
Throughout this collection that comprises poems and ghazals, Kurd shares deeply personal narratives of what it means to inherit and so, bear witness to political conflicts—Kashmir in the aftermath of the Partition—and the myriad ways in which the ensuing trauma, often intergenerational, interlaces with belonging, loss and the desire to feel at home. As a reader, I witness this wealth of emotions with her. I see the young girl she addresses; the girl she will never meet but who will inherit her sewn shawl. She will visit the places that the poet visited—from Naghsh-e-Jahan to Lotfollah in Iran, and Pasar Seni in Malaysia, where a brief exchange in Kashmiri will lead her back to Srinagar, the army, the oppression, the curfews, the ongoing and seemingly never-ending cycle of violence. To me, this title poem through its subtle evocativeness offers a gentle reminder of the luminous Frida Kahlo to Marty McConnell where the poet Marty McConnell pens a fearless message to self from Frida’s point of view. Yet amidst the friction, Kurd reassures us, and perhaps herself too, of hope—the resilience, the will to survive that she will pass on, and in doing so, embody:
I will remind her
how to pick up the thread
when the end of mourning comes; (p.9)
In an interview, Kurd explains that Cosmophilia implies ‘love for ornament’—a theme that recurs throughout the book be it in the form of languages—Persian, Urdu, their playful usage throughout the collection or as she writes about the streets of Srinagar, Vancouver to the intricate Islamic art and the complexities of the Kashmiri crafts; motifs that are crucial to her history and inheritance. The vast depths, the gentleness of these cosmos co-exist often uncomfortably, especially in light of the troubled histories and perpetual presence of the conflict. And it is this creative and existential conundrum that seeps into all of Kurd’s poems. In fact, at times, Kurd navigates through and embraces it rather gracefully as in the following verse from ‘Ghazal: In the Persian’:
I lost Urdu as I lost Kashmir, every time I left my beloved women.
I found a circuitous way back to them, uphill, by stealth, in the Persian. (p.11)
While at other instances, treading through this conundrum to make sense of one’s identity and belongingness—both material and affective—is embossed with pain, as becomes evident in this verse from ‘Shish Mahal’:
Every facet a crystal of pain, formed in every heart that yields to me –
And every heart that yields its pain to me reflects mine. (p.1)
Throughout then, the reader bears witness to many such affective dissonances and feels a sense of loss, pain, longing, hope and quite often, love and beauty. Kurd’s emotive style of writing—with multilingual phrases, stylistic variations and detailed descriptions of the varied spaces in Kashmir, in Vancouver—compel the reader to navigate these circuitous linkages with her. One is further bound by the deeply personal nature of anecdotes and recollections she offers—for instance, her complex relationship with English, the coloniser’s language, in the poem titled ‘Married to English’. As can be gleaned from the title, the English language appears as an anthropomorphic entity that is further perceptible in Kurd’s recounting of her tumultuous relationship with it along with Urdu and Persian languages. These variations, the themes of harmony and dissonance run throughout the poem. I find these poetic excursions quite generative precisely as they remind me of feminist scholar Clare Hemmings’ (2012) insistence on thinking through affective dissonance and affective solidarity as engendering a collective, transformative politics. In other words, the reader feels the beauty in strolling through the bazaars; but the reader also senses loss and is willing to encounter these terrains with Kurd. It is thus the intuitive and multivalent nature of ‘Cosmophilia’ that makes it simultaneously personal and political, deeply intimate but also transnational—and ultimately familiar.
Kurd’s cosmos is both material and imaginative, as is distinctly seen in the two-part, episodic poem ‘Wagah Border’. The poem largely reflects on the disingenuousness and disaffection caused by artificial borders such as the Wagah dividing post/colonial India and Pakistan, as Kurd asks:
Is anything left for me
at Wagah border? (p.22)
This manned border holds together tales of separated families, tinkered dreams, cancelled rendezvous, broken promises but not without spillages. These spillages take the form of warm greetings and exchange of poetry with a customs official or imagining a collective future where borders—both visible and invisible—will cease to exist, and with them the epochs of grief. In conclusion, not only is Cosmophilia a delight for lovers of poetry but a rich auto/ethnographic encounter with loss, at times pain but most importantly, of traversing these terrains.
Hemmings, C. (2012) ‘Affective solidarity: Feminist reflexivity and political transformation’, Feminist Theory, 13(2), pp. 147–161.
Niharika Pandit is a PhD candidate at the Department of Gender Studies, London School of Economics and Political Science. Her research explores gender, militarisation and the narratives of home. She holds an MA in Gender Studies from SOAS, University of London.