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Don't Ask Me for That Love Again

Romantic love disturbed by rumours of injustice, and the strange sweetness of a prison evening. Simon Korner intoduces two poems by Pakistan's great poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

Just as the poetry of Pablo Neruda was massively popular with ordinary Chileans -  who regarded him as their national poet - so Faiz Ahmed Faiz was loved by millions of Pakistanis, who knew his poems by heart.  His funeral in 1984 was a day of mourning for the whole country, and many Faiz poems have been set to music and are still widely sung. 

Faiz, a Communist like Neruda, was born in British India in 1911, the son of a lawyer.  He joined the newly formed Progressive Writers’ Movement in the 1930s, served in the Indian Army during the Second World War, becoming a Lieutenant Colonel, and after Partition - which he condemned - moved to Pakistan, where he became editor of the Pakistan Times, an English-language daily.  He also worked as managing editor of the Urdu daily Imroz, and was actively involved in organising trade unions.

In 1951 Faiz was accused of plotting a coup with a group of Pakistani army officers and, after four years on death row, was released in 1955 after worldwide pressure from such stars as Paul Robeson. In 1962 he was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize by the Soviet Union.  He went into exile in Moscow, London and Beirut, eventually returning to Pakistan.


Faiz as a young man
Much of his poetry follows the conventions of ghazal, the classical form of traditional Urdu poetry, which had been influenced by Persian literature.  But Faiz’s work revolutionises the conventions, extending the meanings of many traditional terms.  For instance, Faiz often addresses poems to his "beloved", a central word in the ghazal vocabulary.  In his hands, it refers to both a person and also to the people as whole, even to revolution.  He sees the individual as existing within a wider context:  “The self of a human being, despite all its loves, troubles, joys and pains, is a tiny, limited and humble thing.”

His most famous poem Don’t Ask Me for That Love Again, which is not in the strict ghazal form, explains why he can no longer cocoon himself inside romantic love:


“That which then was ours, my love,

don’t ask me for that love again.

The world then was gold, burnished with light –

and only because of you.”

 

He goes on to recall powerfully the total absorption of being in love:


“How could one weep for sorrows other than yours?

How could one have any sorrow but the one you gave?

So what were these protests, these rumors of injustice?

A glimpse of your face was evidence of springtime.

The sky, whenever I looked, was nothing but your eyes.”


But such romanticism is answered in the second part of the poem, where his later experiences are described: 
 

“All this I’d thought, all this I’d believed.

But there were other sorrows, comforts other than love.

The rich had cast their spell on history…”


The youthful, Romeo-like quality in the line “If you’d fall into my arms, Fate would be helpless” cannot be sustained in the face of reality:

 

“Bitter threads began to unravel before me

as I went into alleys and in open markets

saw bodies plastered with ash, bathed in blood.

I saw them sold and bought, again and again.”

 

An alternative translation of these lines puts it even more strongly:

“Everywhere – in the alleys and bazaars – 

Human flesh is being sold  -

Throbbing between layers of dust – bathed in blood.”


He can’t ignore this reality once he has seen it, and yet neither can he forget his human beloved.  “And you are still so ravishing – what should I do?”

This, perhaps, is the source of the poem’s power – its refusal to opt for simple heroics and straighten out the ambivalence he feels.  He can’t deny how sweet love is, and yet in spite of this he also acknowledges that:

 
“There are other sorrows in this world,

 comforts other than love.

 Don’t ask me, my love, for that love again.”

 
It isn’t that he scorns love but that he understands that it can’t exist in isolation from the world.  The phrase “comforts other than love” suggests the joys of political struggle and comradeship, as though these could be a different, wider form of love.  In that repetition of “my love” in the final line, Faiz nevertheless re-emphasises how difficult it is to leave behind his former bliss.  This is a poem about the heavy burden of taking on responsibility, and the inner struggle that that entails.

 

Don’t Ask Me for That Love Again

 
That which then was ours, my love,

don’t ask me for that love again.

The world then was gold, burnished with light –

and only because of you.  That’s what I had believed.

How could one weep for sorrows other than yours?

How could one have any sorrow but the one you gave?

So what were these protests, these rumours of injustice?

A glimpse of your face was evidence of springtime.

The sky, whenever I looked, was nothing but your eyes.

If you’d fall into my arms, Fate would be helpless.

 

 
All this I’d thought, all this I’d believed.

But there were other sorrows, comforts other than love.

The rich had cast their spell on history:

dark centuries had been embroidered on brocades and silks.

Bitter threads began to unravel before me

as I went into alleys and in open markets

saw bodies plastered with ash, bathed in blood.

I saw them sold and bought, again and again.

This too deserves attention.  I can’t help but look back

when I return from those alleys – what should one do?

And you are still so ravishing – what should I do?

There are other sorrows in this world,

comforts other than love.

Don’t ask me, my love, for that love again.”

 


 Photo-illustration for A Prison Evening. From Panhala.net

Another poem written in prison is also one of his most well-known.  A Prison Evening has many of the attributes of an exquisite love song, something like a Shakespearean sonnet in the richness of its imagery, and yet it uses the beauty it describes – beauty which it itself embodies - as a powerful argument for political optimism.

One phrase in A Prison Evening seems to sum up the poem’s particular power:  “strangely sweet”.  This is precisely its tone - songlike, elegiac and yet triumphant.  It is almost narcotic in its effect, but we are not lulled by it but, rather, roused and strengthened.

The title informs us of the setting: prison.  Then we have the first of the astonishing images, night personified (another translation renders it as:  “Night – enchanting princess”), descending a staircase of stars:


“Each star a rung,

 night comes down the spiral

 staircase of the evening.”

 

In spite of the almost magical, fairytale feel of this metaphor, Faiz’s commentary elsewhere shows this can be taken as an accurate description of his state of mind in prison, in which “time and distances of the outside world are negated; the sense of distance and nearness is obliterated.”  He says that in prison “like the dawn of love, all the sensations are again aroused” and we feel this strongly with the second image, of the breeze whispering words of love:


“The breeze passes by so very close

 as if someone just happened to speak of love.” 

 

The contracting of distance occurs again in the third metaphor, of trees embroidering the sky with their weave of branches:


“In the courtyard,

the trees are absorbed refugees

embroidering maps of return on the sky.”
 

 
The refugee/return image here may be a brilliant addition by the translator Agha Shahid Ali - a translation by Daud Kamal has it differently:

 

“Gnarled and hunchbacked

Trees in the prison compound

Are embroidering exquisite designs

On the sky’s blue silk shawl.”

 
Like Don’t Ask Me for That Love Again, this poem divides into two distinct parts, which the translator physically separates on the page.  The second part is an answer to the grief of “separation from my lover.”

 

“This thought keeps consoling me:

though tyrants may command that lamps be smashed

in rooms where lovers are destined to meet,

they cannot snuff out the moon…”

 

Without the preceding part of the poem, this would not be convincing.  But such is the power of the beauty Faiz has conjured up before our eyes, we believe him when he claims:


“no tyranny will succeed,

no poison of torture make me bitter,

if just one evening in prison

can be so strangely sweet,

if just one moment anywhere on this earth.”


This sounds like Keats’s statement “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” but rather than elevating beauty above all else, Faiz is reminding us of the power of the human spirit.  The imagination cannot be imprisoned and human joy cannot be extinguished, even in the most unlikely of circumstances.  The very fact that the poet is able to create such beauty from behind bars has become a victory, something heroic, and thus gives encouragement to all in the struggle for freedom.

 

A Prison Evening

 

Each star a rung,

night comes down the spiral

staircase of the evening.

The breeze passes by so very close

as if someone just happened to speak of love.

In the courtyard,

the trees are absorbed refugees

embroidering maps of return on the sky.

On the roof,

the moon – lovingly, generously –

is turning the stars

into a dust of sheen.

From every corner, dark-green shadows,

in ripples, come towards me.

At any moment they may break over me,

like the waves of pain each time I remember

this separation from my lover.

 

This thought keeps consoling me:

though tyrants may command that lamps be smashed

in rooms where lovers are destined to meet,

they cannot snuff out the moon, so today,

nor tomorrow, no tyranny will succeed,

no poison of torture make me bitter,

if just one evening in prison

can be so strangely sweet,

if just one moment anywhere on this earth.

 


Faiz Ahmed Faiz, 1911-1984

Homepage image: Faiz as a young man.

The Rebel’s Silhouette, Selected poems by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, translated by Agha Shahid Ali, University of Massachusetts Press, 1995, £7.78 

The Unicorn and the Dancing Girl, translated by Daud Kamal, Independent Publishing Company Ltd, 1988, £7.95 plus £1.99 sourcing fee.

Both available on Amazon.