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‘Quiet Women’ — A Mesmerising Collection Of Poetry

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Afshan Shafi lives in Lahore and has studied English Literature and International Relations at The University of Buckingham and Webster Graduate School, London. Her poems have appeared in various magazines and other publications. She has also served as a Poetry Editor for The Missing Slate and as an Assistant Editor for Good Times Magazine. Her prose has appeared in Grazia (Pakistan), The News on Sunday, OK! (Pakistan) and Daily Times (Pakistan). Her monthly column ‘Diary of a Bibliophile’ appears in Libas Now.

The writer has a profound way of expressing her delicate thoughts, as each of the verse of her poems needs a quiet time to find serenity and discover the warmth.

Afshan Shafi’s latest book, “Quiet Women” is a mesmerising collection of poetry, set alongside art work that converses with the poems. Instead of reading it in order, I set about the task of perusing through Afshan’s work in chance-encounters, letting the eye carry me to new destinations in no methodical fashion. Journeying into her poems, one feels, in part, an archaeologist finding ancient remains of gems and, in part, in company with the sphinx as one muses over the many layers of meaning woven into the fabric of the poems.

Consider the first poem that drew me toward itself. “Ativan. Atraxia. A July Evening” – the very title of the poem is an experience in itself and it betrays the poetic intent of this meandering river poem. Ativan is a medication used to treat anxiety and troubled sleep. Atraxia is the state of continuous freedom from distress. All this is taking place on an unsuspecting “July Evening.” The accompanying art work (by Ishita Basu Malik) is dreamy – in the first image, there is the literal lifting skyward, which leaves an imprint of the body/soul on the ground.

Another piece set alongside “…July Evening” depicts the state of easy wonder and freedom from care. In the poem itself, the altered state of mind is constructed with a certain doomed grandeur:

“the fulsomeness of death motioning

You more than you should allow

Granting you a notoriety

Like the high blue of a mosque…

The wave of your compulsion,

Regretting your commonness,

Your mundane subtleties.”

The high of the ‘notoriety’ is given a spiritual connotation with the ‘blue mosque,’ however; the experience is haunted by the return to ordinariness (“commonness…mundane subtleties.”)

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The second poem that drew me to its calling pulse was the cryptically titled poem: “Buried amongst flowers in Pakistan.” The title of this one is again a telling poem in itself. It suggests that perhaps we can find in cherished rubble of old diaries, a heap of butterflies. This poem consists of interlacing of lines drawn completely from Rumi, Robert Browning and Vladimir Nabokov.

One notices a surrealist pattern emerge with Afshan’s choices and decisions cutting through the fiber of the collected poem.

“White butterflies turn lavender” indeed, as the poem turns on its three faced mirage. Reading this one is an exquisite moment, as one gets submerged in four ways of looking at the world. (The poet’s own silence inter-weaved in the mixing of the ingredients) It is a cubist feat in writing.

Drawn into the web cast by the poet, I am of my own taken to the poem, which has earned the right to be placed at the book’s title page: “Quiet Women.” As my experience of Afshan’s poetry has been that she weighs the titles with extra-care, I am bound towards thinking deeper on the meaning of why this and not any other poem is the chosen name of her book. A little research brings me to “Smoke Borders” a poem, which is dedicated in its entirety to women who were displaced in the 1947 partition of India. Is this the ‘presence of ghosts’ the poet ascribes to these quiet women?

Quiet because they suffered in moment and across time, quiet now because they died. “the trains arrived/ full of limbs/ and the smell of blood/ in late afternoon” This picture of macabre horror is given an ordinary detail ‘in late afternoon’ which makes the passing of this event, so ordinarily real.

By this time, I have stopped at various lines that catch my eye, without even the order inherent to the poem. It reminds me of how the first time I heard of Afshan was in the newspaper…she was talking of surrealism and holding surrealist experiments. How does one dive into a book of such poems? The art work alongside takes you to visual play as well, and going down that road, the line-images seem to be shredded surrealistic sunlight. Rather like, “A century of sentences written in pure light” as Afshan herself writes in the section “Sitting Rooms” of “Four movements of light”.

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Many of the poems are written in first person, and the use of this technique, in particular in the poem “Quiet Women” hints at making the experience of quiet women firsthand – and yet, dangling in the air is the capacity of the poem to be a dedication. Even so, it is a dedication that one feels keenly at one’s bone.

Afshan’s work is akin to miniature art – the deepened impact of singular and minuscule images holds one attentive and listening. She herself describes her sentences in these inviting lines:

“My sentences are pale dust, pale reels of a woman in a cabinet of ice. These ghosts are words where the ink has dried. Let the ghosts slip their silken ankles over your frontiers.”

Overall, “Quiet Women” is a book that needs to be read slowly and deliberately, over several tea sessions.  It is pharmakon in the manner that it is itself the remedy and the poison. I say this because her writing invites and yet cuts you back in so many shards of glass. Reading her work is a delicate process then, one sentence at a time.

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