On a Poem by Imtiaz Dharker—From Poetry Unbound

15 October, 2022

 

Pádraig Ó. Tua­ma, the edi­tor of the new poet­ry anthol­o­gy Poet­ry Unbound, 50 Poems to Open Your World, speaks to TMR from Belfast, Ire­land. This inspir­ing col­lec­tion presents fifty poems about what it means to be alive in the world today. Each poem is paired with Pádraig’s com­men­tary offer­ing per­son­al anec­dotes and gen­er­ous insights into the con­tent of the poem, such as the essay on poet Imti­az Dhark­er, which we fea­ture below. Some of the oth­er poets includ­ed are Hanif Abdur­raqib, Ocean Vuong, Patience Agbabi, Ray­mond Antrobus, Mar­garet Atwood, Ada Limón, Kei Miller, Roger Robin­son, Lemn Sis­say, and Layli Long Soldier.

 

 

Essay on Imti­az Dhark­er’s poet­ry excerpt­ed from Poet­ry Unbound.

Pádraig Ó Tuama

Some­times a poem’s sto­ry is in its shape as well as its sound and syn­tax (syn­tax mean­ing words and their order; I said syn­tax because I love repeat­ed S sounds; I’m a suck­er for sound). So, think­ing of shape, this poem by the British-Pak­istani poet Imti­az Dhark­er can be looked at side­ways. Turn the page so that the left-hand mar­gin forms a straight hor­i­zon­tal. What do you see? I see a large and grad­ual down­ward slope, fol­lowed by a slope that ends with a cliff and a gap and an out­crop of rocks. What are they? Ski slopes? Hills rolling down to the sea? Maybe it’s a print-out from a machine meant to lis­ten to the heart. Turn the page right-way up and look again: per­haps it’s half a tor­na­do, or a frag­ment of a heart.

This gor­geous love poem is writ­ten from Imti­az Dhark­er to her late hus­band Simon Pow­ell, who died in 2009. They were both in their fifties when they mar­ried; he was already liv­ing with can­cer, and died a few years later.

The title of this poem, two short sen­tences — “Don’t Miss Out! Book Right Now for the Jour­ney of a Life­time!” — sounds like an adver­tise­ment from a trav­el com­pa­ny. The excla­ma­tion marks at the end of each sen­tence add a note of urgency, or com­e­dy. The poem begins with that kind of urgency too: with the hol­i­day, the options, the accom­mo­da­tion and trav­el, the changed plans, the pack­ing … Then, so ear­ly in the poem, there’s a turn, and all urgency glides away: “Then I look at you stand­ing here / in this pale grey light.” The allure of a des­ti­na­tion and all the busy­ness that get­ting to a des­ti­na­tion brings are undone in this gaze, right on the cusp of depar­ture. In the lines “think that I have miles and miles / to go before I know you” Imti­az Dhark­er echoes Robert Frost’s line: “And miles to go before I sleep.” But her poem cel­e­brates arrivals: instead of unreach­able des­ti­na­tions, the lovers reach for each oth­er; instead of unknown lands they have “each other’s end­less land­scapes to explore.” Wher­ev­er they could have gone — a lake, Paris, Machu Pic­chu — they have oth­er ways to make each oth­er light­head­ed. The love in this poem makes mak­ing love seem new again, with all the pri­va­cy and inti­ma­cy it deserves.

In “Don’t Miss Out! …” Imti­az Dhark­er isn’t shout­ing “this is a poem about sex in midlife,” but indeed it is. The cou­ple in the poem are left dizzy and breath­less. Away from the glare and glitz and manip­u­la­tion in the Buy this Expe­ri­ence! Don’t Miss Out! of the title, the poem offers a pow­er­ful and sen­su­al thrust of its own. It’s a deli­cious alter­na­tive to chas­ing expe­ri­ence as if time’s run­ning out.

Imti­az Dhark­er is skilled in poet­ry, paint­ing, and film direct­ing. You can see her visu­al inter­ests in the shape­li­ness of this poem — per­haps it’s a sand-filled hour­glass; a reminder too that time isn’t eter­nal. As the poem’s stan­zas nar­row there’s a shed­ding of lay­ers, a nar­row­ing down, a focus. This 33-line poem has only six com­plete sen­tences with­in it, some of them long, some very short. To read this poem aloud requires mod­u­la­tion of breath and lungs — in con­trast to the clipped, imper­a­tive sen­tences of the title. Maybe the shape of the poem is the sound of breath after cli­max, bod­ies col­laps­ing into each oth­er. Cer­tain­ly breath is a theme: dizzy alti­tudes and light­head­ed­ness, thin blue air and breathlessness.

This poem is an ele­gy, from the ancient Greek word ele­gos, mean­ing a song or poem of lamen­ta­tion. The shape of the poem might tell of things run­ning out, but the breath and breadth of the poem is of ful­fil­ment, sat­is­fac­tion, body and desire and con­nec­tion and explo­ration. In Dharker’s bril­liant hands, the ele­giac poem is one that bursts with life and spontaneity.

The word “you” is present through­out this poem, espe­cial­ly in the first half: “I look at you,” “miles / to go before I know you,” “become famil­iar with you,” “I seek out your shore, you stalk my / tigers,” “your / kiss,” “your mouth.” In the sec­ond stan­za, the lan­guage of their love­mak­ing moves from you to we/us. How­ev­er, the you returns in the final sentence:


You Are Here

The cap­i­tal let­ters for these three words, as well as the ital­ics, make the words stand out. Wish you were here! is what’s imag­ined to be said in post­cards. There’s no wish­ing in this poem; there’s pure being. Know­ing that Dharker’s hus­band had already died a few years before this poem was pub­lished, I see the three final words of the poem as a mem­o­ry, as a moment of miss­ing him, as a moment of feel­ing him, right in the here, right in the now. The poem’s final line is just one word: Here. And Here is where the poet is, too, in the wake of her lover’s sad death, with these glad mem­o­ries of big plans being spon­ta­neous­ly inter­rupt­ed by noth­ing more than just being with one anoth­er. The poem spins itself into a soli­tary word, a word of arrival, a word of pres­ence. Soli­tary, yes, but not abandoned.


Don’t Miss Out! Book Right Now for the Jour­ney of a Lifetime!

Imtiaz Dharker

We plan a hol­i­day, a mini-break, a long week­end, a stolen week. We trawl the options, seek out the per­fect com­bi­na­tion of hotel and flight, the dis­tant beach, the extra night, con­sid­er pack­ing suit­cas­es, exam­ine the trav­el clothes and lotions, get as far as tying on our bag­gage tags. Then I look at you stand­ing here

in this pale grey light and think that I have miles and miles to go before I know you, and as in any unknown country

I may wish to trav­el to your sites, and make repeat­ed vis­its to become famil­iar with you. We look out of the bed­room win­dow at the usu­al view and think

we may pre­fer to linger on here, where we have each other’s end­less land­scapes to explore, where I seek out your shore, you stalk my tigers and the world will say it lost us.

This will be our stolen week, your kiss my break, my eyes your lake your mouth will be my Paris.

And as for Machu Pic­chu, there are oth­er routes than dizzy altitude

to ren­der us light- head­ed, oth­er ways than

thin blue air to leave

us

breath­less, and we are here, not away not far but where we want to be, still where we were, this red arrow point­ing straight at

who we are, and

You Are

Here

Imti­az Dhark­er was born in Lahore, Pak­istan, and raised in Glas­gow. She is a for­mer Poet in Res­i­dence at Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Library. She was the recip­i­ent of the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poet­ry in 2014, and the Chol­monde­ley Award in 2011. Her poems are includ­ed on the nation­al cur­ricu­lum in the UK, and she has per­formed to audi­ences of stu­dents all over the coun­try. Her most recent poet­ry col­lec­tion, Luck is the Hook, was pub­lished by Blood­axe Books in 2018.

 

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