How is one to review a book of poems about higher planes that lie beyond the faculties of the mind using the same flitting mind and its limited faculties? Perhaps this irony can be resolved with the help of a different tool, one that the Sufis proclaim to be the finest: the heart. So if poem can poke and thaw the heart, it works.
If this touchstone is used for Set My Heart on Fire, as a debut collection of poems, it is a treasure. Like a child of the Sufic tradition of poetry, it resembles its parent. The poems are soulful, with music you can hear in the imagery it evokes. They stay faithful to its philosophy of fana; the motifs, metaphors and lexicon are all as Sufic as they come.
However, to categorise it only as ‘Sufi’ would be to shrink its vast canvass, for it speaks of and to the entire canvass of life itself from the grasshopper to the sky, the breath to the winds. And then, as if defying our cultural and/or religious silos, it conveys the highest state of connection with the universe, somewhat like they call Bhakti here.
Set My Heart on Fire is divided into three sections, chronologically arranged; yet, the range of themes and reflective meditations it offers to the readers far outnumber three. Like any good murshid, Shahbano offers thoughtful lessons, sometimes with gentle admonishments: “strive hard to be alluring/disciplined in the practice of inner adornment/ be exquisite/desirable” and “stop being ignorant/don’t you see you can’t afford it anymore?”
Besides the beauty of its imaginary (“lips of folded leaves”), what sets this collection apart is its self-reflexivity. Shahbano bares her pain, speaks of the feeling commonly referred to as love, the delusions so inherent to the human condition, the traps that undergird our desires (“this Love is not what you know and call love: wanting, owning, getting” or “love is no longer/a getting, a calculation”). Pain is reiterated not simply as an enduring part of human life but as a rather useful device: “the only way out is in/there is blessing at the root of pain/be fearless, single-minded/find that root”. In fact, for a book that kindly implores the reader to enter a paradigm of non-worldly and noble love, Shabano’s poem to her daughter is one of the few reminders of deep human attachments that come with “ferocity”, “unspeakable joy” and “torment”. These poems can turn into a mirror and then morph back into the pretty bird or tree that she has herself sketched for the book and its cover.
Nature and its awe-inspiring details are a big presence in Shahbano’s poems. Her keen eye hovers over “Creatures in the Garden”, the moon, river, rain and of course birds who “speak differently/in deference to season change/their windpipes softened/by sleeping early, rising late”. And the expression are so vivid, it is like wearing Shahbano’s eyes to see the world which then appears easy, loving and sublime.
No matter what one is going through at a given moment of one’s life, these poems are reassuring reminders of life’s bigger truths and realities that the mind cannot always grasp. So relevant for our cynical times of mistrust and misreadings (such as when – as Shahbano writes – Rumi’s “transcendent devotion” is seen as “carnal desire”).
This book is beauty, times four, plus ecstasy, equals ten plus. Looking forward to more from this Sufi poet with familial connections to Sindh, the land known for its rich Sufi tradition, dargahs, pir and mallangs!