ROCOCO AND OTHER WORLDS by Afzal Ahmed Syed. Translated by Musharraf Ali Farooqi. Wesleyan University Press. March 2010. Harcover. 108 pages. $22.95.

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Worshippers at the altar of poetry will find a way to sustain their souls in a tumultuous world. Born in Ghazipur, India, Afzal Ahmed Syed, revered modern bard of the Urdu language, spins lyricism from the bloody creation of Bangladesh in 1971, and the Lebanese Civil War of 1976, both of which he witnessed. His subsequent years in Pakistan have been increasingly turbulent, on the heels of international events. Driven to internalize the effects of history unfolding around him, Syed’s poetry transcends time and place. We travel with him to unfamiliar worlds made familiar by our common humanity.

Now for the first time, English readers can sample Syed through Rococo and Other Worlds, a collection of poems poignantly translated from Urdu by Musharraf Ali Farooqi.

Like European writing during Nazi oppression, Syed’s poetry is his means of escapism. True to rococo’s breezy baroque style, the verses dance with light-hearted metaphors and playful symbolism that slyly encapsulate the journey of life in a Kafkaesque world. One cannot help but chuckle at his cheekiness:

“The Moroccans invented the papyrus

The Phoenicians, the alphabet

I invented Poetry”

But unlike Kafka, there is hope in Syed’s mercenary world. For  “…poetry had invented love, love invented the heart, the heart made tent and canoes and traversed far-off lands.” Ah, the irony lies in the very necessity of such an invention! Syed escapes despair by becoming an observer; by creating universes of what could have been, and of what could be. His language, gentle like a stream and subtle like a dream, stirs the soul like a lover’s velvet embrace:

“Tell me a story
Other than how from the museum
The witness table of the peace pact disappeared
Other than a continent is called by the wrong name

Tell me a story
Other than that you do not like to kiss lips
Other than that I was not the first man in your life
Other than that it was not raining that day”

Make no mistake. Syed’s sarcasm stings even as it caresses the reader like silk. Though his poetry is drawn from the mundane realm of politics and the humdrum of insignificant and ordinary daily life, it is created from a soulful fire, not factory manufactured. In it you find a free spirit, a writer who narrates the entire human experience through one little story. The inhumanity makes you feel outraged, which is exactly what Syed wants. For example, after describing a girl’s unparalleled beauty and sensuality, he concludes:

“Only to meet her
Is impossible
Like Pakistan
Hala Faruqi too
Is in Police custody.”

Syed’s narrative extends far beyond South Asia, for he articulates what it means to be human and to yearn for safety in an unsafe world. Yet his poetry is devoid of the slightest whiff of defeatism. In Syed’s world, the world of a poet, hope still exists.

Sujata Srinivasan is a Connecticut-based writer, reporter, editor and educator.

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