Her Marmalade House: A Review of Kohl & Chalk
by Afia Aslam
After traversing the storied streets of Al-Andalus in Baker of Tarifa, poet Shadab Zeest Hashmi turns
her gaze inwards in her latest collection, Kohl & Chalk (Poetic Matrix Press, 2013). This deceptively
slim volume carries a substantial cargo. In just over fifty poems, Hashmi unpacks the ravages and
accidental gifts of history from her country of birth (Pakistan) and her adopted country (America),
and weaves these into a loose tapestry that stretches across time and continents. Much of this
journey in verse is framed as a continuing internal conversation with herself, her family, her past,
and often with her conscience, and it soars along the wings of a brilliantly original poetic voice.
Although writing in English, Hashmi’s aesthetic influences remain firmly rooted in South Asian and
Middle Eastern cultures. She constantly turns to these for visual inspiration, studding her poems
with rich images that also serve as clues to her non-American past. The lushest images are invoked
in the first section, where she addresses love and companionship. In the crisply titled ‘How to Care
for a Poet’ (p.13), she suggests
Paste a Persian garden
on her door, a gazebo of swans.
Promise her wild grass
and oil lamps. Fold her at least nine times
in the crushed velvet you found her in. Keep
her aglow with moth wings.
This specific aesthetic inclination, so steeped in a mystical sensuality, gives the poetry an air of the
exotic for Western readers and triggers a jolt of familiarity in readers from the Asian region.
Hashmi’s contemporary style brings the two worlds together admirably, but in the way that oil and
water come together – fluid, shifting, quietly separate.
When seen against the context of her experience as a migrant, Kohl & Chalk thus becomes a
beautiful exploration and re-examination of identity. Consider her poem ‘Bilingual’, for instance,
which places the poet at the window of a butcher’s shop where tongues lie marinating in different
oils. He filled my greedy mouth/with two/half-tongues, she says – an allegory that is apt not just for
the languages she inherited, but also the languages she must speak and write in now, in another
time, another country, another dream.
I break your fountain pen
wipe off the ink on your curtains
and with the celerity of a djinn
climb the roof
Look how my suddenness
has tripped time itself
for the house
twenty years ago when you died
(‘It’s Your Marmalade House’, p.29)
Many of the poems in Kohl & Chalk are political, ‘Bilingual’ passingly so and the anti-war ones being
most overtly so. Yet Hashmi’s poetry does not carry the disillusionment or lack of wonder that
seems to have become the hallmark of so many contemporary works. She writes with an innate
sense of optimism – thus swimming against the current of modern poetry, but with complete
honesty and without any self-consciousness.
The effect is remarkable: she is able to get even the most jaded reader to believe. When she writes
about loss, the emotion that lingers is not grief, but compassion. When she reminisces, the nostalgia
is palpable but so is her commitment to the present. Her poetry is poignant – at times angry – but
never depressing. As an artist, she seems to believe in showing her readers a window to the world’s
injustices without stripping them of hope. It is a power in every creative person’s hands.
Fortunately, she is among those who choose to use it.
This is where the strength of this collection eventually comes from: the undeniable inner strength of
the poet. Shadab Zeest Hashmi’s voice has a verve and moral clarity rare in these times, and
Kohl & Chalk is a remarkable collection of poems— complex, challenging, yet comforting.
Afia Aslam is a co-founder of Desi Writers' Lounge (DWL), an online platform for writers from the South Asian region. She is also Editor of Papercuts, the literary magazine from DWL, and writes an award-winning blog, inspired by her husband and two toddlers. Afia is working on her first collection of short stories.
Shadab Zeest Hashmi's Baker of Tarifa, a book based on the history of
interfaith tolerance in Al Andalus, won the 2011 San Diego Book Award for
poetry. Her poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize multiple
times, and have been translated into Spanish and Urdu. She is the winner of the
Nazim Hikmet Poetry Prize and her work has appeared in Poetry
International, The Cortland Review, Vallum, Nimrod, Atlanta Review, The Bitter
Oleander, Drunken Boat, RHINO, Journal of Postcolonial Writings, Spillway, The
Adirondack Review, and is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner and Wasafiri,
among other journals. She represents Pakistan on the website UniVerse: A
United Nations of Poetry, and has taught in the MFA program at San Diego State
University as a writer-in-residence. She is a guest columnist for 3 Quarks Daily.
Kohl and Chalk is her new book of poems.