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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 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 

 

 

was sold

 

 

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.