Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof. Perfumed Memories. Singapore: Graham Brash (Pte) Ltd, 1982: 1-13.
Introduction (by Edwin Thumboo, 10 March 1982)
Languages choose their poets, with a profound, irrevocable embrace. Moreover, presiding muses and genii are demanding, as those who keep their company will testify. The poet visited by a second muse is likely to acknowledge her role as relatively minor. Were he not to, his readers will. John Milton wrote in Latin but it is to his English poems that we turn for pleasure and instruction. Although the literature and culture of other languages prove attractive sources of nourishment, of lessons in creative strategy, with very few exceptions poets cleave to one language, which they serve, quarry and occasionally disobey.
But the force of history which thus imposes a language has been breached somewhat in the last twenty to thirty years, particularly in the case of languages that have travelled. When Queen Isabella of Spain doubted the usefulness of Antonio de Nehrija's Gramatica, the Bishop of Avila said: 'Your Majesty, language is the perfect instrument of empire'. Spanish, Portuguese, French and English moved well beyond their national boundaries, riding on the rough back of colonial expansion. Their administrative-commercial roles, their ensuing possession by new psyches to become agents for the growth of sensibility, their destinies as creative instruments, are complex and fascinating. Of these languages - and others - which found habitations in various parts of the world, some are manifestly on the rise, others in decline, but all are mutating, finding their distinctive character.
A comprehensive account of the migration of English, and its subsequent history overseas, in particular the changes it has undergone over the last thirty years when most colonies became independent, has still to be written. But there is general agreement that we now have Englishes which differ, yet share an orthography and a great deal of the grammar and lexicon. Of more immediate concern is how settlements of English, overlapping indigenous or other migrant languages, give rise to linguistic choices, exercised with careful awareness of the interlocking social, economic and political imperatives and realities. We learn two, three languages, each broadly supporting a different function. Choose one language for dream, vision and the images of love, to allow the mind to soar; another to support practicalities. Bilingualism is not a special twentieth century experience, though, obviously, the push for it has much increased. The Rosetta Stone was in hieroglyphics, demotic and Greek. And for good reason. Alexandria, the city of the Ptolemies, started off Greek, turned part-Egyptian, had Judaic moments and Christian longings. She drew upon and synthesized diverse traditions to foster that remark able intellectual ferment which inspired quantum leaps in philosophy, mathematics, astronomy and that under standing of man's place in the cosmos, thus making herself perhaps the most sophisticated international city at the time. An altogether unique flowering; an interesting lesson still.
Mastery of two languages as a scholarly pursuit becomes a necessity when cultures meet, co-exist, then seek to coalesce. It is formally sanctioned and urged in the educational policies of multilingual societies. Though economic, political and social urgencies may set linguistic priorities, the individual has a degree of choice. So does the writer. Ngugi Wa Thiong 'o whose novels and essays are in English, has co-authored a play in Gikuyu. Kamala Das writes poetry in English, short-stories in Malayalam. Mohd Haji Salleh has poetry and criticism in English and Bahasa Malaysia. Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof publishes short stories in English, poetry in English and Bahasa. He has done a Bahasa version of his own play, Halfway Road, Penang.
A Malaysian of Pakistani descent, Ghulam-Sarwar is at home with English, Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi, Tamil and Bahasa Malaysia. Moreover, he is familiar with Western and other Asian literatures, particularly the Japanese. Their distinctive intellectual and literary traditions influence his perception of life and contacts. Such rich diversity could prove problematical on account of competing, even contradictory, assumptions, world-views and their presiding temper and spirit. But, essentially, the influences are controlled and integrated, principally because Ghulam has the maturity to know precisely his ambitions and the nature of his talent. Ghulam is poet, playwright and short-story writer. Though the same sensibility is evident in all his work, we observe a consistent distribution of interests. Metaphors of the stage, a source of incisive comment on life, are minimally present in his poetry. Moreover, those social and other issues examined in his plays, Halfway Road, Penang and Suvarnapadma (The Golden Lotus), are taken up rarely. Ghulam is certainly not unaware of them, as we are reminded by 'death of a god' (p. 31), 'national disaster' (p. 33), 'may 13, 1969' (p. 34), 'today (at penang road)' (p. 62) and 'the midnight satay-vendor' (p. 64).
For Ghulam, poetry is a private, inner world. The larger, more public functions of literature belong to fiction and drama which claim broad and direct roles in society, with drama an especially potent vehicle for political, social and other commentary. The intentions and the commitment of novelist, short-story writer and playwright are dissimilar to those of a poet. They have canvases while he prefers cameos. Ghulam recognises that poets - W.S. Rendra for instance - will attempt to influence, even alter, society. But in his view the poet is responsible primarily to himself. As the centre of his modest universe, he supplies the substance of his poetry, not through the obsessions of an insistent ego, but the bounty of quiet and deep reflection. The stance and modulation of the 'I' - sensitive, self-aware, low-keyed, free of the directly assertive - move behind and in the poetry to provide focal point and organising principle.
Birth and death, love and separation, loneliness and isolation, the brevity of beauty are the cardinal themes to be discovered in Perfumed Memories. While the dominant Ghulam mood is sadness, the reader invariably feels that life must go on, that trials and tribulations do not maim the spirit. What could normally cause pessimism is denied effect because the spirit recalls beauty, beauty that must die and yet live by returning through the care of memory. Nostalgia turns so powerful an agent of recall as to make the past, the moments of love, of beauty's evanescence, a vigorous, living part of the present. Thus beauty and joy continually return to dominate and redress the sense of loss and separation. Thus shall the integrity of the person in the poet be preserved.
Ghulam's access to worlds so richly varied as the Islamic, Hindu, Malay, Japanese and Anglo-Saxon as well as the stimulation of a multiracial milieu, explains the matrix of attitudes, modes of thinking, choice of forms and the base and thrust of his idiom. Although he is familiar with Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, Islam is the pre-eminent influence. That it came through Sufism held certain consequences for Ghulam's poetry. Committed to the Koran and the sunna of the Prophet, Sufism advocates spiritual practices best described as intuitive and mystical. That is its chief appeal. By its very nature, the striving for oneness with God remains beyond the capacity of discursive reason to characterise in full. Disclosures of the content and effect of the experience rely heavily on accretions to image, symbol, phrase and on connotative reach. Ghulam is not a Sufi poet; it is the corpus of literature Sufism inspired which colours his poems, through that contemplation of life as a journey towards union with the Divine to achieve completion. The mysticism is therefore neither hard nor unremitting. As a style of feeling-perceiving, one that sponsors a particular aesthetic, it avoids the arduous or prescriptive. It contains a view of man's fate, the contradictions paradoxes which beset him, most poignantly exemplified in the simultaneous joy and pain of love.
Ghulam's work has strong connections with the s substance and methods of Sufi poets. The first has to do with philosophical assumptions as reflected in that habit of turning feeling into reflection; the second with certain features of the ghazal. Sufi poets took to the ghazal, originally a sequence of at least five couplets rhyming aa ba ca da ea etc. In time, the flow of meaning linking the couplets, a key requirement, was gradually allowed to break, leaving each much condensed and self-contained. It encouraged brevity, and relied on imagery and symbolism. Originally amatory, the ghazal was developed - when taken from Arabia to Persia - to include philosophical, ethical, mystical and religious themes. Despite new intellectual content, it retained the language of love, a combination Sufi poets found especially congenial. It will be patent to the reader of Perfumed Memories that the ghazal and the philosophy of its practitioners provide a helpful entry into Ghulam's poetry. The poetry is equally introspective, issuing as it does from within the poet. The reality he invokes is both reflected in and tested against his heart. Powerful in the way it and receives, the holiness of the heart is the repository of all that man is. Ghulam is sharply aware of the deviations which ensue when the heart is withheld:
a poem that once came
to my door
i failed to open
of my heart
offerings in hand.
('poem', p. 55)
Although the 'I' is muted, the poet remains the centre. Experience, his experience, validates all. Nature is there, but it is his involvement with it and the extent to which it registers on his inner world of heart and mind which gives it currency. That nexus between inner world and all that is seen and contemplated is managed and ex tended by the poet's imagination. The external world is absorbed, made part of the language of his thought and feeling. Sea, sky, the sun, moon, morning, noon, evening and night become special verbal counters. In 'lengthening shadows', the middle section of Perfumed Memories, the reader is struck by the extent to which they constitute the background and foreground in the poetry.
in the distance
in the soft dark
takes me down the vista of stars
to where on ordinary paths we traversed the universe
sipping the drops
of the sun
('piano', p. 72)
Although love is the dominant theme of the ghazal, the overlay of Sufism constructed a metaphysic whose elements are akin to Marvell's declaration:
My love is of a birth so rare
As 'tis for object strange and high:
It was begotten by Despair
Love binds the universe, moves all things. At times it is passion - 'burning fusion' (p. 83), 'the sun's hungry fires' (p. 106) - at others a dignified sorrow. Fulfilment does not bring the peace that passes understanding. Separation is assumed as inevitable, creating a longing for worlds yet unfelt, a longing assuaged by the memory of love. Because it is central, love is both sacred and profane, desire and piety. Its expression is complex. Feelings for the beloved have a comprehensiveness that includes a whole range of responses to the world. These so dominate that almost every poem, including those ostensibly celebrating nature, are touched by a sense of the beloved, who is absent and yet who is the silent shaper of the poem.
We discern in Ghulam's conception of the poet's role a logic which informs and binds nearly all his poems. The poet is the
along the path of perfumed light
the bukit dumbar sun
('bukit dumbar morning', p. 23)
simultaneously exploring, seeking his own identity, and anxious to make sense of and to connect with the life around him. That exploration must satisfy aesthetic and spiritual hungers. The deep pulses which constitute our most profound experiences, among them the feeling of oneness with creation or the sense of beauty everywhere, have all to be celebrated in the very act of recognising that they are transient or fragile, but with the saving knowledge that they turn into memories that have reality through the poetry which enacts them. A substantial number of Ghulam's poems are about a moment, an experience that has gone by, recollected not in tranquility but with a therapeutic meditative power. Meditation upon them holds the pain in check, offers buoyancy to the spirit. Consequently, memories of joy and beauty acquire a vital function: they serve as the major sustaining faith. Poetry gives them permanence by capturing and freezing individual moments. It is therefore faith and fortitude, a chief means of making life bearable. In their origin and the way they form, both the art and the sensibility derive from a powerful, initial sense of the religions in which life is sanctified. In the beginning there were words:
stumbling across unmeasured words
i look for a theme, a poem
that struggles for form
in the universe of mind
('to...', p. 15)
The art of the poet gives them their true measure and an ultimate value deriving from how they embody a significance larger than themselves: they return to life, to the act of living. Art has a central function. It enables us to see life steadily, if not whole, through its parts, and to arrive at conclusions. Images, metaphors and symbols embody a necessary, saving energy. They make the loneliness, the transience, the pain bearable. Art and Life are held in an equation that develops a certain existential acceptance of the 'fever and the fret'.
This recognition of the power of poetry and of its place in the poet's personal epistemology, imposes certain demands. Knowledge of himself, and of the relations with others and the world at large is crucial.
and i am conscious
conscious i am alive
alive and alone
on life's balcony
with the windy
('sunlight', p. 51)
The insistence on consciousness goes beyond Descartes' cogito ergo sum. More than the comprehension of the processes of thought and feeling, or an awareness of the world, it penetrates the core of an experience. While the actual point of contact may seem unpretentious, limited even - as for instance in 'ecstacy' (p. 29) or 'haiku xii' (p. 117) - there is the moving there to reflection, to the realisation that there are meanings, resonances. For the poet is among the image makers
weave thoughts and things
('images', p. 32)
Such visions are on a modest scale, though no less potent for being so. For they include the poet's grasp of the essence of things - see 'essence' (p. 43) - as vital to his understanding. Uncovering the dimensions of an experience constructs a link between it and the poet's understanding of what it has to say about life. Observation is turned into commentary, enlarged subtly into moral reflection, to come up - in Blake's words - with that ability
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
The many celebrations of nature - 'haiku xiii' (p. 117) to 'haiku xviii' (p. 122) are a neat illustrative sequence - though free from the overt drawing of moral or other significances, nonetheless carry the potential for them. For the poet proclaims that
i am the grain of sand
that rides the tide
i am the drop of rain
that dark the silent
of the ocean.
('rhythm', p. 42)
The point is taken up and expanded in 'drop' (p. 45) where the context of reflection and comment grows. The brief history of that drop, its brightness in the 'sun's fires' that suggest the intensity of living, and its return to the anonimity of the ocean, attain significance because the drop lives in the poet's 'memories', part of the totality of his consciousness, made permanent by and in his poems. But above all, it has become a correlative of some important segment of his experience:
in my world it still lives
a drop of my life's fire.
('drop', p. 45)
This capacity to draw out a whole network of moral and emotional significances gives range and depth to Ghulam's poetry. Nature is metaphor and state of feeling. Her dominant images and symbols are defined in terms of life and in turn refine those terms. She is a point of departure, a point of return.
Perfumed Memories comprises short pieces which are by no means confined to 'carvings on a grain of rice', the third and final section. A high proportion of the less personal poems such as 'today (at penang road)', and 'hamilton library' are among the few longer pieces. And they are relatively short. But the lyric impulse makes special demands on line and stanza. What he says must be denotative and connotative, literal and symbolic. Each image strikes many chords, sets up resonances. Intensity is the chief quality Ghulam seeks. The ghazal thrives on concentration. His familiarity with Japanese literature, especially the haiku, accords with that impulse. It relics on language that is restrained, compact, terse; on eloquence achieved through brief suggestion. The challenge is to locate that balance between saying too much and saying too little. Ghulam adheres to the traditional form in his haikus. Its techniques, moods and philosophy and those of the ghazal to which it has striking similarities, are part of Ghulam's basic poetic equipment. The search for the best words to embody, then energise the curve of thought and feeling, which leads to the pattern of recurring images and symbols, is sustained. It lies behind the use of Bahasa and Hawaiian in a number of poems such as 'the midnight satay-vendor' (p. 64) and 'hula hands' (p. 81). They are used to support a more confident and total grasp of the essentials at the centre of an experience.
Ghulam's views of life and of poetry account for his ideolect. Theme and language share a unity, because the latter is evolved to support the former which is in turn shaped by the thrust and resonance of image, metaphor and symbol. Sky, sea, earth, rain, stars, sun, moon and wind represent the forces of nature and provide a cosmic backdrop against which the destiny of man - that bit of dust capable of sensitive thought, feeling, intellection and creativity - is unfolded. Adjectives such as dark, bright, green and perfumed are pressed into service with a special potency. Their repeated use gives them a special status. Perfumed becomes a correlative that suggests joy, happiness, a state of perfection. Its cluster of significances is carried into each context whenever it occurs: perfumed breezes, perfumed light, perfumed blossoming, perfumed memories, perfumed nights. Other key words - a selection would include dark, laughter, fire, fragrance - recur in various, often contiguous poems. They are intrinsic to Ghulam's way of seeing and ordering experience. His poetry is self-contained, a poetry that is its own best commentary. This the reader will discover as he moves through Perfumed Memories. He will be impressed by Ghulam's technical achievement, implicit in the way certain structural features and verbal characteristics of the ghazal and haiku are adapted in English with the sensitivity and confidence to carry themes and sustain a poetic vision.
Ghulam's volume is a distinctive contribution to Malaysian poetry in English. That poetry had its serious beginnings around 1949/ 1950, in the 'trials and error of a small group at the University of Malaya (then in Singapore). Because its members sought the ideal of multiracial, multicultural and multilingual society, those poets - Malaysian and Singaporean - shared substantially the same vision and challenges. But the realities turned out to be somewhat different. For instance, politic developments over the last thirty years have give Bahasa Melayu/Malaysia its current pre-eminence. An though English retains an important role, that confidence in its creative possibilities, so strongly reflected in the poetry, fiction and drama - the works of Wang Gungwu, Ee Tiang Hong, Lloyd Fernando, Edward Dorall, Wong Phui Nam, Cecil Rajendra, K.S. Maniam and Ghulam-Sarwar spring to mind - is unlikely to have the same force among those who now wish to write. Only time will reveal with certainty what current developments portend for writing in English. But it does seem that writing in English will have a place, if public ethos and individual sensibility can find their full and secure expression in it. Apart from its intrinsic qualities, Ghulam's poetry demonstrates the extent to which a sensibility such his - diverse and rich in its formation - is capable of doing so. What counts is the poetry. But the poet's journey to this mansion of words, of Perfumed Memories, carries its own instruction for the reader. He ought to be gratified by both.
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