Reading Ismail Ashna's The Unsung Songs

The Unsung Songs, an Authorpress publication, is a poetic collection of Ismail Ashna, a well-known poet of Kashmir. Having a Master’s in English, the poet is well versed with the language which he has been using as a second language for ages now. This is not his first collection in English. He had already published two collections—Hearts Avenues I and II—which got destroyed in a fire and are no longer available. Therefore, this new collection is a welcome addition to the English literary tradition of Kashmir, in particular, and India, in general.

The Unsung Songs contain 76 mainly shorter and a few longer-poems which are very personal in tone and thematically very rich as they reflect on the inner moorings of the poet himself. They are an expression of personal feelings and emotions as expressed in these lines (‘The Unsung Songs’ 17. Note: numerical refer to page numbers):

Descend

From your shining heights

Into the dark depths

Of my forlorn soul

And hear the unsung songs

Of my loneliness

Before they are washed away

By the seas of silence.

The poet has set his agenda of singing the songs which had got buried in the “depths/Of his forlorn soul”, and they needed an expression lest they got washed away. Therefore, he is going to lay bare his heart and give you songs which the reader hasn’t heard from him till now. This is somewhat a similar feeling that Derek Walcott had when he felt like a castaway (‘The Castaway’) and wished for something new and not the “dead metaphors”. Ashna sings (in ‘I Shall Take Birth at Countless Times’ 18-20):

I shall take birth

In the burning lap of time

At countless times

To drink flames

And unravel

Mysteries of twisted destinies

What ‘mysteries ‘is he going to “unravel”? In the same poem he spells out that he would “make the aged laugh”, “give eyesight to the blind”, “inscribe/Sufferings of the deer”, “transmute the tears of/Astonished eyes into smiles”, “make the Waves Dance/In the courtyard of the sea” and so on.  As his heart is filled with varied themes, he is flowing like a river: “River like I flow/Now fast now slow…I have been flowing through since ages/Keeping me in eternal quest…”(‘River like I flow’22).  Flowing like a river is what poetry should be like, spontaneous and powerful in feelings. That is what John Keats meant when he said, “If poetry doesn’t come as naturally as leaves of the tree, it had better not come at all.” Wordsworth said something the same when he said that poetry is an expression of powerful feeling recollected in tranquillity. When poetry is made a medium of voicing personal feelings, it has to have expressions and images that catch attention of its readers and make them feel like the poet himself. Ashna makes us peep into his mind and heart and travel with him in his imaginative world that has some happy but many stunning images as in ‘This Evening’( 25):

This evening

I’m in a busy market

Of an advanced city

In the flood light

Like lukewarm tears

In the beautiful eyes

Of a beggar woman

Almost naked

On a frozen path

Ready to kiss her yellow cheeks

Amid shrieks.

“The flood light” likened to the “lukewarm tears” is a simile that transcends you in a world that is beyond one’s imagination. It is as if Donne was talking about his beloved’s beauty and rebuking the sun for disturbing their love early in the morning (in ‘The Sun Rising’). The beggar woman’s beauty is so stunning and irresistible for the onlooker who is “Ready to kiss her yellow cheeks.”

Ashna’s songs are the songs of a skylark, a nightingale or a sparrow that must go on and on to lit the world and take it out of the morass of depression and/or sorrow over which he has no control: “I am a little sparrow/The night is darker/Than the wing of a crow/And the water is not/At a stone’s throw/But I must go/But I must go.”(‘Song of Sparrow’ 26). Why are his songs important? As a keen observer, Ashna has seen “[the] falling walls of destinies/Rotating around/My ancestral homes/Since withered centuries”—mark the beautiful use “withered centuries”—the “unending journeys” and “playing childishly/With ragged wind” (‘The Forgotten Path’ 37),  the hawk like pouncing of the storm on his dwellings scattering “roofs” , cracking “windows”, breaking “stairs/And barging into every room” and destroying the “portraits/ Of ancestors unknown” (‘The Storm’50). He must therefore take the reader away from sorrows through his poems that would act as a catharsis.

Ashna has drawn his images from his surroundings, be they natural objects like trees, jungles, mountains, rivers and lakes, streams and waterfalls or the devastating volcanoes, floods, “torrential rains”, “Ravaging [of] golden crops” (‘The Proposed Colony’ 51) and so on. His river is river of pain and not necessarily of glistering water. He appeals thus (in ‘River of Pain’ 56):

O’wind

Tell her/He’s till there/Where he used to be/

Half burnt bridge like

Across the river of pain

On frozen ridges

Counting numberless waves

Beyond your ways.

Ashna is driving alone (‘Driving Alone’ 98) on a very difficult path, “accident prone/ Through fog and frost” and he only knows how tedious it is to drive  “[with] a fractured hand/On a foreign land”. Here, the poet is using a metaphor which might stun the reader for a while or until he got the meaning of the lines across. He says that driving on this difficult road “[in] an old modeled car/Is not less than/Fighting a war.” Are we here reading Donne’s metaphysical poetry that is known for using far-fetched comparisons called ‘conceits’?

Ashna is not an ordinary poet, but he isn’t a servant to the canon. He uses language fluently and without any pomp and show. His imagery is extraordinary and his lines flow—“some fast some slow”—according to how he felt when those moments came when he felt the need to unravel his mind and heart. The Unsung Songs is a collection of what Shelley said, “Heard melodies are sweet/But, those unheard are sweeter.” Don’t miss to listen to them.

Professor Muhammad Aslam is former HoD Department of English, KU.