contributing editors

Anthony A. Lee, Ph. D.
UCLA & West Los Angeles College

leeAbout the Poet: Anthony A. Lee teaches African American
history at UCLA and at West Los Angeles College. He was
awarded the 2003 Nat Turner Poetry Prize (Cross Keys Press)
and the 2005 Naomi Long Madgett Award for poetry (Lotus Press).

 

Other Work:


The Subaltern Voice – Mir Taqi Mir (1723-1810)

translations by Bilal Shaw and Anthony A. Lee

Mir Taqi Mir (1723-1810) is recognized as one of the greatest poets of Urdu. He is claimed by Pakistan as one of its premier poets who helped to shape the language and its literature. Of course, he is hardly known in the West. So, we hear him as a subaltern voice.

Mir was born in Agra, India, into a Muslim family. His father was a Sufi mystic, and the spiritual aspects of that philosophy are seen in all his poems. His father died when Mir was a young man, in his teens. He moved to the city of Delhi to finish his education and earn a living. There he was favored at court and could have a comfortable life. But when Delhi was sacked and looted by the Persians in 1748, Mir moved on to Lucknow, where he was given a kind welcome by the ruler. Eventually, however, he severed his connections with the court, and in later years was very isolated. He died destitute in Lucknow in 1810.

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Mir wrote his poems about love. Every aspect of the experience is explored in depth—from initial infatuation to bitter regret. Nor does Mir neglect the spiritual aspects of love, which along with carnal desire are so much in evidence in each of his poems. In this poem, he confesses that he has abandoned the worship of God for the worship of a woman. His prayers to God he counts as only treason to his new beloved. He knows he is ruined.

I Worship You

I worship you, and God knows that.
What you may think? Well, God knows that.

The agony of love is sweet.
Every wretched lover knows that.

Beneath her hair, behind her veil,
what she wants, only she knows that.

You think I am a fraud like you?
My pleas aren’t false. But you know that.

My prayers to God are treason now.
You’re cruel to those you love. Know that.

You’re a spoiled and stupid child. But
you twist your lips well. You know that.

Because you live inside my heart,
my love is there. And, you know that.

When you’re in love, Mir, you’re ruined.
You gave away your heart, fool. You know that.

________

In the next poem, Mir urges himself to take action, while there is still time.

Do Something!

It’s a gamble, but you must do something.
You can’t just sit here, you must do something.

Love speaks with only one tongue: Do something.
Shout! Wail! or Weep! But you must do something.

Why do you sit, hands in your lap, hopeless?
The caravan’s leaving! So, do something!

Should I kill someone or slit my own throat?
And he replies: Yes. You must do something.

Should I watch my chest bleed or write poems?
My tongue replies: Yes. You must do something.

If you can’t pray to God, at least follow
your heart. But there’s no time left. Do something!

You and I aren’t friends. When this friend’s heart comes
close to yours, of course it must do something.

Mir. you are not that old. You’re just lazy.
You’re young, by God’s grace. So, go do something!

________

This poem explores the poet’s fears and hopes at the start of a new relationship. Still, he tells us tragically how he has been scared by past relationships. So, he hesitates.

Love Is Just Beginning

Love is just beginning, and I weep. Why?
Just go on. See what happens, man! Why not?

Hear that? Sounds of the morning caravan.
So, move! They’re leaving, fool. You’re sleeping. Why?

The land of heart will not turn green again.
But still, I sow seeds of desire. Why?

These love stains on my skin will not come off.
Still, I wash the wounds that scar my chest. Why?

Yet more precious than Joseph’s hair is time!
And, Mir, you are wasting this rare thing. Why?  

________

In the next poem, spiritual love and physical love are so blended and intertwined that we cannot tell one from the other. The truth seems to shift from one to the other: “Sometimes love is/the believer. Sometimes God is this love.” And still, in the end, Mir doubts both his faith and his love.

What Is Love?

How can I tell you what it is, this love?
It’s a disease, it’s a sickness, this love.

Love—only love—exists. Look! Everywhere
the universe is bursting with this love.

Love is my lover. Love is my beloved.
And love itself delights inside this love.

This love makes its own law. Sometimes love is
the believer. Sometimes God is this love.

Who has ever reached his aim without love?
My wish is this love. My goal is this love.

But no one really wants this sort of love.
See! It’s just like a bastard child, this love.

Mir, your life is looking so weak and pale.
Can you say you have ever been in love?

________

In the poem “Until He Comes,” Mir expresses the pain of his love for a young man. The poem reflects the bisexuality that was the norm in his society at the time (and probably today as well). Tradition holds that these poems must have been written to Muhammad, the Prophet, and should have a spiritual meaning. No doubt, they do. But the passion expressed in this poem is unmistakable. We should remember that some of Shakespeare’s love sonnets were written to a young man, as well.

Until He Comes

Long have my tears been falling. Still they come!
If my tears stop falling, my blood will come.

I can control myself, until he comes.
Then, I lose my mind, and no sense will come.

Patience used to be my only friend here.
But now, he too is one who will not come.

My heart has lost all trace of its desire.
Just gone. No wonder now my tears have come.

It’s all still here in this full heart, my friend.
But no verses on my lips. They won’t come.

There he lies so far away . . . Poor sad Mir,
without love, this poem will never come.

________

After the end of another relationship, Mir laments and cries bitterly. He drinks. His sadness and insecurity are so evident. His loss is devastating and complete.

A Ripple on Your Robe

In this garden, make your tongue a rosebud
in your mouth. Make a baby’s fist your hand.

Cup your palm around your heart when you cry.
In that tempest, your lamp will die unmanned.

Wine boy!* Without you we will never know
ourselves. Lost, we wander in our homeland.

The chains of reason hold me down, or I
would live insane--at frantic love’s command.

Even though I’m a poet, not a hack,
I fear the rhymes my friends recite offhand.

Mir, swept away by her soft love: Now she’s
just a ripple on your robe as you stand.  

*Literally, Saqi: Urdu. The saqi is the young wine bearer who serves wine to the customers in a tavern. In Sufi imagery, the Saqi brings intoxication and is the object of longing and erotic desire. As such, he can represent the spirit, or even stand as a symbol for God himself.

________

Finally, this short poem sums up Mir Taqi Mir’s own view of his brilliant poetry.

Don’t Call Yourself a Poet

The God of favors did me a favor. He took
some dust: From nothing, he gave me a human look.

Don’t call yourself a poet, Mir. Because, you just
took a bunch of sorrows and wrote them in a book.


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