Claiming the ‘ghazal’ in Bleeding Light

cover of the book "Bleeding Light"

In February, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and lecture series presented poet Sheniz Janmohamed reading from her first book of poetry, Bleeding Light, which was published in September 2010 by TSAR Publications. Special correspondent Chris Cornish (BA Hons. ’04, MA ’09) sent the following report to YFile.

If no spark shimmers in the waves of the sea, she drowns in her own flood.
Israh’s nib traces the steps of the night journey.  Lost, she searches for Noor.

from Bleeding Light
by Sheniz Janmohamed

For Sheniz Janmohamed, some things are untranslatable. Her first book is composed of ghazals, an ancient form of Arabic poetry that she admits doesn’t fully translate to English. The poems found in Bleeding Light, nonetheless, honour the traditions of that form while exploring issues both timeless and contemporary. With chalk in hand, Janmohamed Sheniz Janmohamedenlightened those in attendance at the Canadian Writers in Person series about her work and the history behind it.

Sheniz Janmohamed

It is said that the ghazal is the cry of the gazelle when it is cornered by a hunter and knows it will die. As such, ghazals are traditionally sung in couplets and often have themes of light and darkness, love and loss, life and death. Because they are written in a musical cadence particular to their original languages, this makes them even harder to translate to English. Janmohamed recalls being perplexed and intrigued when her father would listen to them, but it was not until she did an MFA at Guelph that she began to explore them on her own. “The poet becomes the gazelle, the ghazal is her cry, and the muse is invariably her hunter.”

Studying under Toronto’s Poet Laureate Dionne Brand, Janmohamed stayed close to the ghazal’s formal elements until she found that “the form becomes flexible, it begins to shape around your voice, your tone – and that is when a ghazal is Bleeding Light book coverborn.” In many ways, this quest to discover her voice through the poetry of her ancestors is fitting, as the lovers in ghazals are often considered to be students and seekers.

Though writing this book placed her in a kind of double exile, not fully accepted among ghazal purists nor contemporary poets, her work attempts to bridge these two worlds. Admitting she doesn’t speak the languages of her ancestors fluently, she tried to use English words such as jasmine and opal that trace their etymology to South Asian languages. Other words such as noor (“the light which resides in each heart”) she left untranslated, hoping that the reader would discover their own path and unravel a world of meaning.

The poet’s translations are infinitely better than those of colonial British soldiers in the 19th century.  They famously corrupted the phrase “Ya Hasan! Ya Hussain!”, which is repeatedly cried by Shia Muslims throughout the procession of the Mourning of Muharram. The soldiers, and later the writers of an Anglo-Indian dictionary, translated it as “Hobson-Jobson”, reducing an important religious tradition to clownish entertainment.

Janmohamed’s work is also influenced by Sufism, a tradition that explores the mystical.

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which are free and open to the public, are also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. It is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts.  Readings have now ended for the academic year. For more information on the course, visit the Canadian Writers in Person website.