Book Review: Omer Tarin (1999)

27 Nov

Sungut: A Journal of the Humanities                                          Volume 27, No 3, Autumn 1999                



The Poet as a Spiritual Being: Omer Tarin’s “Burnt Offerings”

In this recently revised and expanded volume[1] , poet Omer Tarin once again evinces a significant move towards attaining a deeper poetic-spiritual consciousness, that is in keeping with his previous development, or evolution; an ever-maturing vision at work that brings forth fresh insights and novel, profuse imaginative expressiveness.       

In his 1997 article, Carlo Coppola[2]  makes a somewhat detailed analysis of Pakistani poetry in English of note between 1947 (Independence/Partition) and 1997 (the Fiftieth Anniversary of Independence) and as part of this exercise, lists some seven or eight poets that he finds to be the ‘foremost English-language poets’[3]  of the country, including early ones (Ahmed Ali, Shahid Suhrawardy), some of the most ‘established’ ones (Taufiq Rafat, Daud Kamal, Alamgir Hashmi, Maki Koreshi) and some of the newer ones in the Pakistani Diaspora (Adrian A. Husain); whilst effectively neglecting some of the more serious poets emerging within Pakistan at this time, like Omer Tarin, GF Riaz, Shehryar Rashid, Ejaz Rahim and a few others. Of this number, Tarin is undoubtedly the most prolific and most worth looking into in depth, for all that he already depicts with such power and vividness and all that he promises, too, in years to come.

Omer Tarin’s earlier collections A Sad Piper (several editions in 1993; 1994; 1995) and The Anvil of Dreams (1995) were both remarkable enough volumes, in that they brought  to the fore a major poetic talent here, of great promise, and very interestingly, both works found a considerable readership in Pakistan and South Asia, much beyond the normal scope or range of English poetry, which is deemed to be a rather marginal affair in a literary-cultural milieu dominated by the local regional languages and literature/s. With Burnt Offerings (already in its second edition) this eloquent voice and talent are amply ratified.

This volume, divided into two main sections, deals directly with the living, spiritual-poetic experiences of the poet; in the first part via a number of poems composed at home i.e. in Pakistan, or concerning the Pakistani surroundings and dispensations; whereas the second part moves on to these, or similar experiences without the poet’s native boundaries, in England and Scotland, where he sojourned not too long ago, for academic and research purposes. For Tarin the poet is, much more so than most poets writing even in Pakistani/South Asian languages, in the true tradition of the great Sufi mystics of Northern India, of the Punjab and North West Frontier, and of neighbouring Central Asia—Baba Farid, Waris Shah, Bulleh Shah, Sultan Bahu, Rahman Baba, even Rumi and Attar, these are the real literary predecessors of Tarin’s verse, which like the works of the masters, has the ability to ultimately transcend the external, regional forms and to embrace a broad universalism. To some extent, amongst recent English poets inPakistan, Taufiq Rafat (1927-1998), also one of Tarin’s early mentors, possesses something of this spirit and inspiration although it is not able to soar to the reaches where Tarin goes. He can see the world in ways that are surprisingly unique:

“Come with me

And see my world,

Come and see what I do,

And what I see, too”

(The World I See, Burnt Offerings, p.20)[4]

This is his invitation to us, to join him on his travels into the human soul and that of the Universal Soul, itself, as a whole intricate and yet simple, direct and profoundly-conceived carpet is unrolled before us.

Like the great Sufis[5], Tarin is also deeply conscious of the role that spirit has to perform, at least within Sufistic terms, in both representing and speaking for the masses and giving expression to their collective experience, via the channel and conduit of his personalized consciousness and perceptiveness, attuned to a larger whole[6], the ‘poet as human and popular legislator’, in somewhat Shelleyan terms. In a biting commentary, reminding us of Waris Shah and his ilk, he confronts the Pakistani ‘reality’:

“In my country dust devils dance

And blood runs riot in the streets

And dogs howl under the hollow sky

And black rains fall—“

(A Morbid Attachment, p. 15)

And, in moving on to the alien shores, which are indeed not alien for him as the heir to the Living Tradition, here is a deeply poignant and startlingly clear and expressive comment on the ‘condition’ that he finds of people in Scotland:

“Once before

I’ve heard this anguished cry

A long-drawn note

Of many-lettered woe,

The great open beak straining

Against the roar of raging surf


Thrown back


Against the distant sails”

(Sea-Gull, Leith Docks, 1995)

In fact, not a comment or an observation of a ‘sea-gull’ at all, but a strong comment on the human situation, reflected in its sad and sordid commonality across all so-called ‘barriers’ of nation, race or creed. There is indeed an ‘intense lyrical strain prevalent in his writing, which emerges as the hall mark of his style”[7]; one which envelops a true and deeper awareness and consciousness of Existence and its limitations and potential. For the true mystic, the ‘poetic experience’ is a by-product of sorts, derived from an intensity lived though, a ‘dying’ and a ‘rebirth’ and that is why “mystics speak of their life as dying, so that [Sufism]…is that God should make thee die to thyself and should make thee live in Him”[8]. Thus,

“All my life

Has been lived

For the one moment

Beyond being

Which now

Points out horizons

Yet unseen;


What will be?”

(Question, p. 49)

It is this central question, born out of a new understanding and knowledge, a spiritual ‘awakening’ and ongoing quest, which remains so very important. And Tarin’s poetry seeks to answer it, at many levels, searching not so much for experience (as most poets do) as through it. There is a vast plenty herein, in all sorts of poems, ostensibly on all sorts of topics and subjects, wherein at their core, there exists that same binding tension, revealing and illuminating a splendid integrity of spirit. And the understanding is what ultimately causes the transmutation, the ‘purification’ of the self, of the poetic voice and muse that stands revealed in all its maturing beauty as an authentically ‘spiritual’ voice that is expected in years to come, to deepen and mature even further and to bring to light ever deeper and ever more complex and imaginatively alive images and cadences.  “Ah!”, exclaims Rumi, ‘Yesterday we were intoxicated by the goblet; today the goblet is intoxicated by us!”[9]. So it is with Tarin and his poetry here.

It is indeed well worth delving into this wealth of spirit and beauty, for it has the ability to reach out and touch and transform all of us, if we but knew it.

                                                               PROF. DR. MAHMOOD ALAM KHWAJA


NB: I am grateful to Prof. Dr. Mahmood Alam Khwaja, the reviewer who holds copyright, for allowing me to republish this here. © Prof. Dr. Mahmood Alam Khwaja, 1999.

[1] Omer Tarin, Burnt Offerings,Islamabad: Leo Books, 1996; reprinted with additions,London: Zareba Press, 1999.

[2] Carlo Coppola, “Some Recent English-Language Poetry from Pakistan”, in Postindependence Voices in South Asian Writings: Special Edition of ARIEL, , Ed. Alamgir Hashmi and Malashri Lal, U ofCalgary, 1998, pp. 202-219.

[3] p. 202.

[4] Henceforth all references to this work are given parenthetically.

[5] For Tarin, in the end balance, is a practicing Sufi mystic and seeker, and all his art springs from this fact. See Farhat Abbas, Interview with Omer Tarin, Daily “The Nation’, Islamabad, 17th November 1995, Arts and Letters sections.

[6] Dr. Shafqat Tanvir Mirza, Resistance Themes in Punjabi Literature, Lahore: Sang I Meel, 1992, pp.12-13.

[7] Review, Daily ‘The Muslim”, Lahore and Islamabad,  25th June 1995.

[8] Karen Armstrong Ed. Tongues of Fire: An Anthology of Religious and Poetic Experience. Harmondsworth,UK: Penguin, 1987. In the Introduction, p. 26.

[9] Mevlana Jellaludin Rumi, Rubai No 291, from the Diwan I Kabir; Ed. Badiuzzaman Faruzanfar, Teheran: U of Teheran, 1959; Trans. AJ Arberry,London 1961.

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