Mir Taqi Mir: Selected Ghazals and Other Poems, trans. by Shamsur Raḥmān Fārūqī.
Murty Classical Library of India, Harvard University Press, 2019. 667 pages.
Reviewed by Anthony Madrid
This series is really something. Lemme give you a little backstory.
Before there was the Murty Classical Library of India, there was the Clay Sanskrit Library (2005–2009, RIP). The Clay people wanted to make a series that would function just like the Loeb Classical Library. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen all the Loebs in one place, but at this point it’s a wall of green and red books. And they throw more onto the stack every year: all the Greek and Latin literature you’ve ever heard of, and then some. The Clays were supposed to be that same thing, ’cept they were gonna cover all of Sanskrit, the ancient ecclesiastical and everything-else-ical language of India. The books were even specially designed to look like Loebs. It was gonna be great.
For 120 seconds, people like me were shaking with delight. Those little sky-blue babies were pouring off the presses, like it was some kind of Soviet plan to catch up with the Loebs in ten years or less. (Note: the Loeb series has been roaring away since before WWI.) But! all of a sudden, in 2009, the money got cut off, and the whole thing came to an Easter-Island-style halt. Boom: everyone threw down their tools and just dropped dead. Multivolume works were left incomplete. The Ramayana got snipped, ’bout two thirds of the way in. The Ocean of the Rivers of Story was just getting started.
Then, some ultra-rich tech-visionary from India, who looks like he’s twenty-two years old in the picture I saw, gallantly stepped in and offered to bankroll Clay 2.0. I call it that because it’s more or less the same editorial board, with the same contacts list. But!! the twist was the new series was going to be even more ambitious (like 100X as ambitious) as the Clay. Forget just-Sanskrit. The new series was going to cover all the major literatures of India. If that meant 200 languages, so be it. Also, the works would be printed in their original orthography, and the English translations would be set up in “Antwerp,” a font specially commissioned for the series. Each book would have a silk ribbon bookmark installed. Get the picture? It’s nuts.
But let’s come to cases. The specific volume under review is a much-needed book. You can’t get this much Mir in English anywhere else. Talking ’bout 124 ghazals, followed by seven longer narrative poems, including one I’ve heard about for years but never thought I would actually ever get to read: “The Fire of Love.” I’d always assumed Mir’s reputation rested entirely on the ghazals. Not so.
At this point, I think we can skip rehearsing the whole explanation of what ghazals are and how they work. Any reader of this review will have heard it all a hundred times. On the other hand, people might not know about Mir Taqi Mir and his place in the Urdu canon. That’s easily remedied; it’s very simple. We all know Ghalib is considered the greatest 19th-century Urdu poet. Well, Mir is the greatest 18th-century Urdu poet. Each of these guys towers over his contemporaries in the way that, say, Milton towers over all the good-but-not-Milton-good poets of the 17th century, in England. (Ghalib actually has a famous couplet, recognizing Mir as his great forebear. I don’t have the lines ready-to-hand just now, but the meaning is something to the effect of “Ghalib, what’s all this haughtiness? Don’t put on airs. After all—there once was a poet named Mir.”)
Ghalib and Mir sound alike a lot of the time, and that’s fine by me. All these couplets are Mir:
Mir’s religion, his faith? Well, don’t ask any more about those things.
Drawing a Brahman’s mark on his forehead and settling in a Hindu temple, he forsook
Islam a long time ago.
• • •
The rose would turn to water with shame and stream away from the garden
if by chance your face were to reveal itself from behind the veil.
• • •
Fractiousness in this assembly results in wounds and scars.
If you can, let the vein of arrogance in your neck be burned away like the candle’s wick.
• • •
I am shocked: people would lay down their lives for their home and hearth,
yet I’m told every day of someone’s leaving home on a journey.
• • •
And so on. I say with reasonable confidence: If you’re into this kind of thing, you simply can’t skip this book. There are many translationese passages, there are places where the English is unidiomatic—even damnably so. But it really doesn’t matter. The force of the lines (or anyhow a great deal of their force) comes from imagery and metaphor, two things that survive translation very well. I’m sure the stuff is ten times as good in the original. But it’s pretty great here, too.
One more word. Do not skip the long narrative poems in the back. Those are A#1, especially “The Fire of Love.” Mir knew how to tell a story.
ANTHONY MADRID lives in Victoria, Texas. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, Boston Review, Fence, Harvard Review, Lana Turner, LIT, and Poetry. His second book is called Try Never (Canarium Books, 2017). www.anthonymadrid.net