- The Polyphony Team
Sara: Poem to Her Death; Translation with Commentary
by Urussa Malik
Polyphony, Volume 3, Issue 1
First published December 2020, Manchester
Don’t doubt Death
My rain died while it was still in the clouds. (feminine pronoun)
Just now, she was dressed up, ()
where my mistakes sat…..
If someone is leaving, I’ll leave there. (feminine)
If someone arrives, I will go somewhere.
A heart in my hand dies.
Do not doubt death,
she was alive before humans lived:
The broken were left behind
I am the tree’s falling shadow
There cannot be an end, before a voice/sound (feminine)
My eyes, she holds a heart that dies…..
This piece, by Pakistani female poet Sara Shagufta, has yet to be published in translation in English. This essay explores how she uses the feminine ‘I’ to establish an unconventional (for Urdu Literature at the time) female persona in the poem. Through Bataille and Foucault, I elaborate on the ideas of death and how death is revealed to be the female persona. There are autoethnographic echoes in this poem, blurring the role of the narrator in the poem and the poet herself.
This essay will explore how the poem ‘Don’t doubt death’ by Sara Shagufta, speaks about the parallel of doubting death until you are dying being similar to the doubt placed upon women. This parallel, between women and death is compounded by the Bataille’s idea
of death as a taboo (see note 1). The taboo means that women nor death are acknowledged as autonomous concepts until the very end. Through Foucault’s idea of language and power, I will track death’s significance as a temporal ‘end’ changes, giving way to becoming an
autonomous entity of its own, implicating the idea that ‘death’ is the persona which anticipates this poem. Powerfully, the poem relays the idea of an immortality of ‘voice’ which would anticipate a sort of gender-less being but, by virtue of how gender operates in
the Urdu language, produces a feminine voice, undoing the silencing of women in literary spaces. The same language which is used by men to silence women, establishes them too. Mary Wollstonecraft similarly shines light on women in the British sphere who are ‘excluded, without having a voice’ (see note 2). The suppression of both entities (women and death) are carefully and covertly allegorised in this poem, at times becoming two autonomous concepts in the poem but stitched back together by the last verse. Through this duality of ‘she’ being ‘death’ and a ‘voice’, the persona assumes ultimate authority: the ‘she’ is the persona who has written the poem. I will be using my translation of the poem, as there is very little published.
Death holds a temporal significance of being the ‘end’ of the ‘rain’ and ‘heart’ in the poem, which changes to becoming an entity ‘with material existence’ ‘who was alive’ in the text — this evokes the idea of the literary significance of death in literature which parallels the literary significance women hold in literature. Death is present in the first line as the ‘rain [that] died while it was still in the clouds’. Here, death arrives at the liminal stage of the water
cycle, prematurely ending the rain. Later, death is present as a ‘heart in my hands’. The presentation of death is a temporality: it is the end of both the ‘rain’ and the ‘heart’. But the third mention of death changes this denotation: death is more than just an end or a liminal
stage, but rather a human entity: ‘she was alive before humans lived’. Death becomes physical, gendered and an entity of its own.
This deviation of death from its use in conjunction with literary devices is undone by the Foucauldian idea of language constituting ‘a material existence’ through the humanisation of death via ‘she’ (see note 3). This ‘she’, while still being a metaphor for death, simultaneously places women and death to be powerful autonomous entities. However, to undo the Foucauldian interpretation, there is also a lack of power as death exists as a ‘doubt’, which has to be reprimanded by the persona whose power is also reduced by ‘doubt’. Similarly, this ‘doubt’ is the reason that women in men’s literary perception
are reduced to literary devices for fanciful modes of thinking. As Wollstonecraft outlines the lack of ‘voice’, the idea manifests here as a ‘doubt’ not of the ability to have a ‘voice’ but what and when there is impact in this ‘voice’ (see note 4). What power is given to women,
what ‘dimensions of material existence’, if women in this poem are compared to ‘death’, an end?
Thus, the text shifts the perception of ‘death’, from its temporal significance of being an ‘end’ to being a continual presence through the instance of rhyme occurs disjointedly at lines six and twelve. The verb ‘dies’ ends both lines in the present tense and the rhyme
mirrors auditorily: ‘dies’ with ‘dies’. This underpins how death is presented as a continuity, rather than just an end transition. The latency of rhyme here is used to undermine the need for regularity to convey the importance of a concept, avoiding the evangelising of death while the simplicity of the auditory quality of ‘dies’ keeps it from being silenced or dehumanised. Death achieves a balance, a temporal and spatial consistent representation in this poem. Shagufta recreates the narratives around death and simultaneously shows and realises the potential for narratives around women to shift too. Therefore, I propose that the poem has echoes of autoethnography where the persona realises her capacity of literary power, which parallels the author’s status as well. In my translation I have sparingly used ‘she’, one because it’s difficult to inject gender into the first-person in English but I also wanted ‘she’ to be directly linked to ‘death’ who is a metaphorical ‘human’ but at the end just a synecdochal ‘eyes’. This move creates the impression of the persona, a ‘she’, as a synaesthetic ‘voice’ which looks, rather than sees. The persona urges the reader of the necessity of this ‘voice’ to be allowed to exist, this voice being explicitly ‘she’ as well as the ‘end’, thus the synthesis of ‘she’ and ‘death’. Here, ’death’ cannot be the ‘end’ if the voices after ‘death’ suffer a silence too.
Hence, I enhance the power of ‘she’ in my translation as being the persona of the poem as well as the persona becoming a poet. Plainly, ‘she’ the poet is also ‘she’, the ‘death’ who ‘was alive before humans lived’. These echoes of autoethnography in the poem are parallels between the author of this text, Sara Shagufta, a female poet, and the persona in this poem, a female poet. This strengthens the idea that in order for women to have literary authority they must necessarily inject themselves into the poem, not necessarily through the narrative ‘voice’ but through the language which in this case is explicitly, but not overtly, gendered.
Symbolically, death is present in the last line too. In close proximity to the persona as the visualisation of ‘holds’ suggests, to hold someone by your ‘eyes’, death remains forever in our spatial and temporal existence through our ‘eyes’. When we navigate our world,
do we carry our death with us as well? The de-coupling of death from the literary devices to a humanisation (which is still a literary device), brings the reader to the author’s closest attempt to present death as its own entity. Thus, through the verb ‘holds’, death is given ‘the dimension of a material existence’ and is realised as a connecting force which anchors life, rather than just ends it (see note 5).
As such, the poem explores the power and role of women in literary spaces through the unravelling of death from its metaphorical cage to an autonomous entity and finally a symbiotic relationship with time. By recreating the entity of death, Shagufta allows for narratives around women to be subject to change which is most prominently realised in the gendered language which proposes ‘death’ to be a ‘she’ which is also the ‘voice’ in this poem. There is a poet in the language of the poem which wrestles itself from allegorical devices but places itself close to humans, through the ‘eyes’, reminding humanity of the continuous certainty of death as well as the inevitable certainty of perception, and thus narratives, to change.
Georges Bataille and Mary Dalwood, Erotism (San Francisco, California: City Lights Books, 1962).
Stephen Greenblat, M. H Abrams and Diedre Shauna Lynch, The Norton Anthology Of English Literature, 10th edn (London: W. W. Norton Company, 2018), p. 222.
Michel Foucault, The Archaeology Of Knowledge And The Discourse On Language, 2nd edn (USA: Tavistock Publications Ltd, 1972), p. 85.
Greenblat et al., p. 222.
Ibid, p. 85.